Great in theory but in practice, we could all do much, much better
They bargained over every word, they quibbled over every sentence. But finally, after no less than 1,400 rounds of voting, they agreed. On December 10, 1948, the member states of the infant United Nations gathered at the Palais Chaillot in Paris to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was a Magna Carta for all humanity. But half a century on, its goals remain an aspiration, not an accomplishment. Those present at its creation would have mixed feelings today: satisfaction at great triumphs, but also sadness at terrible failures. What surely would astonish them, on the eve of the new millennium, is the sheer centrality of their cause in global affairs.

Thanks to the UN, individual governments, activists and pressure groups, human rights have never had a higher profile. Thanks to modern communications technology, images of cruelties travel instantly into the living rooms of the global village.

The 30 articles of the Declaration have been incorporated into the constitutions of dozens of states. It has spawned 25 legal instruments that form the backbone of human rights legislation around the world, as well as conventions on political, economic, social and cultural rights. Today there are international tribunals against war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. There may soon be a permanent International Criminal Court, and the British Law Lords have astounded the world by ruling that General Pinochet does not enjoy head of state immunity. Britain indeed has its "ethical" foreign policy, though Robin Cook curiously seeks to disown the phrase. Why should the Foreign Secretary protest so much ? These days, a country's image is largely shaped by its human rights performance.

Thirty or 40 years ago, China would not have cared a fig about foreign criticism of its record. No longer. These days, a damning report from Amnesty International can be a huge embarrassment to a country. As the cases of Nigeria, South Africa and Rhodesia have shown, criticism can lead to sanctions and ultimately contribute to the downfall of a regime. The collapse of apartheid in South Africa, one of the resounding human rights successes of the period, was undoubtedly hastened by international ostracism. The current efforts by Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, to return power from the military to a democratically elected government, are due in good part to sanctions.

The example which must especially perturb China is Eastern Europe, after the signature of the 1975 Helsinki accords. At the time they were widely interpreted as a great victory for Moscow and its allies in the Warsaw Pact, as the formal ratification of the Soviet Union's geopolitical gains after World War Two. In return, the Communist regimes had merely to sign up to some worthy undertakings on human rights which, it was equally widely assumed, they would honour only in the breach. And so they did. But the dissidents and their supporters in the West had made a crucial breakthrough. The Soviet Union and its satellite states could be held accountable for human rights abuses. A brick had been chipped from the fortress of totalitarianism. Fifteen years later the entire edifice came crashing down.

Yet, for anyone who surveys our turbulent planet, this anniversary is no occasion for unbridled rejoicing. The Declaration was indirectly inspired by the Holocaust, the greatest single human rights abuse of the 20th century. Never again, we were told. But in Cambodia, Pol Pot proceeded to slaughter a quarter of his countrymen, unimpeded by the outside world. Rwanda happened. Srebrenica happened. Regimes across the Middle East, Africa and Asia systematically violate human rights. According to Pierre Sane, the Secretary General of Amnesty, half of the world's governments still jail prisoners of conscience, a third of them use torture as a means of suppression of political opposition, and almost none have actually promoted the existence of the Declaration. If man does not know his rights, how can he be expected to demand them ?

Small wonder the UN's Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson has attacked an international indifference to human rights abuses - blaming, among others, the organisation which employs her. But the media offensive can anaesthetise as well as shock. The UN and the NGOs must contend with human rights fatigue, just as aid charities must cope with donor fatigue. They must also fight the insidious argument that Western advocacy of human rights is but part of a campaign to impose Western values, already triumphant in the economic field. And why not ? For just as freedom is indissoluble, all human rights listed in the Declaration are interconnected. As the development economist and Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen has famously observed, famine is impossible in a country with a free press.

But again, paradox prevails. The advances in social and economic rights since 1945, measured by infant mortality and life expectancy, freedom from disease, nutrition, housing and literacy, are unarguable. No longer can disease lay waste a population. Only in extreme cases like North Korea can famine silently destroy a nation. One news story, and the horror is transmitted around the world. The aid agencies are mobilised and relief - often imperfect but relief nonetheless - is on the way.

But unfairness, exploitation and inequality persist; a third of the world's population live in what is classified as absolute poverty, on less than $1 a day. The goal is to halve that proportion by 2015. But the present economic crisis, and the unpitying logic which drives the flow of private sector capital makes its realisation steadily less likely. Child labour remains a blight on a few developing countries. And that is not the worst of it. In the last decade alone, two million children have been killed in wars around the world.

Underlying everything is the tension between human rights and sovereign national rights. The former are universal and should have precedence. In practice the latter usually prevail - unless their defeats are dressed up as victories. "Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution," says Article 14 of the Declaration. Which is fine - except that, from Vancouver to Vladivostok, scaremongering about "being swamped by foreigners" is a sure vote-winner.

Britain is soon to publish legislation sketching out planned changes in its asylum procedures. The legislation sounds draconian. In practice, almost unnoticed, the number of asylum applications that are granted, in one form or another, has almost doubled since Labour came to power in 1997.

But while subterfuge works in a mature democracy, it cannot bring lasting improvement in countries where human rights abuse is endemic. So should the UN have the right to interfere in the affairs of sovereign states? Perhaps. But the question ultimately is not one of laws and government, even world government, but of the perfectability of human nature. The search for utopia is as old as human civilisation. It will continue until the human species is extinct.