Neil Belton reports on the need to be involved in the world's suffering
Victorians could believe sincerely in the coming of universal peace. As our century draws to a close, we have instead learned to live with the idea that as one war ends, another begins. The worst war that anyone had ever known secreted in the peace treaties of 1919 the 55 million dead, the bitter moral choices, the vast cruelty and genocide of World War Two. The victims were still not counted when the next war opened, a half century of tense border manoeuvres in the heart of Europe and of real fury in places not covered by our balance of peace and terror: Korea, Algeria, Indonesia, Vietnam, Chile...

Helen Bamber saw that war begin from the plains of Northwest Germany around Belsen in the first two winters after the liberation. And since the end of that misnamed "cold" war, she has seen new conflicts spring up out of the wreckage of the multinational states preserved by communism, and of African states devised at Congresses in remote European capitals.

One of our common fantasies, when we think of the violence of "peacetime" history since 1945, is to imagine ourselves as a foreign correspondent or a spy: informed, detached, indulging now and then in flashes of sentimental anger. The heroes we have made for ourselves in that time are often blankly reflective or indifferent observers of reality: at worst like Camus's stranger killing his anonymous Arab, at best the sceptic drawn into a web of deceit and making the best of it. It's a hard world, and it is reassuring to imagine ourselves negotiating it without ever quite losing the plot.

There were people after the war, however, and Bamber was one of them, who challenged this fantasy. They could not, when it came to it, behave like normal adults and get on with their lives, even though their lives were more comfortable than any previous generation had dared to imagine. Normal people are not really meant to concern themselves with what they cannot change; and we are encouraged to be suspicious of declarations, but for a woman like Bamber, who had seen the aftermath of genocide, the UN Declaration of Human Rights was more than words on a page. She is a literalist, as is Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International, or Inge Kemp-Genefke, the doctor who runs the International Research and Rehabilitation Centre for Torture in Copenhagen.

If every war produces its revisionists, its losers who discover, like Hitler, that they can at least speak the rage of loss and defeat, it also produces these idealists who find something about themselves in the idea that there must never again be such atrocity, that we have now done enough harm. Their voices have grown more urgent in our century as the distinction between civilian and combatant has vanished, and the forced identification of citizen and state has become systematic, whether in Nazi Germany or Saddam's Iraq. In the deliberately prolonged panic of emergency, the doubtful citizen becomes a security problem, his or her body a field of violence.

The Declaration of Human Rights was meant to consign such discussions to an uncivilised past. It is an astonishing text, a vision of a world ruled by social democrats guaranteeing all the great negative liberties of bourgeois civilisation but also educating and protecting those whose lack of endowments makes freedom relatively meaningless. It even includes among its rights the right to a world "in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realised" - in which its own words can become real. But if the heart of it lies in the articles declaring our right to be treated as equals before the law, to move, vote and speak freely, we can hardly forget that the Declaration also includes the right not to be arbitrarily arrested, and not to be subjected to "torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment".

This last and simplest right - the right not to have your body damaged and your senses invaded by pain inflicted by agents of the state - was never meant to be defended as though it defined the whole content of human rights, and all the positive rights set out in the Declaration were merely utopian. That a world without torture now seems a utopian project is one measure of the distance between aspiration and reality; another is to think that Augusto Pinochet may - just may - become the first arch-torturer to be brought to justice since 1945.

If Bamber is a utopian, she is so in this very specific sense. She has spent what would have been the years of her retirement (she is 73) working seven days a week to make the case that torture is wrong - a case that most Europeans thought had been made before World War One. She lives in the gap that history has opened up between proclamations of decency and the operations of state power, constantly drawing attention to its existence. She and her colleagues fill that breach with precise descriptions of pain, bodily injuries and the mental after-effects of torture. This is not a place most of us would care to occupy. Bamber and her colleagues go back into it every day.

It is tempting to think of people like her as damaged visionaries, prophets of horror, dealing with stuff we can't handle.

I am sure that they, and we, would be happier if the distance between the proclaimed inviolability of human dignity and actual restraint from violence by the state were sharply reduced; if we started learning how the legal instruments that would stop torture felt in the hand - as the Law Lords did on November 24 - rather than admiring them in their cabinet of fine words.

Neil Belton's biography of Helen Bamber (The Good Listener: Helen Bamber; A Life Against Cruelty) is published this month by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. pounds 18.99