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Wednesday, December 9, 1998 Published at 15:23 GMT

Our century's greatest achievement

By Amnesty International's Neil Durkin

On 22 August 1939 Adolf Hitler said to his commanders: "I have sent to the east my 'Death's Head Units', with the order to kill without pity or mercy all men, women and children of the Polish race. Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?"

His remark was hugely significant. Hitler's comment connected the Third Reich's genocidal mentality with the terrible `Final Solution' or mass liquidation perpetrated against Turkey's Armenian minority in 1915. Why worry that history would hold the mighty German state accountable for eliminating Poles (or Jews, Hungarians, gypsies, Balkan peasants, agitators, homosexuals) when the devastating massacre of 1.5 million Armenians begun in 1915 was barely remarked? Terrifyingly, Hitler had a point.

But the holocaust of the European death camps and the atrocities committed in South-East Asia and elsewhere stung the world into preventive action.

"Crimes against international law are committed by men, not abstract entities", declared the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1946, "and only by punishing individuals who commit such crimes can the provisions of international law be enforced."

But that was not all. In addition to punishing the guilty of the Second World War, the world decided it needed an International Bill of Human Rights. And so began the creation of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a proclamation of a common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations, the right to life, liberty and security of person, the right to freedom of opinions and expression and the right not to be subjected to torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Forged from what Professor AA Trindade, the Vice-President of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, calls "one of the few spells of lucidity" in recent history, the Universal Declaration's catalogue of rights informs all of the major human rights conventions of the post-war years.

Notwithstanding the cross-hatchings of diplomacy and realpolitik, the hostility to universality in the name of cultural specificity, or the simple defiance of international standards displayed by human rights abusers, the Universal Declaration attests to a determination to set standards for a moral future. In the year marking the 50th anniversary of the proclamation on 10 December 1948, we can begin to see what we owe to its influence.

We could list just some of these debts. The steadily unfolding phenomenon that is the global abolition of the death penalty. The 1984 Convention against Torture and a world-wide abhorrence at its use. A host of anti-discrimination laws (domestic and international) flowing from the article specifying respect for rights "without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status".

It's often said that the 20th century has been history's darkest - that it has been torn apart by wars and industrial-age massacres and despite startling technological advance, has seen an unholy disregard for the rights of benighted peoples across the globe.

While much of this is true, the Universal Declaration represents a concerted attempt to learn from the past and to enshrine rights for the future. July 1998 saw the first stage in the establishment of a permanent International Criminal Court. This will have the power to indict, try and punish major human rights violators in the future.

As recently as 16 November three men - Hazim Delic, Zdravko Mucic, and Esad Landzo - were found guilty of killings and torture during the Bosnian war. Sending these men to prison establishes a valuable precedent. The October arrest of General Pinochet marks another turning point. The Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garz¢n is investigating the former leader's involvement in the deaths and "disappearances" of 3,198 people, mostly in Chile during the years 1973-1990.

Impunity for crimes against humanity is becoming all but impossible in a world that has absorbed the values of the Universal Declaration.

Unlike in 1939, when Hitler could cynically detect international indifference to massive abuse of human rights, the world in 1998 is coming to recognise the paramount importance of these rights.

On 8 December 1998 Amnesty International will present UN Secretary General Kofi Annan with more than 10 million pledges of support for the values of the Universal Declaration. These have been signed by citizens from all over the world. They are 10 million pledges to a better future.

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