When Baroness Chalker, head of the British delegation to the United Nations women's conference in Beijing, accused Hillary Clinton of forwarding her own domestic political agenda by her speech attacking China's human rights' performance, she touched on a very real difficulty, not just of the Beijing conference, but of human rights in the 1990s. While human rights make excellent political rhetoric, it remains hard to see how the admirable standards set at these international jamborees are to be implemented, or how convincing pressure can be brought to bear on countries which systematically violate the rights of their citizens. With her attack, Chalker was probably right in saying that Hillary Clinton's words would do nothing for the repressed people of China, while they might just help the Clinton image at home. It is also worth remembering that of the 170 or so nations which gathered in Beijing to reaffirm their commitment to women and to human rights, well over half are known to condone torture despite having ratified the UN convention prohibiting it, that some 25 accept continuing forms of slavery, and that all turn a blind eye to discrimination against women in one form or another.
For those who continue to regard the human rights movement as something born with the Universal Declaration of 1948, the Oxford Amnesty lectures of 1994, published as Historical Change and Human Rights makes useful reading. In a field which is overwhelmingly dominated by reports on current violations, these essays provide a salutary reminder of the steady growth of human rights thinking and legislation over the last 200 years, and prove again how much we owe to the Enlightenment, and to the various campaigns to abolish slavery and introduce civil rights and political franchise. Chapters on religion, censorship and civil liberties chart how these issues have fared at different times and under different political regimes. The book's editor, Olwen Hufton, in summing up the various contributions, concludes that the West has spent over two centuries defining and reinterpreting an intellectual tradition based on the rights of the individual to live, believe and say what he or she wants to. This endless preoccupation with individual liberty is vital, not just to our reading and understanding of the past, but "equally... to our vision of the future". She does not explore, however, what many believe to be the most crucial current questions of group and collective rights.
Ian Kershaw's essay in the same volume on the uniqueness of the Nazi holocaust comes at a time when events in Bosnia and Rwanda are causing many to view genocide rather as part of a single long continuum of repression. Tracing the roots of the Nazi extermination programme from Bismarck's attempts to forge national unity in the 1880s, to growing fears of Marxism and enemies both at home and abroad, and to the unemployment that followed the first world war, Kershaw sets out to explain how it happened that a country with an exceptionally strong legal tradition could effectively destroy human rights more profoundly and more barbarically than any other advanced industrialised country this century. This assault on, and eventual total extinction of, human rights, he argues, was not a consequence of political dictatorship, but an integral tenet of national socialism, which had no room for any principle of human rights, and whose policies depended on the assumption that the pure- blooded German people were superior and that all inferior races should be subordinated to them. Kershaw's description of the venality of the various professional groups - particularly lawyers and doctors - who played a significant role in the erosion of liberties is fascinating. More space could have been given to this, and to his assertion that the Nazi party would never had done as well had a more forceful defence been mounted by the Christian churches and other non-Nazi political bases.
Kershaw's conclusion, that genocide as seen under Hitler is unlikely to be seen again since its causes were unique, would be comforting were it right, but it does little to reassure that other sets of circumstances, different from those of Germany in the 1930s but just as destructive of human rights, may not arise, with many of the same results. He is not the only historian to assert the uniqueness of the Nazi holocaust, but with the Hutus in Rwanda and the Serbs in Bosnia committing similar atrocities with similar intent, his argument may be becoming harder to justify.
There was a moment, at the very end of the 1980s, when the world felt optimistic about human rights. The Berlin Wall was down, the cold war was over, peace was breaking out in countries where civil conflict had seemed endemic and there were moves everywhere towards multi-party democracy. The optimism was brief. New conflicts carried on breaking out, torture continued unchecked, and if the numbers of political prisoners dropped, summary executions and "disappearances" quickly became an attractive means of political repression. Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda and Bosnia soon showed how illusory the rejoicing had been.
Much of the work produced recently on human rights has set out to report and analyse contemporary forms of repression, whether Chinese brutality in Tibet, slavery in Brazil or murders in Kashmir. Human Rights: the New Consensus, edited by Richard Reoch and born out of the Vienna Conference of June 1993 - the largest single gathering of human rights organisations ever assembled - is an attempt not just to chronicle the many ills of the 1990s, but to show how Vienna should be seen as a watershed, both in the sense of marking agreement over basic human rights standards, and as a "new phase in the collective energy of the non-governmental human rights movement''. While not all would agree with the former - Vienna saw a bitter argument over the most dearly held of western human rights, universality - Human Rights: the New Consensus, is a careful, thorough overview of the most important aspects of contemporary human rights, and provides a guide to the minefield of the many conventions, laws, charters, agreements and plans of action. Few would question Reoch's summary of the goals now set by governments - the inalienable rights of all people to certain basic standards, the commitment to end torture and so on. Where doubts come, and where it becomes hard to share Reoch's confidence, is over the likelihood of much being achieved. Human Rights: the New Consensus makes the essential point that without the full involvement of international business little will be done, but the statements from leaders of industry included in the text have a decidedly pious ring to them, and have been oddly designed to look more like advertisements than policies. There is however an important chapter by Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, director of the Centre for the Study of Violence at Sao Paolo University, who argues that, with one quarter of the world's population living in absolute poverty, it is time that human rights ceased to be regarded as a separate issue, but as indivisible from development and democracy. What is more, it is in the interest of the developed world to heed the message, for there is no greater threat to world stability than poverty.
Three other recent publications carry the debate in more specialised directions. In 1988, the Lima declaration defined academic freedom as being allowed to pursue, develop and transmit knowledge "through research, study, discussion, documentation, creation, teaching, lecturing and writing". The editors and authors of Academic Freedom 3: Education and Human Rights show how very far educational rights throughout the world are being eroded by a combination of poverty, discrimination, censorship and political control. Nowhere has education - or the lack of it - been more effectively used in recent years as a weapon of punishment and control than in Israel, where the start of the intifada saw the rapid closure by the Israeli authorities of schools and universities throughout Gaza and the West Bank. Palestinian students were once widely regarded as among the best educated in the Arab world. Today, after years of arbitrary detention, brutalising treatment and severely curtailed possibilities of learning, a whole generation of children, according to a World Bank report, is not only among the least literate, but severely disadvantaged when it comes to dealing with new skills and new ideas - the very qualifications most essential to the new politics and realities of the Middle East. Similar patterns of punishment and control are to be seen in Tibet, where education for Tibetan children has been reduced to a "shameful and pitiful state" while Chinese children receive superior schooling. The list of chapter headings - Malawi, Burma, Sri Lanka and others - is also a list of countries in which human rights are most systematically violated, and where political tyranny has inevitably been followed by a lowering of standards, even where not accompanied by closure of schools, or execution of teachers.
Like the United States, the UK has long got off lightly when it comes to its human rights record, both because it has been adept at warding off criticism and because, in comparison with major offenders like Indonesia or Colombia, its violations are seen as relatively small beer. Reports on the iniquities of the British asylum procedure, and the "cruel, inhuman or degrading" practices noted during interrogation of suspects in Northern Ireland are published from time to time, but never to great public stir. Not until 1993 did Liberty (the Council of Civil Liberties) actually set out to measure precisely UK performance against standards set by the UN.
Its verdict, as it appears in a measured and minutely documented account, Human Rights, Human Wrongs, by Conor Foley, is not flattering. The last 20 years have seen a distinct erosion of civil liberties in Britain. The media have been increasingly censored, police controls have been extended, and the rights of defendants reduced. A country once universally admired for its tolerance, known as a safe haven for the persecuted, has become a place where ethnic minorities are assaulted and made targets for police brutality, and where asylum seekers are liable to spend long periods of time in jail. The picture painted by Human Rights, Human Wrongs is one of considerable misery, in which women are inadequately protected against violence, in which travellers are continually harassed by the police, where prisons are overcrowded and badly managed, and where gays and the disabled are discriminated against. The care offered to some mentally ill people may even be in breach of the UN convention against torture and other inhuman or degrading practices.
The UK, when it comes to human rights, is in an odd position. British law has little to say about basic freedoms, now enshrined in binding legislation in many other countries, preferring to claim that human rights are adequately protected if one simply allows citizens to do anything that is not actively prohibited. It is this situation that lies at the heart of the debate about the need for a British bill of rights which, argues Foley, would not only give individuals the right to seek redress against public officials, but bring essential protection to minorities. This is an invaluable book. It highlights the small, daily, pervasive erosion of people's rights, and acts as a reminder that abuses do not have to be gross to constitute violations.
As the reports coming from Beijing have shown, women's rights are among those most fundamentally violated throughout the world. Traditionally, human rights have seemed to apply to men, with women benefiting as a kind of afterthought. First Vienna, and now Beijing, have at least brought women's rights onto the main agenda in human rights and shown how there is a new resolve on the part of women everywhere to challenge violations previously left unchecked. Women's Rights, Human Rights, edited by Julie Peters and Andrea Wolper, brings together 31 contributors from 21 countries, making it, as Dorothy Thomas suggests in her concluding chapter, both a "primer" and a "manifesto" for the women's movement. What comes across very powerfully from these essays - and this also emerged at Beijing - is that despite the immense diversity of this movement, women split by race, country, culture, language and age, it is still possible to agree on certain common goals. This cohesion and resolve to make common cause is a strengthening development, even if a number of the contributors warn against the perils of "false or faceless universalism".
Each of these books makes its own contribution to the current human rights debate. Yet not one seems inclined to devote much space or thinking to the future. The international war crimes tribunal at the Hague, possibly the only hope for a measure of reconciliation in Bosnia or Rwanda, is scarcely mentioned. The vast dangers of the proliferating arms trade - 10 million unexploded landmines in Afghanistan alone - are nowhere touched on. The entire debate over the links between humanitarian law and aid, and human rights, is ignored. Lack of forward planning and refusal to discuss preventative measures dog the entire human rights debate, and neither governments nor the UN - as the frequent and ignored warnings over Rwanda showed - appear interested in anticipating flashpoints. It is a pity if human rights commentators do the same.
Caroline Moorehead contributes to the annual BBC TV review, Human Rights, Human Wrongs, and is writing a history of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Academic Freedom 3: Education and Human Rights
Editor - J. Daniel, N. Hartley, Y. Lador, M. Nowak and F. de Vlaming
ISBN - 1 85649 302 4
Publisher - Zed Books
Price - £12.00
Pages - 244