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No Myth or Monster Can Be Worse Than the Truth of Us

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On the 60th anniversary of the ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights - author AL Kennedy on human rights protections

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was born out of a remarkable time in mankind's history. It was 1946, and the world was recovering from its first and, thus far, only truly global conflict. Our species had shown itself to be capable of conjuring hell on earth and to be on the brink of complete self-destruction. We had perfected new tortures and systematised their use, we had classified other humans as less than human and destroyed them using murder factories, we had profited from the possessions of the dead and even the raw materials harvested from their bodies, we had invaded territory for profit, we had pursued ideologies based on unsustainable hatred, fear and rage, we had indulged every form of greed, lust and selfishness, we had oppressed and exploited populations, we had used rape as a weapon and a recreation, we had destroyed cultural artefacts, sources of joy and inspiration, we had invented the firestorm and the nuclear bomb, we had killed millions, maimed and traumatised millions more. Our actions became literally indescribable - we had to invent new words for them, words like "genocide". No myth or monster, it seemed, could be worse than the truth of us.

But that wasn't the whole truth. World War Two had also shown us extraordinary examples of human resilience and altruism. People who would never normally have met - human beings of different classes, races, nations had seen qualities in each other, faced death with each other, passed into terrible places and sustained each other. We had, in a way, been granted a terrible opportunity to see how miraculous we could be. We had seen a world without human rights - it held all the pains and nightmares we could have imagined and then more. Now, after years of desperate education, we came together to create another world, one that kept us all safe.

We had been forced to define what was worth fighting for, dying for, what a contented life would contain, what we would wish for the children we might never see. Peace, freedom, dignity, equality - these had stopped being dreams and had become goals. We knew they were necessary, because we had experienced their opposite. We knew their power, because they had sustained us, even when it had seemed we were utterly alone.

The United Nations project was at the heart of a communal effort to save us from ourselves. On 11 December, 1946 the first ever session of the UN General Assembly took up the document which would become, after two years of careful drafting, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Justice, peace, duties and rights were a priority. There was no time for irony, there was no spin, no one slipped in a suggestion that this or that type of human being didn't really deserve to be protected, or would always be liable to take advantage, or that this or that leader should be able to decide how much humanity his or her subjects should enjoy... we'd seen where that leads. The UDHR was formally adopted on 10 December 1948, now known as 'Human Rights Day'.

While the UDHR isn't perfect, it comes really close. It is a remarkable, prescient, inarguable and thoroughly good document, designed to work for all people, in all circumstances. It covers everything: freedom from fear and want, freedom of speech and belief and guidelines to help us with the tension between rights. Is it okay for someone to work for nothing to provide you with nice things, or for them to earn less than they need to live? No. Is a person unlike you allowed to be unlike you? Yes. He or she is your equal under the law, is as close to you as a brother or a sister and has the right to be fully realised as a person. Should a human being who threatens you be tortured, just this once? No. Not ever. Open that door and hell rides back in, triumphant. The UDHR establishes the fact that mankind has a conscience and that for us to survive we must attend to that conscience. This will always be true. It's as simple as that.

It was always the intention that the Declaration should be widely known, learned by children, part of our lives from the start. Many regimes - including the UK's - don't make this a priority, because the UDHR reminds everyone our rights transcend any temporary manifestation of political self-interest or will. But here are the rights - yours and mine - illustrated wonderfully by some of the finest artists around, human beings who use their freedom to inspire and delight and express outraged conscience. I would thank Amnesty - long term defender of our rights - for bringing them together and for allowing me the privilege of writing this introduction.

To love someone unknown to us for their benefit is perhaps the finest human act of all - the UDHR helps us do that, time after time.

Introduction to a booklet of illustrations of articles in the UDHR, Know Your Rights, published jointly by Waterstones and Amnesty International, available from Waterstones and in Amnesty's bookshops. Price £2.

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