In the aftermath of the Second World War, much of the Europe lay in ruins, and 60 million people were dead. At the Nuremberg and Tokyo International War Tribunals, the world learned the true horror of the war's atrocities - of the systematic genocide of 6 million European Jews, of mass murder, medical experiments and other crimes against humanity. They learned of the devastating effects of the atomic bombs that obliterated the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
The unprecedented destruction and appalling crimes propelled the international community to form the United Nations in 1945, to prevent such a catastrophe from ever recurring, and to re-affirm the world community's faith in fundamental human rights, and the dignity and worth of the human person. In 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations unanimously adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an international bill of rights proclaiming the fundamental human rights of every man, woman and child in the world.
Today, human rights are important in modern political, social, legal and economic life. Because of the improvements in modern communications, we know much more about human rights abuse than in any other time. We have seen horrors: the effects of total war on civilians; the appalling genocidal acts in Rwa nda, Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia; the resurgence of nationalist and religious fundamentalism; the use of weapons of mass destruction, all causing great suffering. We are experiencing economic and social upheavals associated with technological and scientific development and population movements. All pose enormous challenges for human rights protection.
The international human rights instruments reflect the beliefs of the times. Humanitarian laws, initially did not acknowledge that women's experience of rape in wartime was a 'war crime'. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 talks of human rights in masculine terms. We know now that it is important to use language that is inclusive of the rights of women and children. The language and concepts of human rights continually change, mirroring the changes in our understanding of human nature.
Universal human rights should be guaranteed and protected by the culture and laws of each country, to agreed international minimum standards. Many nations now expressly refer to, and guarantee, fundamental human rights and freedoms in their own written constitutions and laws. They provide remedies for their breach in their own legal systems. Some have set up human rights watchdogs and remedies: developed industrial nations such as the USA (the UK proposes to establish a human rights tribunal shortly, too); developing nations in South America, South East Asia (Indonesia's Human Rights Commission is especially active), on the Pacific Rim (such as Australia and New Zealand); in the African subcontinent (South Africa particularly); and European nations, including those formerly part of the USSR, such as Latvia.
Contemporary medical and scientific developments pose new questions. Does reproductive technology infringe the human rights of children to an identity. How do we regulate 'surrogacy'? Should we allow scientists to clone human beings (and trade in human genetic or reproductive material) or 'own' DNA? How do we mediate competing 'rights' claims: women's right to autonomy and control of their own reproduction, with religious or philosophical claims that even a foetus has the 'right to life'? How do we reconcile the fundamental right to religious freedom with religions that claim to justify or even mandate harm to girl children, the oppression or persecution of women, or of homosexual men and lesbian women? How does national sovereignty fit with international standards of human rights protection?
Perceptions of human rights throughout the Asian region for example differ from country to country, and between groups within each country. So called "Asian Values", underline a collectivist cultural tradition, and call for the recognition of each state's unique national, cultural and religious backgrounds. Yet within these same states, a number of local human rights activists assert that the stress on a distinctive Asian human rights philosophy is a ploy by certain ruling elites to preserve their rule. Alongside a growing awareness in many Asian societies of the importance of civil and political rights and the desire for greater democracy, has been a reaffirmation of the primacy of social and economic rights, and the rights to subsistence and development.
Much of modern culture is concerned with the pursuit of individual self-interest. Human rights remind us that civil society - a society worth living in - depends on equal concern and respect for all persons. Human rights form a bridge between our private, personal interests, and the public interest, and the common good. If we claim a human right for ourselves, we have a duty to recognise that human rights belong to everyone else as well.