The notion that individuals, wherever in the world they live, possess a few basic powers which no political order can remove, has had a momentous impact at two points in modern history. The first, in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, was in every way revolutionary: it inspired and justified both the American battle for independence from Britain and the overthrow of the despotic monarchy in France. It endowed these upheavals with a political meaning far beyond the republics which were their immediate object, by establishing the liberty of the individual as a precondition of and restriction on the power of the State. This was not unique to America and France: in other societies limitations had been imposed by tradition or cultural convention, or (most notably in Britain) by compact and common law, but what was truly groundbreaking was the constitutional enumeration of rights which the citizen could enforce against the government by taking it to court. But the notion that 'rights' might belong to anyone, anywhere, as a human inheritance was ridiculed by nineteenth-century philosophers and when the majority of Western powers agreed to outlaw slavery, this was attributed to shared moral generosity rather than to any recognition of an inalienable individual right not to be held in bondage or servitude. It dawned on no political leader, even after the carnage of the First World War, that international institutions might tell states how to treat their nationals - the League of Nations and the Permanent Court of International Justice were untroubled by 'human rights' until Hitler rendered them irrelevant. At this point, the individual had no rights in international law, which dealt with treaties and agreements between states and was completely inaccessible to their citizens.
The Holocaust was a revelation that was to change this for ever. It crystallized the Allied war aims, and called forth an international tribunal- the court at Nuremberg - to punish individual Nazis for the barbarities they had authorized against German citizens. These charges - called, for the first time, 'crimes against humanity' - were distinct from the 'war crimes' the Axis partners had inflicted upon Allied soldiers and prisoners-of-war. The logic of the crime against humanity, first defined in Article 6(c) of the Nuremberg Charter, was that future state agents who authorized torture or genocide against their own populations were criminally responsible, in international law, and might be punished by any court capable of catc9ing them. For the first time, it could be said that individuals had a 'right' to be treated with a minimum of civility by their own governments, which 'right' all other governments had a correlative duty to uphold by trying the torturers who fell into their hands, or else by setting up international courts to punish them. This was the legal legacy of Nuremberg, supplemented by a United Nations system which promised institutional support for a 'Universal Declaration of Human Rights' approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations. The second great moment for human rights - the creation of a process by which it could emerge from the domestic laws and constitutions of a few countries into a universal system affording some minimum protection to everyone, everywhere - had arrived. At the Palais Chaillot in Paris, on IQ December 1948, the president of the General Assembly, Dr H. V. Evatt (the Australian foreign minister), announced the advent of a new international law of human rights, for the first time transcending the laws and customs of independent sovereign states: 'millions of men, women and children, all over the world, many miles from Paris and New York, will turn for help, guidance and inspiration to this document'.
But this moment was short-lived. The evolutionary process for international human rights law, commenced so confidently, was frozen almost to a standstill by the Cold War. The power blocs did not deny the idea of universal human rights - with shameless hypocrisy, they contentedly signed convention after convention on the subject - so long as no meaningful enforcement action could ever be taken. 'Human rights' became a phrase incorporated into insults traded between the Great Powers, as they secretly vied for the support of dictatorships which comprehensively violated them. The four decades between I948 and the collapse of communism may be characterized - and stigmatized - as the lipservice era for human rights, when diplomats strove to ensure that they could never be meaningfully asserted against a nation state. There were times - the early days of Jimmy Carter's presidency, for example - when the idea resonated before succumbing to realpolitik, and undoubtedly the 'help, guidance and inspiration' of human rights was an important factor in the ultimate failure of some regimes notorious for denying them: the military juntas of Latin America, the apartheid system in South Africa, the USSR and its puppet states of eastern Europe. But all that happened to human rights law over those four decades was a series of academic exercises, honing and refining and putting in place international conventions - most notably the twin Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic and Social Rights - which were marvels of modern. diplomacy: none of the states which signed them intended them to work.