With the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights coming up in December, I’ve been reading about the man behind the Declaration, René Cassin. He was a Frenchman, a soldier in the First World War who nearly lost his life to French bureaucracy. He enlisted in the South of France and then was wounded in the fighting at the Marne. According the French military law, soldiers who were wounded and who had a chance of survival had to be treated at the military hospital nearest to where they had enlisted, so Cassin was packed off on the long journey to the south of France. He nearly died of his wounds on the journey and only the fact that a comrade-in-arms contacted his family who had the best available surgeon waiting to treat him, saved his life.

In the long period of recuperation which followed, Cassin had plenty of time to think and he devoted himself to considering the plight of soldiers who had been wounded or taken prisoner. Surely they should have some form of internationally recognised human rights.

Thus began the long trail that eventually led to the Universal Declaration in 1948, a document to which many contributed, including the Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of the American President.

The declaration has expanded so that today the rights exist not only in theory but in practice and there are organisations to enforce it, including the European Court of Human Rights. Jay Winter, a professor at Yale University, who is working on a biography of Cassin, said who would have dreamed sixty years ago that a Spanish judge could issue a warrant for the arrest for violation of human rights of the former head of state of Chile, General Pinochet, that the warrant would be executed in Britain and the General would be detained pending trial.

But there are other areas where the evolution of human rights has fared less well, due mainly to the West’s inability to practise what it preaches. This is revealed in the reluctance of Western governments to discuss the decision by the US government to defend the use of torture. Despite their history of condemning human rights violations, no Western nation has condemned the US government for Guantanamo.

And what about the way Western nations behave when they have to choose between human rights and defending their own interests. No Western country promotes human rights in Saudi Arabia; too many interests would have to be sacrificed in doing so.

Kishore Mahbubani, the author of “The New Asian Hemisphere: the Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East”, says history teaches that sanction and exclusions have never succeeded in transforming societies. Engagement and dialogue over time lead to change. “The tragedy of 20 years of isolation of Burma has done no good, even though the politicians have felt good about condemning the human rights record of the Burma regime.”

This is an example of the flaw in Western discourse – when presented with the choice of doing good and feeling good the West almost always chooses the latter because it costs less.

Engaging the Burmese generals will require political courage from Western politicians. They will have to justify it to their own people and pay the political price as a consequence. Mahbubani says, “To avoid risk, Western politicians heap praise on Burmese dissidents, lauding their courage, while simultaneously demonstrating their own moral and political cowardice.

“In December we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This may well provide an opportunity for the West to change course. Nothing can or will prevent it lecturing the world on human rights. But it could nevertheless learn to do something new: listen to the voices from the rest of the world.” Well said.

(Phillip Knightley is a veteran journalist and commentator based in London)