The timing could hardly have been more inappropriate. As the world marked international human rights day yesterday, China and Russia joined together to denounce the idea that gross violations of civil liberties can justify interference in another country's internal affairs. Judging from their statement, the two countries seem to realise they are fighting a losing battle. This complained about a 'negative momentum' in which the concept that 'human rights are superior to sovereignty' is gaining ground. Their anger only highlights how much progress has been made over the past year towards ensuring the world no longer turns a blind eye when governments start acting in a brutal way towards their citizens. It took two tragedies to achieve this. In Kosovo, the United Nations initially refused to get involved, despite all the evidence of atrocities against ethnic Albanians. But a US-led Nato bombing campaign filled the vacuum, defying furious Chinese and Russian objections to show how interference in another country's domestic affairs is sometimes the only option. With the bloodshed in East Timor, the outside world went even further. It forced a reluctant Indonesia to accept international peacekeepers, while UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned its leaders they risked prosecution unless they stopped the killings. Human Rights Watch hailed this yesterday as the 'Annan Doctrine'. It sets a precedent for holding governments accountable for atrocities committed against their citizens. Violations So, too, will May's indictment of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic by a UN war crimes tribunal, the first international attempt to prosecute a sitting head of state. Former Chilean military ruler Augusto Pinochet's extradition proceedings in Britain have also shown how dictators can now be forced to account for their crimes long after leaving office. But while human rights groups acclaim how sovereignty is ceasing to be a bar against action to stop gross violations, yesterday's statement showed how worried Beijing and Moscow are about this trend. Both have good cause to be concerned. China because it continues to restrict many rights of its citizens and has taken harsh measures against separatists in Tibet and Xinjiang. But it is Russia where all eyes are now focused due to its refusal to halt the military offensive in Chechnya and its disregard for civilian casualties. However much President Boris Yeltsin blusters about Moscow being a nuclear power, the world can not be expected to stay silent when hundreds of thousands of civilians are forced to flee for their lives. If anything, the international community may have been too mild in criticising Russian actions in Chechnya, for fear of undermining his weakened government. Unthinkable In any case, all the rhetoric in Beijing yesterday cannot disguise the importance both countries attach to their ties with more powerful Western economies which have greater regard for civil liberties and expect to engage in dialogue on such issues. China has moved some way. It will now discuss human rights with foreign governments, something unthinkable a decade ago, and recently took the important step of signing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But this will have little practical effect until ratified by the National People's Congress, a step now on hold for more than a year. And as shown by the crackdown on the Falun Gong movement, there are many areas where the situation remains extremely worrying. Yet no country can expect indefinitely to defy today's increased awareness of human rights. Now that Hong Kong has returned to China, Beijing has within its borders a textbook example of how a society which protects individual liberties - in most, if not all, respects - can still be stable and prosperous. Rather than try to make common cause against a global trend they cannot hope to defeat, Beijing and Moscow would do better to take the SAR's standard of human rights as a model that could be usefully applied everywhere from the rest of China to Chechnya.