SOME strange ideas about human rights have been circulating lately. They have been depicted as an implement for bossy governments to put down economic competitors, as an element of Imperialism, even as an insult to Chinese civilisation. This is a pity, because it is based on a misunderstanding. I do not suggest that the idea of human rights is without spot or blemish. Philosophically, it is easy to demonstrate that the idea is nonsense, unless you believe in a rather old-fashioned divine creator who might have issued human rights rather as the Toyota company issues a guarantee. Human rights are illogical, but useful in practice. They are not supposed to help governments. All the early versions, in Britain, America, and then France, were produced by people who had just overthrown governments. The basic idea of human rights is that there are limits to what governments may do. This was the result of painfully acquired wisdom about what they would do if given the chance. It appears on the face of it that government is there to serve ends of which we all approve of - the safety and prosperity of the state of which we are members - and therefore should be allowed to do whatever is necessary in pursuit of these ends. It is easy to slip into this way of thinking. Last week the leader-writer of this newspaper allowed his word processor to opine that any innovation was welcome if it helped to put drug traffickers behind bars. Come sir, anything? Imprisonment without trial, censorship of newspapers, torture . . .? These are the sort of things we are heading for if we start down the slippery slope which starts with the delusion that any means are justified if the end is worthy enough. IN fact this slope is so well-greased that the only successful way - historically - to keep off it, is to say that certain means are not justified under any circumstances at all. The old idea of human rights simply said that no matter how worthy the objective, there were certain things which a state might not do to its citizens. This idea is now under attack from two directions. One group seeks to exploit the attractions of traditional human rights by extending them into areas for which they are quite unsuited. I am not impressed, for example, by such notions as a human right to shelter. Individuals are perfectly capable of deciding what kind of shelter they want; government efforts to provide it are uncertain in their effects and bound to face competition fromother equally desirable objectives. Another line of attack is more explicit: it alleges that human rights are a product of the Western democratic tradition and have no place in societies from which that tradition is alien. The interesting thing about this argument is that it is always advanced by people in positions of authority who are much more likely to be tempted to infringe human rights than to find themselves victims of a violation. From time to time people turn up in Hong Kong fresh from a 15-year course of educational labour in Heilongjiang province. They do not dismiss as alien the notion that their course in custodial agriculture might usefully have been preceded by the formality of a fair trial. Citizens of Hong Kong who would not recognise the Universal Declaration of Human Rights if it sat next to them on the MTR can still manage to see something unseemly in torture as a part of police work. It is not necessary to be a member of a particular culture to see the importance of human rights. All that is needed is sufficient imagination to see that if these rights are not properly established and observed then the next victim will not always be some distant stranger. It may be you.