THE first official international human rights conference in 25 years opens in Vienna June 14. This United Nations conference of 183 nations is well timed. As the world moves into a still undefined post-cold-war era, the basic principles of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights must be reaffirmed. With communist repression at an end, the West ought to lead in firmly setting forth the right of each individual to think, speak, live, and worship freely regardless of gender, race, or creed.
Unfortunately, the reality has been otherwise. During the year leading up to Vienna, the most repressive governments on the planet have been the most active in setting the conference agenda. In preparatory meetings that Western countries ignored, coalitions were formed among key Asian, African, and Latin American nations. Their goal has been to redefine the agreed-upon 1948 bedrock of universal principles of individual human rights into merely "Western concepts" of justice that needn't apply in other cul tures.
Smaller Asian countries in particular argue that collective economic well-being must come before individual political rights, the practice of which might bring instability or disorder. Several are worried that Western nations may link trade and aid to human rights performance.
As a result, the United States and other leading democracies face a tough diplomatic fight in reaffirming basic principles. Certainly there are times when Western countries do not live up to their own human rights standards. Yet universal rights must not be compromised - in the name of culture, or Realpolitik, or because "everyone else does." Torture, discrimination, repression, unjust imprisonment, and murder cannot be justified on any grounds.
Having lagged, the US is now trying to fight back into the ball game. President Clinton cannot travel to Vienna on behalf of human rights while an embarrassing genocide is occuring in neighboring Bosnia. But Secretary of State Warren Christopher will speak June 14. The US has signed a long-awaited UN agreement on economic, social, and cultural rights, which will give it leverage. Its support of a high commissioner for rights to monitor abuses is a step forward. Agreement on women's rights is the other im portant aspect of Vienna, though making these rights practical and enforceable is the test.