Human rights has become an integral part of the political landscape and of the public conscience in recent years. From Jimmy Carter's emphasis in his foreign policy dealings to rock concerts held for Amnesty International, it has become a given that human rights should be important in all countries - those with democratic governments or military rule, developed countries or third-world nations.
This past week, with the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, attention was focused on human rights. And Human Rights Watch, an umbrella organization whose first member - Helsinki Watch - was started 10 years ago, issued a report on the deaths of 26 human-rights monitors in 1988.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was celebrated with readings of works by imprisoned writers (both formerly and presently) from around the world, sponsored by the PEN American Center, an association of writers. The United States State Department held a colloquium on human rights in Washington. And Human Rights Watch brought in over 30 monitors from such countries as Hungary, Haiti, Argentina, Israel, Kenya, Poland, and Malaysia.
Aryeh Neier, executive director of Human Rights Watch, says that when Helsinki Watch was formed 10 years ago, monitoring was not done on a large scale throughout the world. In the intervening decade, however, it has become a worldwide movement. Most governments today must respect, or at least ``pretend to respect,'' human rights, he says. And that opens the doors.
In the 40 years since the Universal Declaration was adopted, it has gradually gained wider acceptance. Countries emerging from colonial status have included its principles in their constitutions. The Helsinki Accords, signed in the early '70s, encouraged the adoption of uniform human-rights standards in Western and Eastern bloc countries.
But even something as seemingly straightforward as human rights gets mixed up in political debates. At the State Department meeting, Richard Williamson, assistant secretary for international organization affairs, charged that the United Nations' Commission on Human Rights ``is a flawed organization. The trend toward politicization has been a major problem faced by the Commission in its handling of human rights issues.'' He specifically pointed to what he calls a double standard in pointing fingers at countries such as Chile, El Salvador, Israel, and South Africa.
On the other hand, groups like Human Rights Watch - which critics say has a liberal bias - say that public pressure has kept the conservative Reagan administration from dismissing President Carter's human-rights emphasis. Mr. Carter was the first President to establish a bureau of human rights and humanitarian affairs in the State Department. Mr. Neier says the current administration then tried to ``co-opt'' the issue by invoking human-rights questions only in selected cases, but it has now become more even-handed, he says.
``Human rights are no longer [the province] of one administration,'' says Neier. ``It has acquired institutional permanance.''
Over the course of last week, almost all the human-rights activists pointed to improvements. Neier says Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost (openness) has made restrictions in the Soviet Union much less severe. And military dictatorships in Argentina and Uruguay have given place to civilian governments that largely respect human rights, he says. (Mr. Williamson applauds a decision by the UN Commission to go to Cuba to investigate human rights abuses.)
But there is also concern for those areas of the world where problems are still severe. Human Rights Watch, which is made of Helsinki Watch, Asia Watch, and Americas Watch, is forming new ``watches'' in Africa and the Middle East.