THE United Nations, long considered weak on human rights issues, has been quietly adding muscle. In the process it is gaining respect from human rights activists. The change comes as democracy is spreading from Latin America to Eastern Europe and when East-West tensions within the UN have eased considerably. It is a time, too, when the UN is rapidly assuming the lead in tackling other global problems such as the environment and narcotics.
The UN's broad membership, once seen as an impediment to action, is increasingly viewed as a plus, giving it unique leverage. ``If we want to improve human rights, it is governments that are going to have to change their practices - they are accountable,'' says Isobelle Jaques, a representative of Amnesty International.
Critics say the UN still ignores more blatant human rights violators, such as China and Iraq, and that its rebukes are too timid. Yet Ms. Jaques and other human rights activists say the UN has made procedural changes that have transformed it into a vital player and key ally.
Over the years the UN has set universal human rights standards and expanded the definition of violations to include cultural practices such as female circumcision. Nations that ratify UN human rights conventions must submit regular reports outlining how they comply. Recently the UN committee that oversees the Convention Against Torture turned back a report from China and asked for another by December.
``The more difficult part for the UN, now that the easier legislative side of things is winding up, will be to enforce the standards,'' notes Enayat Houshmand, chief of the international instruments section of the Geneva-based Center for Human Rights.
The UN also has new mechanisms in place to investigate human rights allegations. The UN Human Rights Commission assigns special rapporteurs or working groups to such countries as Afghanistan, Romania, and El Salvador and to such cross-border topics as religious intolerance and torture. This year the UN added the global sale of children and child pornography to that list. Experts such as judges and lawyers gather data from many sources and make on-site visits where allowed.
``In the early '70s it would have been unimaginable to send in investigative missions,'' says Elissavet Stamatopoulou, chief of the New York office of the UN Center for Human Rights. ``Now some countries don't just grudgingly accept our missions - they invite the UN in.'' The list includes Bulgaria, Turkey, South Korea, Chile, Afghanistan, and, most recently, Iran.
Iran had argued for six years that the way it treated its people was its own business. Yet last January Iran admitted the UN investigator, a Salvadoran lawyer, and will let him return later this year.
Although the Iranian government's opposition called the resultant report a ``staged whitewash,'' Amnesty's Ms. Jaques notes that the UN investigator managed a ``foot in the door'' - something her organization has been unable to do.
The UN also has an important new mechanism that allows for faster reactions to complaints of violations. Now UN representatives may phone or cable the offending country for a response when a complaint is received. Last year the UN received 300,000 human rights complaints, a fivefold jump from the year before. ``It's a mediating exercise to make the governments really start talking about the problem,'' says Ms. Stamatopoulou. ``Condemning governments is not enough.''
She says that ``shame'' is the UN's chief weapon, and an effective one. ``Countries that are violators know they will get talked about. It's extraordinary how hard many of them will lobby to make sure their names will not be mentioned. ... There is constant, constant pressure on them.''
Jeri Laber, executive director of Helsinki Watch, says she has turned more frequently to the UN as its human rights machinery has grown stronger. She says naming names and applying public pressure works. ``By singling out nations and showing the difference between their words and deeds, we are holding them up to public scrutiny and exerting a kind of moral pressure,'' she says.
Human rights activists say they remember being cut off or reprimanded at the UN as recently as a decade ago for mentioning specific countries. ``Today you cannot only mention the names of countries but cases, and you can have the UN do something about them,'' notes Felice Gaer, executive director of the International League for Human Rights, the oldest human rights organization in the US.
Yet she and other human rights leaders point with concern to a recurring move within the UN led by the developing world which they say threatens to erode progress. ``Some countries want to go back to the old days when everybody said they favored human rights and no one mentioned a name,'' says Ms. Gaer.
The most significant proposal, championed by Cuba and already approved at last year's session of the General Assembly, would expand the membership of the UN Human Rights Commission to include more third-world countries. This is likely to make agreements on rights violations more difficult to come by.
Developing countries also want to limit probes to regionally balanced groups made up of diplomats, rather than of individual legal experts. Such nations also want to channel cases through the commission in a confidential procedure that could quash them.
The Chinese, who have argued they have the sovereign right to take the action they did against pro-democracy demonstrators, say developing nations cannot afford the ``scrupulous regard'' for individual liberties that richer countries demand.
Human rights organizations want the UN to shore up its strengths in human rights coverage. Ms. Gaer, for instance, wants to see swifter emergency procedures for handling complaints, and a larger budget for UN human rights work, now less than 1 percent of the total budget.