United Nations Addresses Worldwide Human Rights

THE rights of native peoples are just one item on the agenda for the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights, which begins June 14 in Vienna. But human rights activists are concerned that the meeting may chalk up more losses than gains.

"I expect one clear step forward but the conference has the potential for taking several giant steps backward," says Kenneth Roth, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch in New York.

"Some governments are trying to roll back their responsibilities for [protecting] civil and political rights," says Shiela Dauer, director of country actions for London-based Amnesty International. "The rights already in place need to be strengthened and protected."

But nongovernmental groups such as theirs will be present, watching and keeping the heat on in Vienna as delegates of the UN's 183 member governments debate progress and remaining roadblocks. The UN's only other conference on human rights was held in 1968 in Tehran.

The major concern of human rights activists at the 1993 conference is that a number of developing nations in Asia, which are among the worst violators of human rights, may undermine past gains with a new argument. In place of the old claim that treatment of citizens is an internal affair, some nations now insist that cultural differences must be taken into account when monitoring human rights. They say the West is trying to impose its values on them and that the need for economic progress inside their bo rders may justify delay in granting citizens full civil and political rights.

"Cultural differences ... are not an excuse to violate fundamental rights," insists Mr. Roth. "This is in fact a very fundamental attack on ... the universality of human rights."

"To a very great extent it's political rhetoric," agrees Elissavet Stamatopoulou, chief of the New York office of the UN Centre for Human Rights.

The strong step forward that Mr. Roth and others expect to emerge from the Vienna meeting concerns a shift within the UN system, whereby violations of women's rights for the first time will be treated as a human rights issue rather than as a low-profile social issue. The change is the result of a three-year lobbying effort by nongovernmental women's groups. The abuse of women will be treated with new urgency.

The world community of indigenous people is currently the focus of a special UN year. Sheila Dauer, who has been running Amnesty International's campaign to stop human rights violations against these vulnerable groups, says that some of their most fundamental problems, like the problems of women, have not been clearly recognized as human rights violations.

IN frustration over government failure to settle claims to ancestral lands, for instance, some indigenous people such as the Chakma tribe of Bangladesh in the Chittagong Hills district long ago turned to armed opposition to protect their land. In reprisal, many have been murdered, tortured, and raped. "Unresolved land conflicts are generating really grave abuses of the rights of indigenous peoples," Ms. Dauer says. "There has to be some recognition that unresolved land claims need to be addressed."

"It's been the arbitrary violence and the lack of due process that have really hurt the efforts of indigenous people to maintain traditional lifestyles and retain access to their ... lands," Roth agrees.

Other issues sure to be haggled over in Vienna include the relationship of democracy and development to human rights and ways to make better use of data on rights abuse. "We have tremendous information," Ms. Stamatopoulou says.

What is needed, and what she expects the conference to produce, is a plan of action. "We will have one," she says. For instance, her office, if asked by the UN secretary-general, could collate abuse data that would help to shore up his proposed early-warning system on potential trouble spots. "You really can get the pulse on upcoming crises by looking at the human rights situation in countries," Stamatopoulou says.

Still, the conference, like most sponsored by the UN, will adopt positions only by consensus. Stamatopoulou concedes that many smaller nations without influential friends are reluctant to give the UN stronger enforcement tools. Many of them agree that peace and human rights are closely linked, she says. But the increasing number of internal conflicts in the world makes many such countries apprehensive that stronger countries could intervene. "The challenge we have now is how to establish some kind of cri teria that will allay these fears," she says.

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