APATHY among Western nations and a bid by Asian and other governments to challenge the fundamental doctrine that human rights are universal and individual are clouding the opening of a landmark international human rights conference in Vienna next week.
The purpose of the conference - the first such global meeting since 1968 - is to allow the United Nation's 183 member nations to evaluate UN rights monitoring and enforcement and find ways to bolster the system.
But many activists say the Vienna meeting may instead provide an opportunity for governments to diffuse pressure to enlarge the UN rights umbrella.
"I know several [human] rights groups whose leaders regard this conference more as an exercise in damage control than a glorious extension of human rights," says Laurie Wiseberg, the executive director of Human Rights Internet, a Canadian organization that tracks 5,000 rights groups around the world.
"A large group of Asian countries didn't want this conference to take place," Ms. Wiseberg says. "A number of them will now use this opportunity to try to weaken the [UN] system."
Governments from Asia and the Middle East, Wiseberg and other activists say, are pushing for a shift in UN rights enforcement that redefines human rights on a region-by-region basis, taking into account cultural particularities and national sovereignty concerns. China and Iran, they say, are leading the charge for such an approach, supported by Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Singapore, and others.
"The decision to hold the conference came in a moment of optimism, when the cold war was ending," says Ian Martin, a former secretary-general of Amnesty International who now heads a UN human rights monitoring team in Haiti. "But if we're not careful, this conference could become a victim of growing tensions between North and South rather than East and West."
At the final preparatory meeting for the Vienna conference held in April in Geneva, Syria and Yemen spent days trying to block a UN position paper that included the West's basic position that human rights are universal. The paper was finally included in a draft of the final world conference declaration, but the lost time meant diplomats were unable to finalize the declaration. It goes to Vienna full of disputed passages.
"Who knows what's going to happen" in Vienna, says Reed Brody, executive director of the Washington-based International Human Rights Law Group. "It's really quite dicey. We're fighting just to reaffirm basic principles." New official proposed
The hottest exchanges are expected over proposals to:
* Create a UN high commissioner for human rights empowered to travel the globe to ensure a swifter, coordinated UN response to rights violations, and to give rights more visibility.
* Create an international tribunal, or court, to put violators of human rights on trial.
* Establish a special UN rapporteur on women to focus on violence against women and other restrictions of their rights.
* Boost substantially the funding for the UN rights program.
Hope abounds for these and other reforms. But some activists fear some nations may demand cuts to existing UN rights monitoring in exchange for a new commissioner on human rights.
Adding to the uncertainty over the conference outcome is a perception among rights activists of apathy on the part of Western Europe and the US.
Philip Alston, who chairs the UN Committee on Economic and Social Rights, agrees that several Asian governments will probably try to retrench on rights monitoring. If they succeed, he says, it will only be because developed countries did not approach the conference with unity and zeal.
"It's a question of energy," Mr. Alston says. "The other regions are not particularly energized for, or against, improved arrangements for human rights. The Asians are very energized and anxious to put a lid on a lot of the proposals being put forward. So they can have a disproportionate influence since they are the only ones who are really burning."
"The West that preaches human rights hasn't done its homework," says James O'Dea, director of Amnesty International's Washington office. Although lauding the Clinton administration for proposing a high commissioner on human rights, he and others criticize the West for lagging in crucial early organizing of the world conference.
Only three of five UN regions held meetings in advance of the world conference: Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Western Europe (a grouping that includes the US) and Eastern Europe did not. Little coordination
The lack of Western meetings has made it difficult for rights groups to coordinate with Western governments to counter efforts to water down UN rights activism and the final Vienna conference statement.
"It's possible when everyone gets to Vienna you'll have a wide open fight over the wording of the final document, unless something happens in between," said an observer close to the Geneva talks, who asked not to be named.
A preview of arguments likely to be heard in Vienna came at the Asian regional meeting in Bangkok in March. The delegates spoke glowingly of the region's and their governments' support for universal human rights.
But while such speeches often began well, they often concluded that individual rights were secondary to "community rights" and "the right to [economic] development," activists say.
"It is our hope that this meeting in Bangkok will produce a strong collective voice from Asia, giving a clear signal of our unequivocal commitment to ... the promotion and pursuit of human rights, human dignity, and the essential worth of the human person," said Dato' Zainal Abidin Alias, Malaysia's lead delegate.
Later in the speech, however, he stated: "There is as yet no consensus as to the totality of human rights." And further on: "While we recognize the rights of the individual, these rights are not in splendid isolation from those of the community."
But Ross Hynes, human rights coordinator for Canada's Ministry of External Affairs, wonders "what does cultural particularity mean for the respect for women's rights where you have very strong Islamic movements?" Nations' rights
Developing countries argue that a nation's "right to economic development" is at least equal to individual "civil and political rights" cherished and promoted by developed nations. But economic rights are often used as a rationale to deny basic civil rights, activists counter.
S. Wiryono, Indonesia's lead delegate to the Bangkok meeting declared in a speech to the other 49 nations that freedom from illiteracy and hunger should come ahead of political freedoms.
"The full realization of civil and political rights without the enjoyment of economic, social, and cultural rights is impossible," he said. His comments were echoed by China, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and Iran.
"On one side is the West affirming universality," says Amnesty's O'Dea, "and the developing governments responding: `You all can't come over with your Cadillac approach, putting down your window and telling us we need to worry about political and civil rights when you yourselves don't recognize economic, social, and cultural rights."
The Clinton administration seems set to try to silence the Asian argument that it has a bias toward civil and political rights, while ignoring economic and cultural rights. US officials say the administration will likely push for Senate ratification of several already-signed treaties, including: the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; the Inter-American Human Rights Declaration, and accords banning discrimination based on gender and race.
But while many foresee gains on women's rights, there will not be much progress on creating a high commissioner on human rights or an international penal court, worries Mr. Brody of the International Human Rights Law Group. He expects a weak statement to cap the conference.
"What we need is a strong public commitment from the Western nations and from the US government at a high level that they see the world conference as a step in expanding UN enforcement of human rights," Brody says. "We need a breakthrough. We can't just have these fuzzy statements."