FROM United States delegates to the Dalai Lama, most everyone in Vienna for the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights is condemning suggestions by several Asian, Middle Eastern, and Northern African governments that human rights are culturally relative.
Diverted, perhaps, but not discouraged, Chinese, Indonesian, and Sudanese delegates are now advancing an argument that the application of international human rights standards must also take into account economic factors.
Democracies in the developing world, the argument goes, must give more weight to the rights of the collective society than to individuals who may threaten its stability. "Human rights are vital and important," says Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, but "so are efforts at accelerated national development." When the two conflict, he says, development must take priority.
Anticipating such challenges, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali opened the two-week conference on June 14 by urging the nations to reaffirm what he called "the imperative of universality" of human rights. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and other delegates quickly followed suit, describing the dissident view as a thinly veiled effort by repressive regimes to ward off foreign intervention. The issue has dominated discussions here during the conference's first week.
But among the most vociferous critics of the anti-universality argument are human rights activists of the very countries that are raising the issue. Almost without exception, representatives of human rights groups in China, Indonesia, and other countries say they find little merit and even less sincerity in their governments' positions.
"I know development cannot be accomplished in a fortnight," says Adnan Buyung Nasution, founder of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation. "But the direction must be clearly toward genuine democracy. That's not the case with [Indonesian President] Suharto's government. He's been developing the economy, but not social conditions."
Monitoring groups such as Human Rights Watch have denounced the Suharto government not only for a November 1991 massacre of residents of East Timor, a territory annexed by Indonesia in 1976, but also for continuing to curb Indonesians' freedoms of expression and association.
Sudan's Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir opposes universality with an argument based on religion. Since he took power in a coup four years ago, General Bashir has accrued a dismal human rights record, chiefly by waging a bitter war against non-Muslims in the south. Although Sudan had ratified many human rights agreements, including key provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Bashir maintains that they are inconsistent with Islamic law.
Amin Medani, a Sudanese human rights activist living in exile in Cairo, says nothing in the Koran justifies unwarranted arrests, summary executions, and the disbanding of political parties, trade unions, and other non-religious organizations.
Countries such as China and Indonesia have objected to foreign intervention for decades, but by adopting the language of economic development, say Mr. Nasution and Mr. Medani, they hope to make their position more defensible. Nevertheless, a recent change in US policy may help to buttress the view that all human beings are born free and equal in rights and dignity. If the US follows through on a promise to promote the recognition of economic and social rights, many activists say, it may undermine the arg ument against universality.