THE United Nations conference on human rights in Vienna last month did reach a consensus. But in the process, delegates lost sight of the bigger picture, and of the urgent need to chart a serious human rights program after the cold war. To this extent, Vienna should be judged at best a lost opportunity, at worst a troubling failure.
The big picture is quite murky, as angry nongovernmental activists in Vienna made clear. Their concerns include persecuted minorities; virulent new forms of discrimination against foreigners and gypsies; the task of rebuilding nations like Cambodia and El Salvador; deepening poverty that deprives a billion people of basic rights; violence against women and the exploitation of children; and the plight of 42 million refugees and internally displaced persons, at a time when asylum is under siege.
It is far from clear how best the UN should respond. The traditional approach has been to draft international conventions and monitor the performance of governments. Occasionally, the Geneva-based Commission on Human Rights will indict a government for a "systematic pattern of gross violations." This may work when it comes to individual cases of torture by governments. But it is clearly inappropriate to Bosnia, Somalia, Afghanistan, or Sri Lanka, where some of the worst abuses are directed against entire
ethnic groups. The formula assumes, moreover, that a government can be shamed into making improvements by being labeled a "gross violator." The charge is deeply resented. But it has failed to shake Cuba, Burma, Iraq, and Iran. Even less will it affect the Bosnian Serbs, who have defied the threat of war-crimes trials in their grab for land.
Yet name-calling is the commission's ultimate sanction. Isolated in Geneva and detached from the rest of the UN system, it cannot draw on the Security Council or use development aid to enforce its edicts. Back-up is provided by a tiny secretariat with an annual budget of $11 million.
In the UN, the commission is seen as an irrelevant, irritating sideshow. The exciting humanrights initiatives come from elsewhere in the system. Three examples:
* Peacekeeping. Operating under the umbrella of peacekeeping in El Salvador and Cambodia, scores of UN human rights field officers have worked with all parties (except the Khmer Rouge) to gain regular access to prisons and begin to lay the foundations for an independent judiciary in these two countries.
* The UN Secretariat. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has turned the UN secretariat into an instrument of human rights. His special envoys have deployed human rights officers in South Africa and Haiti. He has sent fact-finding missions to the Baltics in search of compromise on the ethnic Russian minority. He can help governments with elections, as he did recently with the Malawi referendum - on the understanding that opposition groups may participate.
* Development aid. The UN's specialized agencies are translating detached, legalistic rights into tangible benefits. UNICEF projects are promoting the rights of children. The UN Development Program (UNDP) is helping to train a new civil police force in El Salvador. The World Health Organization has co-opted doctors into the fight against AIDS discrimination. The International Labor Organization works through its constituency of trades unions and employers against abuses such as child labor.
This comprehensive approach is pulling the entire UN system into the post-cold-war challenge. It is drawing on new resources, bypassing the obstacles of sovereignty, and avoiding the confrontation that has plagued the Geneva-based commission.
Is there, then, any role for the traditional formula? The answer is yes. For all its possibilities, the new strategy needs a credible human rights component.
The limits of peacekeeping are clear. Past abuses have been swept under the carpet in Cambodia, Haiti, and Mozambique in order to secure political breakthroughs. Operations are short-term, but political violence persists after the peacekeepers withdraw.
This points to a complementary role for the UN's human rights program. Thirty-four individuals currently work as investigators for the UN human rights commission. In addition to monitoring torture and disappearances, they are watching South Africa's transition to democracy, analyzing the UN operations in El Salvador and Haiti, reviewing laws in Croatia, and registering the concerns of Albanians in the tense Serbian province of Kosovo.
Independent fact-finding complements rather than threatens the UN's agenda for peace and should be expanded. It could help the secretary-general's special envoys address past abuses in nations like Haiti without compromising peace negotiations. It could provide the Security Council early warning on conflicts.
It could pick up the human rights program when the peacekeepers depart from countries like Cambodia. It could help the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) monitor government asylum practices. It could even advise the World Bank about the human impact of controversial projects, like the Narmada dam in India.
An invigorated program is possible. But the vision was lacking in Vienna. The conference declined to recommend a specific increase in the pitifully small human rights budget and put off discussion on a high commissioner for human rights. The program remains friendless and underfunded.
It is not too late to change. Governments will assess the Vienna meeting at this year's General Assembly. They cannot afford to pass up another opportunity.