THE effort to improve human rights protection for all citizens is facing major new challenges just as the United Nations is about to acquire a vital new tool in the fight.
The proposal to create a UN high commissioner for human rights with power to initiate and coordinate UN action, an idea endorsed by the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna last summer and strongly supported by the United States, has been making slow but steady progress. The UN General Assembly is expected to approve the new post within two weeks.
Yet as groups pause today on Human Rights Day to assess progress made in the last year, some rights advocates say they see new cause for concern in continued ethnic and religious separatism. They point to an increase in the number of civil wars and to the move by some Western nations to toughen asylum laws for refugees and clamp down on the free expression of different cultures and languages.
Whether or not such nations will encourage tolerance and promote ``kinder and gentler'' policies at home even as they push for changes in other countries could prove a ``decisive challenge'' for the rights movement, says Felice Gaer, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights.
Deciding how to approach European and certain Middle Eastern governments that have tried to impose a single cultural or religious model, often in response to violent challenges from minority groups, amounts to ``new terrain'' for rights advocates, says Cynthia Brown, the UN liaison for Human Rights Watch.
The 1994 world report of Human Rights Watch (HRW), released this week, says the world community has shown that it has the collective will to act in humanitarian emergencies such as those in Haiti, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Somalia. Yet the report charges that the world community often has failed to hold to its human rights principles and to demand accountability and justice.
In Haiti, Bosnia, and Somalia, a tendency to compromise and seek a ``quick fix'' in the face of competing foreign policy interests has brought ``a failure of collective vision,'' the report says.
Evidence cited ranges from ``quiet'' UN and US backing of amnesty for Haitian forces accused of crimes against the state and civilians to the ``painfully slow steps'' taken by the UN to establish a functioning tribunal to indict, try, and punish those accused of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.
Ms. Brown, who edited the new HRW report, says the UN's lack of success in recent peacekeeping ventures is taking a toll on the organization. The UN appears somewhat less inclined than it was to intervene in conflicts for humanitarian reasons, she says, citing, in particular UN reluctance to send more than a fact-finding team to Burundi, where as many as 20,000 civilians may have been killed in civil strife.
Recent setbacks for the UN, Ms. Brown says, may also bolster the determination of some developing nations to argue that human rights are a sovereign matter. In Vienna, a group of Asian nations, led by China, Indonesia, and Malaysia, argued that rights are not universal and must be seen in the context of each culture. Economic development, they said, must come first.
Rights advocates have made vigorous efforts to counter these arguments and note that the Vienna conference accepted the concept of human rights monitoring as a legitimate concern of the world community.
Though many of the worst rights abuses occur in the context of war, such as the charges of rape and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Canada's ambassador to the UN, Louise Frechette, insisted in an Assembly debate a few days ago: ``Conflict ... does not excuse any party in authority from fundamental human rights obligations.''
This week, a General Assembly committee adopted a resolution deploring human rights abuse in Burma and urging restoration of democracy there. Charles Norchi, executive director of the International League for Human Rights, considers the move a clear and strong rebuke to the Asian argument that all rights ``must be sifted through a cultural prism.'' He says the human rights movement has arrived at an important turning point. Its efforts, he says, have been ``the driving force'' in fracturing the old ``sovereignty is sacrosanct'' defense of abusive nations.
Ms. Gaer says the fact that UN investigators now report on human rights problems in several countries and that the General Assembly is likely to pass resolutions critical of rights practices in eight or ten countries this year rather than the usual two or three is an encouraging sign that the UN is becoming more forthright.
Still, the UN currently spends only about $11 million or less than one percent of its budget on human rights work. The UN Human Rights Center in Geneva, which received 500,000 complaints of abuse just in the first six months of 1993, notes such reports and delivers what some rights advocates call a mere ``slap on the wrist.''
A UN high commissioner for human rights with appropriate powers would make a major difference in the effectiveness and speed of the UN's response to rights abuse. The hope is that he or she will serve as a watchdog and sometimes take preventative action before conflict begins.
Though UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali opposes the concept of the new post, contending it would add another layer of bureaucracy, he says he would support the new post if the Assembly decides to create it.