REFLECTING on International Human Rights day, being observed today around the globe, a thought occurs to me. Imagine that in the 1930s and '40s a United Nations existed, a UN with a clear and vigorous Human Rights vocation. Imagine that this UN - with a High Commissioner for Human Rights leading the way - had, from the accession to power of the Nazis in 1933, insisted on focusing world attention on the mounting human rights abuses in Germany. Imagine that a UN and its Human Rights Commissioner had identified and sought to derail the relentless escalation from discrimination to annihilation. Imagine, finally, a UN leading an international campaign to determine exactly what was happening in Nazi-occupied Europe after 1939 and then using every means to prevent the realization of the Final Solution, or at least to blunt its murderous impact.
In New York, right now, governments are debating whether to establish an office of High Commissioner for Human Rights and what the responsibilities of such an office might be.
Clearly, the creation of such a position does not offer a one-shot solution to the vast array of human rights abuses afflicting the world, any more than the office of High Commissioner for Refugees has spared Bosnians, Burmese, and Iraqis from having to flee their homes over the past grim years. The international community, however, needs an institutionalized conscience and a more effective instrument for foreseeing human rights disasters in order to head them off, or at least contain their magnitude. We also need a Human Rights Commissioner to address more mundane human rights deprivations around the world, which collectively mount to a continuing tragedy.
In Vienna last June, the 182 governments represented at the World Conference on Human Rights agreed to consider the establishment of an office of High Commissioner for Human Rights during the current session of the General Assembly. In the past weeks, the United States (with support from many other countries) has made every effort to ensure that a High Commissioner position be authorized by Dec. 17, when the General Assembly adjourns. Regrettably, at this late date, we are not assured of the outcome. A handful of nations, including the usual suspects of grave human rights violators, have mounted a vigorous delaying campaign.
A list of the kind of responsibilities we would like a UN Commissioner on Human Rights to assume illustrates why the establishment of the office is so important. It also explains last-ditch efforts to scuttle the idea.
A High Commissioner should act as a vocal champion for the promotion and protection of human rights around the world, overseeing all UN human rights bodies and supervising all UN human rights programs. The High Commissioner would coordinate technical assistance and support in such areas as the administration of justice and educational services for countries seeking to improve their human rights records. Thus, for example, a newly independent republic of the former Soviet Union would be able to seek assistance in organizing fair elections or in establishing an independent judiciary. A High Commissioner would assume responsibility for human rights issues in the areas of peacekeeping, peacemaking, and humanitarian assistance. Finally, the High Commissioner would dispatch envoys on fact-finding missions and undertake other human rights initiatives.
Just as the international community has a voice and an effective coordinator to address the problems of refugees - in the person of the High Commissioner for Refugees - it needs a champion in the area of human rights. Progress in this area will only be incremental. But it can be powerfully assisted by an institutional expression of the international community's will to meet the moral obligations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose 45th anniversary we commemorate today. And while a UN High Commissioner may not be able to eradicate twisted, destructive energies such as those that snuffed out innocent lives in Europe in the '40s, in Cambodia in the '70s, and in Bosnia today, he or she would considerably reduce the ability of those responsible to deprive men, women, and children of essential human freedoms - and to get away with it. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.