MORE than 30 years after the idea was first proposed by Costa Rica, the United Nations finally has a high commissioner for human rights. Ecuador's ambassador to the UN, Jose Ayala Lasso, was named to the post by UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali on Feb. 1. UN General Assembly endorsement followed two weeks later.
The question now is: Will the high commissioner be able to stamp his authority on the UN bureaucracy, or will it swallow him up, as it did Jan Eliasson, who recently resigned as undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs?
The answers may lie with nongovernmental human rights groups. Several have already voiced concern over the fact that Ambassador Ayala served as foreign minister in Ecuador's military government. They feel this is a poor qualification to be the UN's standard-bearer for democracy and freedom. But nongovernmental groups will make a serious error if they treat Ayala as a target rather than a partner. By helping him to establish his agenda, they could help improve their own increasingly ragged performance in the UN system.
Even optimists concede that Lasso faces an uphill battle. He will have to work under a secretary-general who has publicly warned that a high commissioner could arouse ``dissent and resistance,'' and he is asked to coordinate a system that has no desire to be coordinated - least of all by the small, underfunded UN Center for Human Rights in Geneva, where he will be based.
Most daunting of all, the current UN formula is largely unsuited to post-cold-war challenges such as ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, discrimination against foreigners in Europe, and the difficult transition to democracy that faces countries like South Africa and Russia.
The UN Human Rights Commission, currently meeting in Geneva, is incapable of exploring imaginative solutions to the needs of vulnerable groups like indigenous minorities and the internally displaced. Governments have so little respect for the seven major human rights treaties - the bedrock of the UN system - that they are a combined 32 years behind in their reporting obligations. The commission can only bring pressure to bear by exposing ``gross violations'' - a rebuke that has very little impact on today's violators.
If the high commissioner is to surmount these obstacles, he must understand what he and his program can offer. Only this way will he be able to persuade skeptical colleagues in the UN system, starting with the secretary-general. He has two powerful weapons at his disposal:
* Human rights fact finding: The commission has established 24 working groups or individual ``rapporteurs.'' On many occasions, their comments have struck a raw nerve, which is exactly how it should be. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the former Polish interim prime minister who monitors abuses in the former Yugoslavia, has criticized UN peacekeepers for turning back Bosnian asylum-seekers from UN-protected areas and for failing to distribute enough food in Sarajevo.
Pedro Nikken, a jurist from Venezuela, has analyzed the judicial reforms of the UN observer mission in El Salvador and found them wanting. Bacre Waly Ndiaye, who monitors summary executions, has asked the UN mission in Somalia to explain the killings of Somalis by Pakistani and American peacekeepers. The credibility of the UN can only benefit from this kind of forthright, independent appraisal.
* Human rights technical assistance: Less abrasive, but no less useful to the rest of the UN system, the Center's Advisory Services program has sent a team to Cambodia to pick up where the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia left off; analyzed South Africa's bill of rights and election law for the UN observer mission in South Africa; sent a Uruguayan judge to verify the safe return of Guatemalan refugees from Mexico; and worked successfully with the UN secretariat to ensure that the June 1993 referendum in Malawi was fair.
Advisory Services has evolved into the focal point for countries that are making the difficult transition from dictatorship to democracy. One of the many problems it faces is that any aid to a country like Russia, in the throes of a challenging transition, can end up aiding the forces of repression. The risk is increased because the UN can only entertain requests from governments.
But out of this begins to emerge an agenda for the new high commissioner:
1. Play to the strengths, not the weaknesses of the UN human rights program.
2. Reorganize the UN Center for Human Rights according to the priorities rather than UN procedures. This means more funds, staff, and oversight for fact-finding and technical assistance, and less for conventions.
3. Offer to coordinate where the Center has a real contribution to make. There is, for example, no point in trying to coordinate the system-wide attack against poverty, but the high commissioner might make friends by proposing a thorough review of related controversies such as the right to development and the West's insistence on linking aid to human rights. Both are creating North-South tension and seriously complicating the work of the UN Development Program and the World Bank.
4. Meet regularly with nongovernmental organizations and set concrete goals. This would help NGOs as much as will the high commissioner.
Over the next two weeks, at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, scores of groups will seek to condemn a small group of current villains - Indonesia, Myanmar, Iraq, Haiti, and China. These governments deserve the criticism. But it would be more effective if NGOs were to pool their resources. This would allow them to address other important tasks: lobbying for imaginative new fact-finding inquiries (on violence against women, UN peacekeeping, the impact of sanctions, or the rejection of asylum); drawing up an action plan for aiding countries in transition; and trying to turn ``economic rights'' into something useful to aid agencies.
Not only would this make NGO interventions more effective, but it would also give the high commissioner a badly needed boost. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail 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.