Put Some Spine Into Human Rights Advocacy

China's threats aside, old and new democracies should join forces on monitoring and enforcement

Chinese prime minister Li Peng is gleefully playing a new "China card" in promising to shower business contracts on countries that - in contrast to the United States - do not attempt to pressure Beijing to live by international standards. He hopes this gambit will set off a mad scramble by Europeans and Japanese for every crumb they can snatch from American businesses. Instead, it should galvanize nations into increased solidarity in defense of common values.

In the days before Mr. Li's announcement, Albania's post-communist government rigged national elections, Burma's military junta arrested 262 leaders for democracy, and hard-liners in China itself began transferring to house arrest democratic sympathizers from Tiananmen Square in 1989 who are finally completing their prison sentences. These "ABCs" of abusers underscore the need for collective international action on behalf of human rights.

The world community is failing the test. It has machinery for collective action at the United Nations and in regional organizations. But it uses its institutions timidly and too often reveals itself as a political invertebrate - lacking a backbone.

Human rights crises can profoundly affect all nations' security. Acquiescence in ethnic cleansing and civil rights abuses in Yugoslavia at the start of the decade led directly to war. Western temporizing in the face of Albania's massive election fraud may aggravate the Balkan tinderbox, encouraging such tactics elsewhere. China's leadership could be bellicose toward Taiwan because it had purged itself of restraining liberal elements.

Americans cannot be expected to set the world's human rights wrongs aright by themselves. We cannot, for example, long afford the costs of imposing unilateral sanctions, as Mr. Li reminds us. Nor should we. The world at large has a vital interest in using collective machinery to push repressive regimes to meet international human rights standards. When it has shown the spine to act - in decolonization, defining universal standards in treaty law, censuring violators, sanctioning South Africa - enormous progress has been made.

Just two decades ago, the overwhelming majority of UN member governments could fairly be called tyrannies. Today, as measured by Freedom House, nearly three- quarters are fully or at least partly free. From Latin America to Eastern Europe to much of Africa and Asia, democracies have replaced dictatorships.

These new democracies need to make common cause with long-established ones to keep pressure on the remaining rights violators. Their own survival may be at stake. A sharp international reaction is their best protection against coups by disgruntled generals or disaffected oligarchs.

The new democracies themselves thus have a supreme interest in organizing a Democracy Caucus at the UN, and in inviting Western states to join and strengthen it. Together, they can block the candidacy for a seat on the UN Human Rights Commission of any country that obstructs a human rights investigation, like Cuba and Sudan. Too often, repressive regimes seek seats on the commission to derail investigations - proof of their concern about losing legitimacy through UN censure.

Economic pressures are admittedly harder to coordinate than political ones. The unseemly race by Europeans and Japanese to profit from American efforts to sanction Chinese disregard of international law must, however, be contained. Perhaps the US can stiffen its allies' spines to help move China toward international norms (a goal of immense strategic importance to world order) in exchange for abandoning Washington's drive to force the allies' companies to observe its unilateral embargo on Cuba (which has little strategic importance).

Sanctions may well be needed to bring indicted Yugoslav war criminals to trial. The UN war crimes tribunal is the most significant institutional advance in human rights in decades, for which the Clinton administration deserves extraordinary credit. But Serb defiance threatens the historic process with collapse, making reimposition of sanctions essential.

The greatest impetus for human rights progress comes from aroused citizens and nongovernmental organizations. They need to show concern for economic and workplace rights as much as for civil and political ones. These advocates can substantially improve the UN treaty-monitoring panels and investigative working groups by spotlighting the often lackluster candidates that governments propose for election to those bodies. A North-South coalition of human rights groups should vet candidacies for these positions, rate the candidates' qualifications, and inspire better choices, much as the American Bar Association rates judicial nominees.

Citizens also have to question Washington's latest budgetary shibboleth, which threatens to strangle international human rights efforts - "zero nominal growth." It effectively mandates yearly reductions in UN resources (even as the world economy grows). Such a fiscal straitjacket can only decimate UN human rights activities, which are already starved. Indeed, the Chinese are already pressing to make the first cutbacks in these agencies.

Li Peng's ploy to divide the West unintentionally teaches a useful lesson: Nations have to hang tough together on human rights because, ultimately, they advance everyone's peace and potential prosperity. Human rights cannot be advanced by one nation in isolation - just as isolationism cannot advance human rights.

*Les AuCoin, former US representative from Oregon, chairs a study panel on human rights for the United Nations Association of the United States. Jeffrey Laurenti is the association's executive director of policy studies.

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