Debate Human Rights Too

Presidential debates are occasions for candidates to show what they care about. To judge by the first debate, neither President Clinton nor Bob Dole cares much about international human rights. If they want to change that impression, there's no night like Oct. 16.

Bosnia: The Clinton administration's Bosnia policy is open to important criticisms, but Mr. Dole and Jack Kemp didn't make them. After all, the war is over - for now. But lasting peace remains elusive as long as those who committed genocide still run the show. Dole could have placed the president in a bind - and made a signal contribution to the rule of law - if he had asked the commander-in-chief what United States troops are in Bosnia for, if not to apprehend fugitive indicted war criminals and turn them over for prosecution in The Hague.

Iraq: There are alternatives to current US policy that would be a distinct improvement for human rights. The West betrayed its commitment to maintain a "safe haven" in northern Iraq for the Kurds, permitting Saddam Hussein to send his forces into Arbil to kill, imprison, and "disappear" Kurds and dissidents. The US recently failed to support the request of the UN special rapporteur for Iraq, Max van der Stoel, for the deployment of human rights monitors to Iraq, despite the fact that a comparable effort on international monitoring of arms inspection by Rolf Ekeus (which was demanded by the West) has produced excellent results. And the US has fumbled and stalled on the question of bringing Iraq before the International Court of Justice in The Hague on charges of genocide against the Kurds in the late 1980s.

China: By delinking China's human rights record from its US trade relations, Mr. Clinton gave away leverage without a single human rights concession in return. Dole should ask about the human rights costs of "constructive engagement" with China and present his own view for how best the US might work with its allies to bring consistent pressure for the release of political prisoners, freedom of speech and assembly, and international access to Tibet.

Land mines: One of the year's biggest disappointments was Clinton's failure to fully embrace a ban on antipersonnel land mines, which has put the US out of step with most of its allies. After months of study, the Pentagon announced the US reserved the right to use long-lasting "dumb" land mines in Korea and deploy the so-called "smart mines" wherever it deemed necessary. Some 15 decorated generals (including Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf) disagreed and called on the president to renounce completely this indiscriminate and ghastly weapon, whose principal victims are civilians, especially women and children around the world. The president should be asked to account for his timid posture on land mines, and Dole probed on his own views.

International Criminal Court: This year the UN began serious negotiations on the creation of a standing international criminal court. Nothing would do more for human rights and the rule of law than the establishment of a court that would prosecute those responsible for war crimes and genocide, if it is free from the political interference of the Security Council. Yet the US was among those most insistent that the Security Council select which cases might come before the court.

Neither Clinton nor Dole is likely to mention the International Criminal Court for fear of reprisal from far right-wingers, whose favorite sport is UN bashing. But a question on the issue posed by the moderator of the next debate might illuminate the two candidates' capacity to brave domestic political opposition and exercise leadership on behalf of this essential international institution.

*Holly Burkhalter is the advocacy director of Human Rights Watch.

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