The Big Yawn


London. -- The World Conference on Human Rights will be held in Vienna in mid-June. It is supposed to do for political freedom what last year's Rio conference did for the global environment -- make it the talking point everywhere.

Alas, the news brings yawns in the newsrooms, yawns in the chanceries of most democratic governments. A year ago the media flocked to Rio and buzzed on all things environmental. This year one wouldn't know that anything was happening in Vienna, other than the giant Ferris wheel going round and round.

Indeed, the only people who appear to be doing any preparation are those governments with appalling records of human-rights abuses who want to make sure the conference doesn't put them on the hook.

President Clinton occasionally makes gestures in the direction of human rights, particularly in China, as the date looms for a decision on that country's most-favored-nation trade status. But his is a soft voice compared with his Democratic predecessor, Jimmy Carter. As for his tunnel-vision European allies, they see only the former Yugoslavia.

Nevertheless, for all today's inertia, enormous progress has been made. The idea of democracy has grown and spread at a rate unparalleled in history. Most countries now accept that they cannot readily get away with locking up and torturing those with whom the ruling elite disagree. They know a price will be paid, whether trade and aid or simply, and probably most important, in status. This is as true for South Africa as for El Salvador or South Korea.

International action on human-rights abuses through the United Nations has also been transformed. For years the U.N. was immobilized by the Cold War, condemning only such isolated cases as South Africa and Chile. Any friend of Moscow had a license to kill.

These days the U.N. Human Rights Center in Geneva is all over the place. Although its budget is still minuscule compared with the other U.N. agencies, it is working in Romania, Mongolia, Albania -- places it never reached before. It is helping rewrite constitutions, advising on election procedures, drafting statutes for the ratification of international human-rights treaties, such as those on genocide and the rights of the child.

In Cambodia, where the U.N. is both running much of the day-to-day administration and preparing for Sunday's elections, human rights have been central to "peace-making." The prison system has been improved. Lawyers, judges, magistrates and police are being trained. For the first time, Cambodia has the beginning of a system of independent public defenders. The study of human rights has even been introduced into the curriculum of the law school at the University of Phnom Penh.

The Vienna conference needs to build on these successes. Too many people still suffer oppression for saying the "wrong" things or being of the "wrong" color, race, religion or ethnic group.

A Special Commissioner for Human Rights is needed. A person of internationally recognized authority could bring effectiveness, speed of action, coherence and coordination to human-rights protection and promotion. One obvious candidate for such a post should be Jimmy Carter.

An International Penal Court is needed to try gross violations of human rights. We need to be able to respond more quickly in emergencies and have more on-site presence of watchdog officials, as we do in Iraq and Cambodia. We need a better early warning system and an improved capacity for fact finding.

But with only four weeks to go, no head of steam is building for reforms and innovations of this magnitude. I fear Vienna will end, not with the bang of Rio's environment carnival, but with the clang of doors being closed on thousands more political prisoners.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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