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A World Consensus on Human Rights


Vienna. -- "Ten years ago," said the U.N. secretary general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, in opening the World Conference on Human Rights, "virtually every state in the world accepted human rights as an appropriate area of international concern.

"Today this is no longer true. The idea of universal human rights is under assault from strong cultural, political, religious and ethnic pressures."

I can report that the assault has been rebuffed. The besieged are now on the attack, and the tide of battle is on the turn.

It is no slender achievement. Practically the whole of the world community, including China, has endorsed here the same principles that, until this week, were the creation only of the 56 U.N. member countries when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was approved in 1948.

Praise for this should be shared by at least three parties. First and foremost, Dr. Boutros-Ghali himself: Although plucked for the top U.N. job out of the mandarin ranks of a country, Egypt, not known for its close adherence to democracy, habeas corpus and free speech, he committed his prestige to forging a new world consensus on the importance of human rights that would be as acceptable for 1993's 171-member U.N. as was the Universal Declaration for 1948's membership of 56.

Next to him, I would single out the underrated secretary general of the conference, Ibrahim Fall. Persistence is Mr. Fall's virtue and, joined by his fellow Senegalese, Pierre Sane, secretary general of Amnesty International, whose voice from the crowd alternately roared, spat and scolded, this budding African human-rights mafia has become an irresistible force for progress.

Of course, Amnesty was only one of the 2,000 non-governmental organizations represented here. Without them, the conference would never have had the buzz or the charge necessary to transmute what could too easily have become an obfuscating, bureaucratic exercise into the higher reaches of creative discourse.

So effective were these organizations in attacking the Chinese effort to forbid the Dalai Lama speaking on U.N. territory, that the Chinese from then on seemed to retreat a couple of steps, leaving Malaysia, Singapore, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan and Vietnam to do the serious blocking work. But without China, their HTC weight is apparently insufficient to stop the human-rights campaign moving forward.

Never before have non-governmental organizations been allowed to work so closely with the diplomats' debating and drafting process. Despite their complaints of exclusion from informal, private meetings of the drafting committee, they had more access to decision-making than has ever been allowed before in U.N. deliberations.

The U.N., at this conference at least, exhibited more transparency in its work than the overwhelming majority of its member states do in their own parliaments or politburos. Having taken this step, the U.N. should now consider extending it to General Assembly and even Security Council deliberations.

For all its progress, the conference was unable to make the hard decisions necessary to beef up the finances and staffing of the U.N.'s human-rights machinery. These decisions were shunted off to a future meeting of the General Assembly. The idea of a high commissioner for human rights, who could take a lead in probing suspected abuses, lacked enough support to win.

There was not even discussion on a number of crucial issues: In what situations is it right for outsiders to intervene in a country to right a humanitarian outrage, as in Somalia or northern Iraq? How do we deal with the abuses of militias not under control of central governments? What can be done to pre-empt intercommunal violence? How do we monitor and assess progress in the field of human rights, including economic and social rights?

Still, we have seen real and important progress in reaffirming and extending the core principles of human rights and lining up the world community publicly behind them. This is Vienna's historic achievement.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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