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One can learn from unfortunate experiences. This truism applies in spades to the World Conference on Human Rights sponsored by the UN and held in Vienna in late June. Unhappily, there is no corresponding truism that guarantees the learning experience will occur. One can only hope that in this case the United States government will prove an apt pupil.

The initiating impulse behind the conference was clear. The last global human rights conference was held in Tehran twenty-five years ago. Since then the international political order has undergone a seismic shift. In recent years the Cold War has ended, a “new world order” with a distinct swing toward democracy has begun to emerge, and human rights has assumed ever greater importance on the international scene. It seemed an apposite time for the UN and its member states to review the entire human rights agenda, both its basic principles and the means available to monitor violations of those principles. In spite of the pitfalls and potholes seemingly endemic to UN deliberations, the conference presented genuine opportunities for the participating countries to advance the human rights agenda.

When the initial proposal for the conference was made in 1989, the General Assembly suggested that member states and human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) hold regional meetings in preparation for the world gathering. Many did. Representatives of African states held a preparatory conference in Tunis in November 1992, the Latin and Caribbean countries did the same in San Jose in January 1993, and countries from Asia and the Pacific followed suit in Bangkok in March-April 1993. Each of these groups issued a collective statement of its views in declarations named after the cities in which they met. Each of these declarations gave clear indications of the regional goals and aspirations, often antidemocratic and otherwise unpalatable to Western values, that would be pursued at the conference. The United States and its Western allies held no regional meeting and produced no coordinated statement of principles and objectives. Only at the fourth and final preparatory meeting held in Geneva (April-May 1993) did the United States present a draft plan.

Drawing heavily on the documents of the preparatory committees, Ibrahim Fall, Secretary General of the conference, produced a working document that would form the basis for the Vienna meeting. His best efforts to find consensus among the participating countries and to finesse conflicting views in ambiguous language could not bridge profound differences. The forty-eight page draft enclosed within brackets, therefore, all passages disputed by any government. Over 200 sets of brackets peppered this document. At times during the often harsh debates over these passages it seemed that the discussions and the conference itself might simply collapse without agreement. That outcome apparently was deemed even less acceptable than a less than acceptable agreement. When the sessions finally ended, therefore, the delegates were able to congratulate themselves on producing for unanimous approval the Final Declaration and Action Program of the World Conference on Human Rights. This Vienna Declaration, as it is also called, is a grievously flawed document that compares unfavorably not only with the U.S. Bill of Rights but with the UN’s own Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. It skates lightly over such basic rights as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of association, even as it emphasizes an array of alleged economic freedoms.

Not surprisingly, the debates at the Vienna conference reflected the real political world outside its narrow circumference. They helped clarify why the short-lived euphoria that followed the liberation of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Empire from communism was in fact short-lived. Yes, the Cold War has passed into history, but its legacy lingers on. (One of the ironic events of the conference was the rude verbal assault launched by a group of Latin American radicals against Jimmy Carter, the former “human rights President,” to prevent him from speaking. They were protesting, they explained, the prominent position given to the leader of one of the world’s worst violators of human rights. The irony was compounded when Carter subsequently asserted that a starving family will have no interest in freedom of speech, thereby adopting one of the most egregious apologies for the tyrannical violation of human rights.)

A number of regimes continue to locate the cause of their countries’ poverty not in their own political, economic, and cultural systems but in those of the successful, productive countries. Countries that are largely industrial, capitalist, and democratic remain the target of choice. In Vienna, delegates from dictatorial countries proposed to rectify the “deplorable gap” between rich and poor countries by massive transfers of wealth, without conditions, of course, on the recipients.

As for the “new world order,” it became ever clearer in Vienna that there is less order than bafflement in the new political world. Regrettably, one must add that the United States participates in and contributes to that bafflement. Its performance on the world scene was all too faithfully reflected at the conference.

The failure of the United States and its allies to perform adequately in Vienna was, it is fair to say, no accident. It flowed naturally from a lack of foresight, clearly designated goals, and political leadership. At the conference itself, it was the unhappy task of the U.S. delegation to engage in damage control. It was too late to infuse the Vienna Declaration with political vision—even had such vision been available. It is to the credit of John Shattuck, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Humanitarian Affairs, that even as he voted to accept the Declaration, he strongly criticized three separate sections. But that strong reservation was at the same time an acknowledgment that on these items the U.S. had been outmaneuvered and outvoted.

But it was on the very concept (or concepts) of human rights that most debate foundered. The Bangkok Declaration boldly attempted to deny the universality of human rights, to relativize them in terms of “national and regional particularities and various historical, religious, and cultural backgrounds.” A number of dictatorial countries—including some that Freedom House has ranked among the worst violators of human rights—flatly asserted that individual rights must remain subservient to those of the state, a stipulation that, if accepted, would effectively strip the individual citizen of his rights. In his good opening statement, United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher spiked these notions. In a very quotable—and already much-quoted—statement, Christopher asserted that “we cannot let cultural relativism become the last refuge of repression.” We can expect, however, that this argument, like an evil phoenix, will rise again in future debates.

The growth, indeed explosion, of interest in human rights in the last couple of decades has not been an unmixed blessing. The Helsinki process fostered the growth of human rights organizations, first in Eastern Europe and then in countries around the world. It challenged tyrannies and unleashed forces supporting democracy and civil society. The presence of hundreds of NGOs devoted to human rights, often critical of practices of their own governments, was everywhere evident in Vienna. Well, almost everywhere. The drafting committee in charge of preparing the final document prevented NGOs from attending their meetings even as observers. (In an arrangement richly symbolic of the measure of respect given to NGOs, they were allocated working space on the lower level of the vast Vienna International Center, while the official country delegates conducted business over their heads on the floors above.) The concern, energy, and increasing professionalism of many of these NGOs, including many newer ones from Asia, guarantees that in the future they will have a louder voice and more visible presence in their own countries and in international debate. All to the good.

The explosion of interest has also led, however, to an explosion of what allegedly constitutes a human right. Vienna depressingly confirmed that almost every major political or cultural issue, from AIDS to xenophobia, can now be judged to have a human rights component. This trend was evident years ago when the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights ticked off as rights a list of what would more accurately be described as human aspirations and desires. Even then it seemed ludicrous to imagine that among our inalienable rights are life, liberty, and a paid vacation.

To the present laundry list of human rights, some participants wished to add a country’s “universal and inalienable right to development.” When to this is added the stipulation that no condition—such as the proper observance of human rights—should be attached to development aid, the stage is set for countries with faulty political and economic systems to demand, in the name of human rights, that economically successful countries bail them out.

The conference is over, and the Vienna Declaration remains as its defective fruit. Time now for reflection and plans for the future.

The issue of human rights is going to remain on the international scene, and the UN will remain a major arena in which differing concepts of those rights will be contested. If the U.S. or any of its agencies decides to engage in that arena it should do so seriously. If it does not, it will be outplayed by those who truly differ on questions of human rights or who cynically manipulate them. (It may be apropos to note here that advocates for Women’s Rights scored one of the few clear victories at the Vienna Conference. They were well-organized internationally, very well-prepared, and ensured that their views were incorporated into every appropriate draft statement. As a consequence, the Vienna Declaration bears their unmistakable stamp.) To engage seriously is to have a clear concept of what constitutes human rights, what is their priority, and what are the means to ensure them. It is to assert the strong relation between democracy and the observance of human rights and to make the case for the contribution of democracies to international stability and well-being. On the basis of Vienna it is not clear that the strongest country in the world is as yet prepared to do these necessary things.

James Finn is Senior Editor of Freedom Review, published by Freedom House, a human rights advocacy group based in New York City. He attended the Vienna Conference as a member of a delegation from Freedom House.

Image by John Samuel via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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