THE CLOAK OF NATIONAL sovereignty cannot be used as a cover to perpetrate human rights abuses unchecked, says Boutros Boutros Ghali, the United Nations secretary-general. Regional and international organisations have a responsibility to consider intervention if it is needed to protect individuals and communities from governments which violate their rights.
He was addressing the UN Conference on Human Rights held last month in Vienna, the largest such gathering in a quarter of a century. He told the countries attending (many of them, of course, from the Middle East) that they should aim to improve the human condition by encouraging democratic development, accepting that human rights are indivisible and ensuring that their observance is guaranteed.
The sentiments are admirable. Their application is unfortunately unrealistic. But their broader implications are of the profoundest importance for any "new world order" which may emerge from the political debris of the Cold War.
First, the principle. No-one can produce a coherent rationale for suppressing human rights. The problem is the credibility of those Western countries which now so vociferously promote them. For too many years, the cause of human rights was used as one more weapon in the propaganda war with the Soviet bloc by countries which happily tolerated abuses among their own allies and satellites. In calling for greater respect for human rights, the United States and the West Europeans may have an irrefutable moral case, but they are ill-positioned to lecture oppressive regimes from the high moral ground.
The persistence of a black under-class in the United States, Britain's handling of Northern Ireland, overt racism in France and Germany -- all these make statements from Western capitals sound sanctimonious and hypocritical. The principle, however, remains incontrovertible.
Second, how can such a worthy principle be applied? There are plenty of regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere which take objection to the double standards already mentioned. They seek refuge for their misdeeds in the spurious need to "redefine" human rights on a "regional" basis which takes account of cultural and national "particularities".
The argument is blatantly offensive. Human rights are not based on a specifically "Western" value system. "Only democracy within states and within the international community can truly guarantee human rights," Boutros Ghali declared in Vienna. "It can and ought to be assimilated by all cultures."
But portraying human rights as indivisible gives regimes in any geographical region a politically correct excuse for ignoring them. As a correspondent for The Middle East reports from the Vienna conference, there is a guilty complicity in the Arab world about brushing the issue aside. If you don't talk about my human rights infringements, I won't mention yours.
Which leads on to the third question of how to bring recalcitrant regimes to respect basic human rights. Individual states are the best guarantors for human rights, the secretary-general says hopefully. But, he adds, if the state turns tormentor, international intervention may be warranted.
How, when and where -- and who is to be the judge? If any body is to arrogate powers of intervention on its own behalf, it must be the UN. It …