UN Raises Stronger Arm against Nations Violating Human Rights with Broadened Definition of Human Rights, More Staff, and Faster Response to Complaints, UN Joins Key Players in the Human-Rights Arena

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THE United Nations, long considered weak on human rights issues, has been quietly adding muscle. In the process it is gaining respect from human rights activists.

The change comes as democracy is spreading from Latin America to Eastern Europe and when East-West tensions within the UN have eased considerably. It is a time, too, when the UN is rapidly assuming the lead in tackling other global problems such as the environment and narcotics.

The UN's broad membership, once seen as an impediment to action, is increasingly viewed as a plus, giving it unique leverage. "If we want to improve human rights, it is governments that are going to have to change their practices - they are accountable," says Isobelle Jaques, a representative of Amnesty International.

Critics say the UN still ignores more blatant human rights violators, such as China and Iraq, and that its rebukes are too timid. Yet Ms. Jaques and other human rights activists say the UN has made procedural changes that have transformed it into a vital player and key ally.

Over the years the UN has set universal human rights standards and expanded the definition of violations to include cultural practices such as female circumcision. Nations that ratify UN human rights conventions must submit regular reports outlining how they comply. Recently the UN committee that oversees the Convention Against Torture turned back a report from China and asked for another by December.

"The more difficult part for the UN, now that the easier legislative side of things is winding up, will be to enforce the standards," notes Enayat Houshmand, chief of the international instruments section of the Geneva-based Center for Human Rights. The UN also has new mechanisms in place to investigate human rights allegations. The UN Human Rights Commission assigns special rapporteurs or working groups to such countries as Afghanistan, Romania, and El Salvador and to such cross-border topics as religious intolerance and torture. This year the UN added the global sale of children and child pornography to that list. Experts such as judges and lawyers gather data from many sources and make on-site visits where allowed.

"In the early '70s it would have been unimaginable to send in investigative missions," says Elissavet Stamatopoulou, chief of the New York office of the UN Center for Human Rights. "Now some countries don't just grudgingly accept our missions - they invite the UN in." The list includes Bulgaria, Turkey, South Korea, Chile, Afghanistan, and, most recently, Iran.

Iran had argued for six years that the way it treated its people was its own business. Yet last January Iran admitted the UN investigator, a Salvadoran lawyer, and will let him return later this year.

Although the Iranian government's opposition called the resultant report a "staged whitewash," Amnesty's Ms. Jaques notes that the UN investigator managed a "foot in the door" - something her organization has been unable to do. …