UN Close to Approval of Human Rights Post Human Rights Day Sees Continued Abuses and World Powers Ineffective in Curtailing Them, but New UN Commissioner Could Heighten Response

Article excerpt

THE effort to improve human rights protection for all citizens is facing major new challenges just as the United Nations is about to acquire a vital new tool in the fight.

The proposal to create a UN high commissioner for human rights with power to initiate and coordinate UN action, an idea endorsed by the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna last summer and strongly supported by the United States, has been making slow but steady progress. The UN General Assembly is expected to approve the new post within two weeks.

Yet as groups pause today on Human Rights Day to assess progress made in the last year, some rights advocates say they see new cause for concern in continued ethnic and religious separatism. They point to an increase in the number of civil wars and to the move by some Western nations to toughen asylum laws for refugees and clamp down on the free expression of different cultures and languages.

Whether or not such nations will encourage tolerance and promote "kinder and gentler" policies at home even as they push for changes in other countries could prove a "decisive challenge" for the rights movement, says Felice Gaer, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights.

Deciding how to approach European and certain Middle Eastern governments that have tried to impose a single cultural or religious model, often in response to violent challenges from minority groups, amounts to "new terrain" for rights advocates, says Cynthia Brown, the UN liaison for Human Rights Watch.

The 1994 world report of Human Rights Watch (HRW), released this week, says the world community has shown that it has the collective will to act in humanitarian emergencies such as those in Haiti, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Somalia. Yet the report charges that the world community often has failed to hold to its human rights principles and to demand accountability and justice.

In Haiti, Bosnia, and Somalia, a tendency to compromise and seek a "quick fix" in the face of competing foreign policy interests has brought "a failure of collective vision," the report says.

Evidence cited ranges from "quiet" UN and US backing of amnesty for Haitian forces accused of crimes against the state and civilians to the "painfully slow steps" taken by the UN to establish a functioning tribunal to indict, try, and punish those accused of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.

Ms. Brown, who edited the new HRW report, says the UN's lack of success in recent peacekeeping ventures is taking a toll on the organization. The UN appears somewhat less inclined than it was to intervene in conflicts for humanitarian reasons, she says, citing, in particular UN reluctance to send more than a fact-finding team to Burundi, where as many as 20,000 civilians may have been killed in civil strife. …