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
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
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. …