Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

United Nations Addresses Worldwide Human Rights

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

United Nations Addresses Worldwide Human Rights

Article excerpt

THE rights of native peoples are just one item on the agenda for the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights, which begins June 14 in Vienna. But human rights activists are concerned that the meeting may chalk up more losses than gains.

"I expect one clear step forward but the conference has the potential for taking several giant steps backward," says Kenneth Roth, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch in New York.

"Some governments are trying to roll back their responsibilities for {protecting} civil and political rights," says Shiela Dauer, director of country actions for London-based Amnesty International. "The rights already in place need to be strengthened and protected."

But nongovernmental groups such as theirs will be present, watching and keeping the heat on in Vienna as delegates of the UN's 183 member governments debate progress and remaining roadblocks. The UN's only other conference on human rights was held in 1968 in Tehran.

The major concern of human rights activists at the 1993 conference is that a number of developing nations in Asia, which are among the worst violators of human rights, may undermine past gains with a new argument. In place of the old claim that treatment of citizens is an internal affair, some nations now insist that cultural differences must be taken into account when monitoring human rights. They say the West is trying to impose its values on them and that the need for economic progress inside their borders may justify delay in granting citizens full civil and political rights.

"Cultural differences ... are not an excuse to violate fundamental rights," insists Mr. Roth. "This is in fact a very fundamental attack on ... the universality of human rights."

"To a very great extent it's political rhetoric," agrees Elissavet Stamatopoulou, chief of the New York office of the UN Centre for Human Rights.

The strong step forward that Mr. Roth and others expect to emerge from the Vienna meeting concerns a shift within the UN system, whereby violations of women's rights for the first time will be treated as a human rights issue rather than as a low-profile social issue. The change is the result of a three-year lobbying effort by nongovernmental women's groups. The abuse of women will be treated with new urgency. …

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