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Why human rights are important

Published by Newsweek on 1998-12-01

In Paris and New York last week, at galas, concerts, award ceremonies and gatherings dubbed "Defenders Summit," thousands of international grassroots activists joined national leaders and United Nations bureaucrats in marking the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan of Ghana, and UN Human Rights High Commissioner Mary Robinson of Ireland offered a generally upbeat assessment of multilateral institutions in expanding the scope of human rights. They underscored the widespread gains made globally in promoting civil rights as well as social and cultural rights, including the right to education. They didn't acknowledge too fulsomely, of course, that such gains were often attributable to the relentless dedication of nongovernmental organizations than to any timely action by rightsocrats.

There were other displays of rightsmanship last week, too. French President Jacques Chirac took a calculated gamble and irritated one of his country largest trading partners--China--by inviting Tibet's Dalai Lama to a meal at the Elysee Palace, the first such invitation to the exiled religious leader. That prompted a formal diplomatic protest by the Beijing regime, which growled that it was the Dalai Lama who'd "cruelly trampled on the fundamental human rights of a vast number of serfs in Tibet." China did not provide specifics. The Dalai Lama himself ruffled a few feathers- mostly Asian--when he said that he didn't see "any contradiction between the need for economic development and the need to respect human rights." His allusion was to certain nations that contested the universality of human rights on the grounds that the concept needed to be better attuned to local cultural considerations. And in Washington, President Bill Clinton announced that the U.S. would establish a new "early warning" center to monitor abuses such as genocide--although Clinton's announcement came too late for the 800,000 Africans who perished in Rwanda's fratricide over the last eight years, and the 75,000 Algerians who died in that country's civil war in the last one year.

Still, as Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth put it, "human rights are well established as the legitimate concern of all." And that made it a heartening week for those who endorsed the ascendancy of human rights in the half-century since the UN General Assembly issued the Declaration of Human Rights in response to the atrocities of World War II. It wasn't such a good week, however, for dissident writers in Iran, who were being targeted for assassination by Islamic fundamentalists; nor for the child laborers at carpet factories in northern India, who continued to work in subhuman conditions. In all the festivities last week, nobody mentioned the indentured Filipino and South Asian maids in the abusive households of thousands of oil-rich sheikhs in Gulf countries. There were few references to the 22 million refugees who fled persecution in their homelands and who must now find their way out of temporary camps of charity to a more secure economic life in alien societies.

Nobody talked about the need to reform the international human rights apparatus either. It may unkind to cavil about multilateral organizations at a time of a larger celebration of the good causes they espouse. Still, it is hard to slide away from the conclusion that the global institutions set up to monitor human rights abuses and implement endless UN resolutions have become mostly moribund. It's not funds that they lack, although international bureaucrats are typically never content with their already lavish budgets; and it's not a shortage of manpower either--the staffing at organizational offices in favored locations such as Geneva, Paris and New York is splendid, with perks that would dazzle pashas. At the heart of their ineffectiveness is the fact that the work of multilateral organizations is wholly dependent on international consensus. That means any dissenting member nation can derail policy and hold up action. Plainly put, human rights cannot be implemented by resolutions alone; the necessary muscle to enforce well-meaning objectives is missing.

That muscle can be meaningfully supplied by accelerated bilateral and business diplomacy, which are less subject to the political horse-trading that's traditionally been a troubling characteristic of multilateral diplomacy. Here are four courses of action that the international community might do well to consider:

_ Create a human rights council at the World Bank. Such a council would consist of the big economic powers--the U.S. and other countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the so-called rich man's club. The council would have a significant say in shaping lending policies concerning developing nations, which currently receive $20 billion annually from the Bank; human rights would be factored into such policies before loans or grants are given. Council members would appoint "aid monitors" to ensure compliance of human rights requirements. Violators would risk immediate cutoff of financial assistance, a prospect that few developing countries would relish in these economically uncertain times.

_ Establish an international panel of multinational corporations. This panel would not only offer specific human rights guidelines to companies that invest heavily in developing states (estimated investment in 1998: $50 billion); it would set up a reporting system under which corporations would be institutionally responsible for promoting human rights observance. Multinational corporations are increasingly under attack from activists who claim that they frequently condone rights abuses in their pursuit of profits. Perhaps the corporate panel could include local activists serving in an advisory capacity.

_ Set up specific human rights guideposts for bilateral aid agencies. Sweden, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands conspicuously emphasize human rights in their aid projects. But there's little consistency concerning rights matters in the annual foreign-aid programs of the world's 29 officially rich countries, which together give about $45 billion each year to the 127 nations of what used to be known as the third world. Few, if any, developing nations can afford to do without bilateral aid, which is usually in the form of outright grants or long-term, no-interest loans.

_ Develop a poverty corps for backward nations. The private sector in rich and poor countries can pool their manpower resources and help further the establishment of job-generating cottage industries. Skilled executives can be seconded to communities to assist them in economic rehabilitation and growth.

The calculus of an increasingly economically interdependent world demands more than shibboleths. In the custody of multilateral organizations, unfortunately, vital matters such as human rights tend to remain in the realm of rhetoric. There is a disconnect with the world's economically deprived people--a third of the global population of 6 billion -who are asking for something more than an acknowledgement of their sorry condition. They remind us all that economic rights--the rights to jobs and an adequate standard of living--are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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