A Court for Ethnic Disputes

JONATHAN POWR

February 26, 1993|By JONATHAN POWER

London. -- It was Mahatma Gandhi who used to say that one could assess civilization by the manner in which it dealt with minorities. Ralf Dahrendorf, the eminence grise of European education, more recently made a similar point in an address before that remarkable London campaigning power-house, the Minority Rights Group (which shows what can be done by two people, a phone, a fax and a secretary).

''Defense of minority rights is the litmus test of liberty and the rule of law,'' Professor Dahrendorf said, and went on wryly to note: ''Ruling interests and beliefs need no protection; power protects, though it may corrupt as well.''

A Martian arriving today could be pardoned for thinking earthlings had never confronted minority-rights issues until Yugoslavia exploded, so bewitched and bewildered they appear be by the experience. The Cold War was a frozen blanket that enveloped the whole world, pressing into deep hibernation every other human dilemma.

Now it is back to normal weather. Luckily, there was life before the Cold War and our parents and grandparents left for us some remarkable institutions of international peacemaking -- and words to go with them. One is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted and proclaimed in 1948 at the General Assembly of the United Nations, a document more comprehensive than the Magna Carta or the Declaration des Droits D'Homme, and more demanding than the Declaration of Independence and the Communist Manifesto. It covers every aspect of human well-being and delineates the relationship of human beings with their governments. It is probably the most important single document that humanity has yet produced.

Nevertheless, for all its fine prose about the rights of man, it is merely a declaration of intent. It is not binding. What we need, rather quickly, is a means of being able to lift its words off the

page to apply to situations like Yugoslavia before they spin out of control.

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, who used to be the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, once made an interesting proposal for giving it effect. He recommended establishing a Special U.N. Representative for Humanitarian Questions, whose task would be ''to forewarn, monitor and depoliticize'' potential conflicts.

This was over 10 years ago, and his advice has yet to be taken. To assist in the work, there would be a corps of ''humanitarian observers'' who could go into areas of tension and grievance and, long before they come to the boiling point, work as a go-between, negotiating, talking and working to defuse the circuits of conflict.

I would add another proposal to Prince Sadruddin's, to %o supplement his diplomacy and conflict resolution with the adjudicating power of a Court of Ethnic Disputes.

A nation being rent asunder or an ethnic group under threat could come to the court and ask a ruling on whether the principles of the Declaration of Human Rights were being followed. Are the boundaries of our province fair? Are the rights ,, of language, education and political representation given to the minority group by the majority group reasonable? Are there reforms of law or administration that the court could suggest to make the situation more equitable?

We already have a World Court with its 15 judges drawn from the four corners of the world and nominated by the U.N. Security Council. Over the years it has done valuable work in adjudicating financial claims, seabed disputes and even the hot political potatoes like who is the rightful ruler of Namibia and does the U.S. have the right to mine the harbor of Nicaragua's main port?

But only states can appear before it. Not individuals. Not ethnic ,, groups. It is a great pity. If individuals could, the World Court would be able, for example, to try the Libyans accused by Britain and the U.S. of bombing the Pan American airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. It could also be the international penal court for those accused of war crimes and genocide in Yugoslavia -- and in Cambodia and Iraq.

And if ethnic groups could appear before it, it could perform the invaluable task of giving a dispassionate, but caring, view of the rights and wrongs of what, invariably, are complicated, multi-sided conflicts. Its deliberations would buy precious time in which Prince Sadruddin's monitors could work on the ground. Its pronouncements, like all judicial pronouncements, would give those ruled against an honorable ladder on which to climb down.

Courts -- think of the Indian Supreme Court ruling on the Union Carbide mass poisoning or the U.S. Supreme Court on school desegregation -- may not always solve problems but they help defuse political dynamite and give honest men and women another day to work things out without recourse to violence.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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