Vienna. -- The World Conference on Human Rights, which opens here Sunday, offers the first chance in modern times for the peoples of this planet to say in one loud, clear, collective voice: No false imprisonment, No torture, No disappearances in the night, No summary executions, No exploitation of child labor, No child prostitution, No degradation of men and women by letting them rot in hunger, destitution and poverty.
Yet Vienna, for all its magnificence and charm, exudes a palpable air of evasive unease. It is uncannily like the shadowy years immediately after World War II, when furtive Orson Welles-types rendezvoused under the giant Ferris wheel and sold contraband penicillin, making their getaways through the city's ancient sewers.
Today the furtive figures are diplomats arriving with hidden agendas for the sabotage of human rights. At the very least, they intend to stifle any intrusion into what they are doing in their own countries. At worst, they would turn the great 1948 document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, inside out and upside down through a resolution asserting that civil and political rights cannot be fully granted (granted?) until economic, social and cultural rights have been achieved. In other words, don't mention the ''freedom'' word until we have a Gross National Product approaching $15,000 per head.
Can a human-rights conference hide from the world what the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances recently published -- 17,000 reports in a single year of people whisked from their homes and loved ones by the secret police, never to be seen again?
Can it ignore what the U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on Torture reported last year -- a growing number of cases, and, despite all the action taken at the international level, ''only failures can be recorded at the national level.''
Such reports prompted Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to admit in his last annual statement that ''the U.N. has not been able to act effectively to bring an end to massive human-rights violations. Faced with the barbaric conduct which fills the news media today, the U.N. cannot stand idle or indifferent. The long-term credibility of our organization as a whole will depend on the success of our response to this challenge.''
This conference should be the occasion for a confrontation between those members of the U.N. that want to expose abuses of power and those who want to keep their doors and shutters closed while they continue to oppress those with whom they disagree.
Tragically, the oppressors appear to have won the early rounds in the preparatory meetings. The democracies, whether Western Third World (and it should never be overlooked that more people live under democratic rule in the Third World than in the West), appear to lack the stomach for a real fight. When one compares the America of President Clinton with that of Jimmy Carter, or the India of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao with that of Morarji Desai, it is all too apparent that there is less spine in contemporary political leaders, less fervor for human rights in political discourse, less attention to detail in day-to-day political intercourse.
One thing has changed for the better. The blossoming network of voluntary human-rights groups is pouring planeloads of its formidable legions into Vienna. Supplementing the well-known Amnesty International and Americas Watch are small, local organizations, like ''The Thai Union for Civil Liberty,'' ''Task Force Detainees -- Philippines'' and ''Kosovo Human Rights Watch.'' There are 300 of these here from Asia alone.
Crammed into bed-and-breakfasts or, if lucky, put up in the homes of Viennese burghers, they are agitating for such things as an International Penal Court to try gross violations of human rights, a Special U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights with the authority for speedy action, a Special Rapporteur on Women, the world's largest discriminated-against group, ratification of the Conventions on Torture and the Rights of the Child and an improved U.N. capacity for fact-finding and rapid response in emergencies.
These are all sound, practical ideas. They need to be backed by votes -- and cash.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.