Universal Human Rights



With Marxism dead, the Cold War over and liberal democracy ascendant, the great ideological debates of the century have ended, but disagreement continues about the rights of citizens, the obligations of government and the appropriate role in these matters of what is routinely called the ''international community.''

Debates on these subjects are taking place at the U.N. global conferences on human rights now under way in Vienna. Some 2,000 official delegates and several times as many unofficial delegates representing 161 countries and innumerable non-governmental organizations are gathered to review the world's record of achievement since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to assess the obstacles to its full implementation and to consider how the United Nations might help.

As is always the case for U.N. global conferences, preparations were long (nearly three years) and laborious. By the time this meeting began, African, Asian, Western European and Latin American regional groups had met and adopted position papers. A preparatory committee had labored and produced a draft agreement. Many ''rights'' were affirmed -- political and civil rights, economic and social rights, collective and individual rights. Rights of woman, of indigenous people, of children, of the disabled. ''A right to development'' was affirmed by all, including the Clinton administration.

But disagreements remained, doubtless because of the continued existence of one-party dictatorships that deny the very existence of the rights they systematically repress. Because these one-party dictatorships are most numerous in Asia, the Bangkok Declaration was in sharpest disagreement with the positions of other regions on two principal issues.

First, are human rights universal, valid for all people everywhere? The democracies say yes. The Bangkok Declaration says ''not really.'' Its signers see human rights as a Western idea, valid for some people in some places at some times, or, as the declaration put it:

''While human rights are universal in nature they must be considered in the context of a dynamic and evolving process of international norm setting, bearing in mind the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds.'' That is, ''Western'' rights may not be appropriate for non-Western societies.

And second, is it legitimate for a government or an international organization to seek to influence human-rights practices in other countries? Does the U.N. Security Council have a ''right to intervene'' in Iraq's treatment of Kurds? In China's treatment of Tibet or the demonstrators at Tiananmen Square? Does the Organization of American States or the United Nations have a right to intervene in Haiti?

Most governments say -- yes. But the Bangkok Declaration emphasizes the rights of sovereignty, and the importance of non-interference in the internal affairs of states. It revived the doctrine of national liberation struggle according to which people (such as the Palestinians) fighting against foreign power have special rights that override the rights of others -- for example, the right to use terror in their struggle.

And it revived as well the view of the advocates of the New International Economic Order, according to which the international economic system is responsible for the lack of development in the underdeveloped countries.

The Bangkok Declaration, in sum, revived the radical version of Third World ideology current in the last decade or so of the Cold War. But it did not carry the delegates in Vienna, where on Friday night a drafting committee approved language that says:

''The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner. . . . While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of states, regardless of their political, economic and social systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.''

To underscore the importance the Clinton administration attached to this, its first U.N. world conference, Secretary of State Warren Christopher headed the U.S. delegation and delivered the major speech. As on Bosnia, he followed the lead of U.S. allies, endorsing the ''right to development,'' but preserving a clear emphasis on democracy as the means of institutionalizing human rights. Undersecretary of State Tim Wirth followed suit. Both stressed the centrality of the individual as the agent of development and the repository of rights.

By the end of the conference, the United States will have achieved its principal goal: to secure endorsement of the universality of human rights and the creation of a new High Commission for Human Rights as a first step to strengthening U.N. efforts and its human rights system.

But do these endless discussions and decisions really matter? They may. The last stage of the Soviet Union reminds us that governments and empires rise and fall when leaders change their views about who has the right to do what.

Jeane Kirkpatrick writes a syndicated column.

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