LONDON — London. -- While President Clinton trips to Seattle to consort with Pacific Asian leaders on questions mainly economic, some of the very same Asians are log-jamming a proposal to establish the post of a U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
They did this in Vienna during the World Conference on Human Rights in June; now they are at it again. The hard-liners are a minority of only five or six -- Indonesia, China, Singapore, Malaysia and perhaps Thailand. Not with them are Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines, and probably not even Cambodia. Neither are India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Nor the other Third World continental groupings in Latin America and Africa.
The post of High Commissioner is a marker -- does the international consensus on human rights march on or does it regress?
In the past the ''anti'' case was often posited with such absurdity and sheer uncouthness that, as with Beijing's surly propaganda today, it was tempting to ignore it. But a new generation of sophisticates, especially in Singapore and Malaysia, is proving adept at finding the West's weak points and presenting the case more elegantly.
Bilahari Kausikan of Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs argues in the current issue of Foreign Policy that Asians wouldn't be enjoying their current economic success if they'd listened to Western advocacy of human rights. His thesis is that Asian achievement is rooted in communitarian traditions alien to the West. In Asia, Mr. Kausikan maintains, the human contest is less adversarial; order and stability provide the foundations of economic growth. Indeed, he says, the one Southeast Asian country with the most democratic constitution and political institutions is the Philippines, which exhibits ''mismanagement, lawlessness and the worst economic record'' in the region.
In heterogeneous, unevenly modernized societies, imperfectly integrated and with large rural populations and shallow civic traditions, so the argument runs, authoritarianism is necessary. Detention without trial has to be used to deal with military rebels and religious extremists. There must be curbs on press freedom if social division is to be avoided and racial tension kept in place. Draconian laws have to be used to break the powers of entrenched interests, such as large feudal landlords.
Mr. Kausikan is too worldly to rubbish democracy too much, for his own country is becoming more democratic by the year. He is also prepared to accept a ''hard core'' of human rights -- protection against genocide, murder, torture and slavery.
Beyond that, he believes Asians ''tend to look askance at the starkly individual ethos of the West, in which authority tends to be seen as oppressive and rights are an individual's 'trump' over the state.''
But if he goes even this far to open a liberalizing window, he invites the question why not further? After all, in Asian cultures, as in European, there are many examples, some rather current, of genocide, murder and torture. The usual defense of such acts is that outsiders have no understanding of the problems and priorities of the society in question. Mr. Kausikan accepts this exculpation no more than the West does. So who in Asia is authorized to draw the line where?
Foreign Policy turned over the right of rebuttal to Aryeh Neier, the retiring executive editor of Human Rights Watch, an organization that has developed the capacity to investigate the full range of a country's political failings with unparalleled honesty and accuracy.
''Open societies around the world are flourishing economically to a far greater extent than closed societies,'' Mr. Neier argues. Does Singapore or its city-state rival, Hong Kong, have the freer press, and if the latter, how does one explain Hong Kong's success? By the Kausikan measuring rod it should have stayed underdeveloped.
Hasn't Malaysia used its draconian press powers not merely to prevent racism, but also to suppress public discussion of its logging policy, which has lined the pockets of corrupt officials? Did not China pay a terrible price, economic as well as human, for its closed press when the great famine of 1958-1961 took 30 million lives and no one dared report it? India also used to be hit by famine, but quick press reporting stirred lethargic bureaucrats to action before things got out of control.
A final question: If authoritarian systems are needed to maintain economic success, how come South Korea and Taiwan are casting their iron cloaks aside?
Asia has little to fear and much to gain by the advance of human rights. Wiser countries, like South Korea and Taiwan, have come to realize, as the West discovered before, that if you want economic achievement to endure and not be torn apart by ethnic rivalry or political conquest, democratic societies with the full panoply of rights have a better chance of surviving crisis than those without.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.