Wrong on Human Rights

January 28, 1994|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON — London.--"Have the very triumphs of the human-rights lobby, in agitating so vociferously on behalf of individual prisoners, actually made political murder a more effective solution for repressive governments?''

This disturbing question is poised by Caroline Moorehead, in a most unexpected forum, the current issue of Index on Censorship, the magazine that is the voice of persecuted writers.

Ms. Moorehead, who produced the PBS and BBC television series ''Human Rights, Human Wrongs,'' believes that campaigners have pushed repressive governments ''toward ever more drastic and horrifying forms of repression. It has come easier for governments to 'disappear' their critics rather than risk the embarrassing publicity of holding them in prison.''

Ms. Moorehead asserts that when she prepared her TV series, she could find only 20 political prisoners: The thousands that used to exist are now killed off, so that there is no one visible to campaign for.

What arrant nonsense! Page One of Amnesty International's annual report gives the number of known prisoners of conscience as more than 4,400. ''Disappearances'' are, of course, significant but not comparatively overwhelming -- 950 people in some 25 countries.

Ms. Moorehead has a corner on air time on human rights in the U.S., Britain and elsewhere. Though she presents herself as a human-rights champion, she is, wittingly or not, capable of discrediting the human-rights movement.

Or perhaps not. Thanks to the rapid spread of democracy, the fall of communism in Europe and the sudden, if delayed, birth of Bill Clinton as a latter-day Jimmy Carter, the human-rights movement is thriving. Compared to 30 years ago, when Amnesty International was founded, or 16 years ago, when President Carter gave human rights a top diplomatic priority, the world has changed enormously for the better.

Tens of thousands of political prisoners have been released. Dozens of countries have done away with totalitarianism and joined the democratic camp. Even before the Gorbachev revolution and the fall of the Iron Curtain, so many countries had become free that, for the first time, more people in the Third World lived under democratic rule than in the West.

Democracy doesn't guarantee the full panoply of human rights but it markedly improves their chances. From Brazil to South Korea, from the Philippines to Nicaragua, the position of the dissident, the critic and the campaigner improved. In fact, this was one important reason why the number of political prisoners has dropped so noticeably, although not far enough. If only it were just 20.

Last summer in Vienna at the World Conference on Human Rights the groundswell of liberty was apparent. The principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by 56 countries, were reaffirmed in all their essential points in a resolution supported by 171 countries. The rear-guard action mounted by China, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, among others, to water it down came to practically naught.

The only major item on the agenda they managed to stymie was the creation of the post of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, with the authority to investigate abuses. But that battle was rejoined at the U.N. General Assembly last month, and this time the blockers were outnumbered, outwitted and defeated. It was another splendid victory.

One more is in the making. Under U.S. pressure, the first signs appear that China acknowledges the outside world's right to be concerned with human rights in that country. The threat not to renew China's ''most favored nation'' trading arrangement, which could lead to a 96 percent cut in China's exports to America, has produced all sorts of surprising things.

Two weeks ago, to a visiting American congressional delegation, president Jiang Zemin said China ''is going to make an effort'' to meet U.S. concerns. He also told ex-President Bush, who was in Beijing at the same time, that ''within our legal limits there are some things we can do.''

What a change in tone from the surly bombast of the past. And in the last few days the Chinese have met with the International Committee of the Red Cross to discuss access to political prisoners.

Only the tired or the ultra cynical could cavil at such progress. There may be one case in a thousand where human-rights pressure has been counter-productive. But the combined efforts of those campaigners have achieved results beyond what anyone dared predict 20 years ago.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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