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Proposals for UN human rights reforms

THE lip service that heads of state are giving to freedom and liberty during this 40th anniversary of the United Nations cannot hide the fact that the UN's record in securing observance of human rights is pitiful. More than 50 governments still practice torture. There is severe repression in the Soviet Union, South Africa, Chile, Paraguay, the Philippines, and many other places. The UN has been apathetic in addressing these abuses and certainly ineffectual in curing them. Yet, there are simple reforms in this area which the UN can adopt to advance human rights.

The failure of the UN to advance human rights lies not in a lack of substantive standards of international law. Ever since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, pioneered by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948, and the subsequent adoption of numerous human rights cove- nants, there has existed a solid base of international human rights standards. Indeed, that is the UN's most significant achievement in this area.

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But rights without remedies are hollow, and the UN's unwillingness to focus on means to secure international human rights is a critical failing of that body. No one expects the UN to be able to establish an enforcement system the way an individual nation can. But what the UN can do is to concentrate on fact-finding and public exposure of human rights abuses. Even the most offending nations dislike seeing the public spotlight focused on their abuses. In the absence of any judicial system of enforcement, public exposure has proved to be the best means available to persuade governments to stop, or at least reduce, their human rights violations.

To that end, here are some noncomplicated reforms that are possible to achieve:

The UN should establish a High Commissioner on Human Rights. At present, the UN secretariat in the human rights area is weak, timorous, and underfinanced. Too often it bows to pressure from repressive blocs. A high commissioner (patterned after the UN High Commissioner for Refugees) should be empowered to coordinate all UN human rights activities, convene needed emergency sessions of the Commission on Human Rights, send out fact-finding missions, present key human rights issues to the UN bodies, and issue forthright reports on human rights violations. Proposals to establish an independent and vigorous high commissioner have been on the UN agenda for many years. A concerted effort by pro-human rights nations could bring it to pass.

The UN Commission on Human Rights now receives many complaints of human rights abuses by particular nations. These complaints are kept secret and considered in confidential hearings. Under UN practice, the world never learns the details of the most egregious human rights violations being considered by the commission. The UN must open those hearings to the public. Such public exposure is critical to marshal pressure on abusing governments.

Many nations that grossly violate human rights do not allow the UN investigatory bodies to enter their territory to investigate the condition of human rights. This is intolerable. The General Assembly should require every nation to allow access to UN investigatory missions. Such missions can be extremely useful. The widely publicized report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on disappearances in Argentina during the junta dictatorship was a powerful influence in stopping such


The UN should establish a corps of objective trial observers with the right to attend and report on political trials in any nation. Where such observers have been present, experience shows they have had a beneficial effect on the fairness of the proceedings.

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These are modest steps. While far from a panacea, they would begin to make the UN an effective force of world opinion against human rights abuses. By enacting these reforms, the members of the UN could help make this 40th anniversary one that human rights advocates, too, can celebrate.

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