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UN Human Rights Conference Will Test Clinton's Commitment

THE first World Conference on Human Rights in 25 years will convene in June and many expect it to set the agenda for human rights for coming decades. Will President Clinton be there?

Mr. Clinton campaigned hard last fall on the need for tougher action on human rights violations, from China and Haiti to Bosnia. But with less than two months until the global rights meeting in Vienna, there is no hint the president will attend. A United States official said this week there are "no present plans" for Clinton to go.

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"We are encouraging him to go," says James O'Dea, Washington director of Amnesty International. "We're now in a pivotal time on the issues of the universality and indivisibility of human rights, and Clinton better not fall asleep."

The problem the West faces, however, is that a number of governments, including several in Asia, have mobilized to use the world conference to water down rather than strengthen United Nations human rights enforcement.

At the crucial last preparatory meeting in Geneva this week, the Asian bloc - among them China, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia - has attacked the central principle of universality, according to sources at the conference. "Universality" holds that rights extend to all people no matter where they live, including such rights as freedom of speech and freedom from torture.

Some say the White House transition has given rights opponents an opening at the conference.

"The US needs to be a forceful presence at the conference for pushing the United Nations into more effective protection of rights," says Reed Brody, executive director of the International Human Rights Law Group in Washington. "But because of the pace of the transition, the US is not playing that role."

John Shattuck, the president's nominee to be assistant secretary for human rights at the State Department, won't be confirmed by the Senate for another month or so, and Shattuck's new boss, Tim Wirth, was only recently confirmed.

A US official close to the Geneva talks denied the transition had slowed policy implementation, saying planning for the conference began before last fall's election. This week a US State Department team joined West Europeans in Geneva to try to forestall the Asian nations' bid to redefine rights subject to regional, cultural, and national conditions. "We are there to deflect the attempts by some countries, particularly those in Asia, to roll back progress on human rights," he said.

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The centerpiece US proposal in Geneva is to create a special UN high commissioner on human rights specifically to observe and report on rights conditions, a plan the Asia bloc is fighting.

The US also is weighing another trump card. The plan, being debated at high levels, would have the president endorse for US Senate ratification the UN Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. It is the twin of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights already ratified.

Asian nations have long bolstered their own positions, saying they endorse "universality and indivisibility" of rights, and that the US does not - pointing to the unratified treaty. The US official says it would be "advantageous" for the US to go to the conference committed to ratification.

"What the governments of Asia are saying is that `we no longer recognize universality in the same way that you in the West do. We think national sovereignty takes priority over individual rights," Mr. O'Dea says. "That is a major debate for Clinton to take up."

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