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UN Conference Sustains Universal Nature of Rights

AFTER two weeks of fractious debate, the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights concluded Friday with an 11th-hour compromise on the possibility of creating a High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In the end, governmental delegations from the 168 participating countries recommended that the General Assembly "begin, as a matter of priority, consideration of the question." Western governments and human rights activists were seeking much stronger wording, including a detailed description of how the proposed position would fit into the existing UN structure.

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But opposition from China, Indonesia, Sudan, and other countries in Asia and Africa compelled the West to give ground. Critics say these governments feared that a High Commissioner would be able to crack down more easily on abuses within their borders.

The issue was a key sticking point in drafting and adopting the Conference's final document, the nonbinding, 33-page Vienna Declaration and Program of Action. Other major snags included a failed bid by Asian and Islamic governments to disavow the universality of human rights and a pair of successful demands by African and Islamic governments to condemn the conflicts in Angola and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

While many governmental delegations are proclaiming the conference a success, human rights activists are decidedly less sanguine. Pierre Sane, secretary-general of Amnesty International, calls the gathering "a summit of missed opportunities." Victims of human rights violations found no relief, he says, that governments merely "reaffirmed the 50-year-old core values of universality, indivisibility, and interdependence."

Most human rights activists consider the Vienna Declaration a mixed bag. Although it breaks new ground in asserting the rights of women, children, and indigenous peoples, they say, it does little to strengthen the UN's ability to promote and protect those rights. This absence of concrete measures, they say, also diminishes the value of a hard-won statement that "the universal nature of these rights and freedoms is beyond question." While the document calls on the Assembly "to substantially increase" fund ing for UN human rights activities, it stipulates that any additional funds should come from within the UN's regular budget, rather than from added assessments on member governments.

Even so, those who gained the most from the conference may be local activists like Indrani Sinha, who works with abused women and girls in Calcutta, and S. M. Tue Bouda, a human rights lawyer in Burkina Faso. Despite being shut out of the official drafting sessions, they seized the opportunity to share insights and information with their peers from throughout the world.

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