The level of public interest in human rights is now so low that the conference, which was meant to be on a par with last year's Earth Summit, will be nothing of the sort. Human rights protection has slipped so low in the public opinion charts that few of the heads of state who flocked to Rio to bask in the reflected glow of public concern about the planet's future are expected in Vienna.
The Clinton administration is gearing up for confrontation with some of the most tyrannical nations by calling for the appointment of a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate and stop some of the most blatant abuses. While the United States returns to the policies of Jimmy Carter, putting human rights at the heart of foreign policy, a number of Third World countries are questioning the very principle of universal human rights. They claim religion, culture and geography affect the rights their citizens are granted and condemn Western efforts to link human rights protection to development aid.
The European Community, which is reeling from its failure to stem human rights abuses in former Yugoslavia, while closing the door on refugees, has failed to articulate where it stands on the most serious threat to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights since its adoption in 1948. The EC supports the appointment of a human rights commissioner, but has disappointed groups monitoring abuses with its woolly- headed approach to the conference.
The US has also overturned the policies of the Bush and Reagan era by ending the distinction between fundamental rights - such as the rights to freedom of religion, private property and free speech - and economic, social and cultural rights. These latter are the very rights the developing world has argued give it 'a right to development' which should be funded by the industrial north. Washington hopes that by dropping the distinction it will sweep away decades of North-South bickering and put respect for human rights on a firmer footing.
The move to recognise collective rights, such as those of ethnic minorities and women, or the right to a minimum wage and economic development, is part of a trend to examine the context in which human rights are abused.
Pierre Sane, Amnesty International's Director-General, believes in recognising the links between political repression and economic policy, often pursued at the behest of Western-dominated banking institutions.
'The World Bank, through its economic programme, is imposing an economic order that means reducing social rights, by cutting health and education policies. Governments have to restructure their economies in order to pay back their debts and they use force in order to impose their views, and what can a weak government do in front of the IMF (International Monetary Fund),' he said. 'We have seen food riots in many countries which governments explain were the results of policies they have implemented which were forced down their throats by the IMF.'
Mr Sane's outspoken remarks have annoyed some in Amnesty who believe the organisation should stick to its mandate of protecting prisoners.
'We continue to focus on political killings and disappearances,' Mr Sane said. 'But those violations are committed against people who want to change their society . . . to change social conditions, so by working for them we are indirectly working for the indivisibility of human rights.
'While we are not working directly with economic rights, we leave that to the other non-governmental organisations like Oxfam. More and more you have a convergence of all NGOs (non- governmental organisations) working in development and human rights.'
He dismisses the argument that economic development is faster where free speech and other rights are constrained. 'Nowhere has it been demonstrated that in order to develop you need to torture,' he said. 'You cannot put material wealth before the ultimate value, which has to be the human being.'
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