Dalai Lama's rebuff mars rights summit: Nobel laureates boycott Vienna in support of Tibetan leader

Click to follow
The Independent Online
CONTROVERSY marred yesterday's opening in Vienna of the largest international human rights conference in 25 years, with 13 winners of the Nobel Peace Prize boycotting the first session to protest against the exclusion of a fellow laureate, the Dalai Lama.

The exclusion, at China's insistence, of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader was 'a very dangerous signal that governments are sending to the world', said Pierre Sane, secretary-general of Amnesty International. His organisation, a previous winner of the Nobel Prize, was among those which stayed away. Other laureates to boycott the United Nations-organised World Conference on Human Rights included the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. As the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, declared the conference open, a group of human rights activists unfurled a banner reading 'Save Tibet'.

The Dalai Lama may still be allowed to attend later sessions, but far from strengthening international human rights safeguards at the 130-nation gathering, the West appears to be fighting a rearguard action to prevent Third World nations, led by some Asian countries, from diluting existing accords such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There seems no prospect of agreement to proposals for a UN Commissioner for Human Rights and an international human rights court.

The US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, said yesterday that Washington 'will be for a very strong declaration, a reaffirmation of the Universal Declaration', adding: 'We would rather have no agreement than a watered-down or mealy-mouthed agreement.' In his speech to the conference, Mr Christopher rejected calls by some Asian and Middle Eastern states for different or less rigorous human rights standards, saying: 'We respect the religious, social and cultural characteristics that make each country unique. But we cannot let cultural relativism become the last refuge of repression.

'Torture, rape, racism, anti-Semitism, arbitrary detention, ethnic cleansing and politically motivated disappearances - none of these is tolerated by any faith, creed or culture that respects humanity. Nor can they be justified by the demands of economic development or political expediency.' Mr Christopher promised to keep 'the spotlight trained on the darkest corners of abuse', and said: 'My country will pursue human rights in our bilateral relations with all governments - large and small and developing.'

Mr Boutros-Ghali attacked the contention that human rights criticism was a violation of national sovereignty, saying the international community had the right to step in when individual states abused their people. Democracy, he added, 'is the political system which allows best for the free exercise of individual rights'.

In Peking, the Chinese Prime Minister, Li Peng, emerged after several weeks in seclusion due to ill health to condemn 'the imposition of a certain concept of democracy and human rights' from outside. 'Democracy is not an end but a means,' a gov ernment spokesman quoted him as saying. 'Different countries have different views on democracy and human rights, and on the priorities which should be accorded to them.' He was greeting the visiting Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Moha mad, who was quoted as saying that human rights were a tool used by Western governments to subvert Asian countries.

Leading article, page 19

(Photograph omitted)