Rights conference plunges into chaos

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The Independent Online
TWO WEEKS and several million pounds later, the World Conference on Human Rights taking place in Vienna was in mayhem last night as governments argued over an American plan to appoint a High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Islamic and African countries turned the session into a soap-box calling for an end to the arms embargo on Bosnia.

In the midst of the confusion the Clinton administration's high-profile proposal to breathe life into the UN's moribund human rights machinery by appointing an internationally known figure as a Human Rights Commissioner ran into stiff opposition. One of its main opponents is the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who believes quiet diplomacy rather than public confrontation backed by trade and political sanctions is the way to change the behaviour of repressive regimes.

'If there is no consensus and the High Commissioner is considered as a kind of super neo-colonialistic director to condemn the poor countries, forget about it,' he said recently.

Mr Boutros-Ghali's opposition gave an opening to countries opposed to a strong human rights agenda, which were expected to bury the Clinton initiative. The Secretary-General was also behind the banning of non- governmental organisations from participating in the substantive work of the conference. The organisations, including such groups as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, were also excluded from drafting sessions on the final document.

As the expensive and apparently fruitless conference was drawing to a close, Islamic and African countries put a four-page resolution on Bosnia to a vote, despite pleas from countries such as the United States and Germany - which support lifting the embargo - not to do so, because they were straying outside the competence of a human rights conference.

The upshot of the conference, according to human rights lobbyists, was that far from enhancing the protection of human rights around the world, it may have eroded the protections that have existed since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted 45 years ago. Kenneth Roth, a senior official at Human Rights Watch, said: 'There is a tendency to treat human rights as a disposable luxury. Boutros-Ghali is not interested in promoting them.'

The final communique, contains a strong defence of the 'universality of human rights' which was being touted as a victory by Western delegates. The draft document also notes that the cultural differences of countries must be borne in mind, and this, Mr Roth says, will provide an excuse for repressive regimes to claim special cultural reasons for denying rights to minority groups and women.