The shift in US priorities represents the fulfilment of a pre-election promise to return human rights to centre-stage of US foreign policy. It comes at a time when the international community has been paralysed by the scale of the carnage in former Yugoslavia, Angola and Somalia, with thousands tortured, maimed and killed. In other countries, including China, Chad, Iran, Peru and Burma, systematic repression and abuses remain commonplace.
Supported somewhat hesitantly by the European Community but fiercely resisted by China, Pakistan and Iran, among others, Washington has called for an overhaul of the creaking UN machinery for preventing human rights abuses. 'Those who protect human rights want new machinery to help us detect patterns of persistent violations,' said Kenneth Blackwell, US ambassador to the UN talks at the weekend. 'Those that don't respect human rights fear the establishment of new machinery.'
The high moral ground staked out by the US - after more than a decade of indifference and selective treatment of human rights under Presidents Reagan and Bush - is set to trigger a bitter North-South clash at the forthcoming UN World Conference on Human Rights, the first such high-level conference in 25 years.
Resurrecting President Jimmy Carter's concept of a foreign policy based on respect for human rights, President Bill Clinton wants to shake up the timid Geneva-based UN Human Rights Centre, which has a reputation for kow-towing to governments known to be guilty of grave abuses.
The US wants human rights to become an integral element of all UN activities, instead of being something that many in the UN bureaucracy view as a hindrance to the realpolitik of international diplomacy. Just as significantly, the Clinton administration suggests that along with promoting the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights it may also embrace the other neglected set of rights known as Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
The concentration in the West on civil and political rights and the lack of interest in the economic rights of developing countries has led to much bitterness in the South, and accusations of double standards. European governments have also been accused of shutting their doors to those seeking political asylum.
Asian and some Latin American countries are resisting the US initiative and have also mounted a strong challenge to the very acceptance of common standards on human rights, with the aim of blocking international monitoring of human rights.
Countries such as China, Singapore and Syria are spearheading a move to abolish the idea of universal human rights saying, for example, that different cultural and religious contexts must be considered. At a conference in Bangkok, a month ago, Asian countries signalled they intended to resist further interference in what they say are their internal affairs.
The most egregious human rights abusers in the Third World often hide behind arguments that strict measures curbing political freedoms - including repression, torture and capital punishment - are required to maintain discipline to get their economies going. Singapore, with its restrictions on personal freedom, is vociferous in opposing the concept of universal human rights.
The principle of non-interference broke down during the Kurdish refugee crisis, when the West intervened to protect civilians. Asian nations, in particular, see the UN's massive involvement in Somalia, former Yugoslavia and Cambodia, as a dangerous precedent for their own countries.
NEW YORK - In an unprecedented restriction on the UN press corps, the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, has bowed to Chinese pressure and banned a news conference by a leading dissident at United Nations headquarters, AP reports.
The international press corps protested vigorously, sending a petition expressing outrage to the Secretary- General over 'unwarranted interference with the freedom of the press'. The UN Correspondents' Association deplored the decision to prohibit Shen Tong, a driving force behind the Tiananmen democracy movement of 1989, from appearing at the correspondents club in the Secretariat building.
In Peking, a US human rights activist said China had released from prison one of its longest-held Catholic clerics, Bishop Wang Milu. John Kamm said the Justice Ministry also told him it was preparing to release a leading political prisoner, Xu Wenli.Reuse content