Leading Article: The case for human rights

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THERE are three main arguments around the subject of human rights, all of which will mingle and overlap at the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights that opened in Vienna yesterday. The first is whether individual rights should be regarded as universal and absolute or whether they may be modified by the historical and cultural context of particular countries. The second is whether respect for human rights is a factor, either positive or negative, in economic development. The third is how far human rights are relevant to peace and security. Weaving among these debates is a dispute over whether the emphasis should be on individual rights, economic and social rights, or the collective rights of groups.

On the first issue, a group of countries from Asia and the Pacific has brought to Vienna a declaration that pays lip-service to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but then proceeds to chip away at it by asking us to bear in mind 'the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds'. In other words, countries with a tradition of torture and oppression should be left to get on with it.

On the second issue, it is often argued that economic growth is faster under authoritarian governments. Professor Partha Dasgupta reported in this paper yesterday that a study of 51 of the world's poorest countries showed that improvements in national income per head and life expectancy were greater where the record on civil and political rights was better. China's economic success may show that civil rights are not necessary for economic growth, but it does not show that they are a handicap. Nor does it disprove the view that democracy becomes essential beyond a certain level of economic development, as is being found in such countries as South Korea and Taiwan.

The proposition that respect for human rights promotes peace is simpler to defend. The link was made in the Helsinki Accord of 1975 on the assumption that the subjugation of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union was a potential threat to peace. With democracy came the end of military confrontation. Yugoslavia was certainly more peaceful when it was oppressed, but its war was caused by failure to respect the rights of minorities, not by the removal of oppression.

It therefore seems unlikely that any arguments will emerge from the Vienna meeting that should discourage the Western democracies from promoting human and civil rights in the context of aid, diplomacy and arms sales. Those who argued that human rights should be removed from the agenda of the Cold War on the grounds that they exacerbated tension have been proved wrong. The only area in which a warning flag should be raised is that of collective rights, which are becoming more fashionable in Washington. They tend to divide societies and foster conflict among competing groups. Individual rights mostly provide better protection.

Western representatives at Vienna must resist cultural relativism and phoney economics. If democracies do not stand by the values they represent, they will undermine their credibility abroad and their belief in themselves at home.