EVERY YEAR some 20,000 petitions detailing violations of human rights reach the United Nations. These petitions, euphemistically called "communications," constitute the tip of an iceberg. Gross violations often go unreported due to fear or the inability to forward petitions or the simple inability to write.
Some of the more vicious forms of abridgement of human rights, indeed, have been increasing in the past few years. A recent Amnesty International report documented examples of physical and psychological torture in some 60 countries. Beginning in 1965, terrifying instances of genocide - the destruction of an ethnic, racial or religious group - began reappearing.
All this despite the fact that specific articles of the United Nations Charter, adopted in a moment of universal optimism in 1945, require of member-states that they "take joint and separate action in cooperation" with the U.N. to promote "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction." All this despite the existence of the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, theoretically buttressed by 19 separate treaties binding contracting parties to observe different facets of human rights.
The U.N. Commission of Human Rights, which should have assumed at least minimal functions for achieving compliance with the charter and the declaration, abdicated its responsibility for more than 20 years. In 1947, the Commission adopted a self-denying rule that "it has no power to take any action in regard to any complaints concerning human rights." Twelve years later the rule was reaffirmed by the Commission's superior, the Economic and Social Council. The literally hundreds of thousands of petitioners who have sent their complaints to the U.N. were advised that the body was powerless to "take any action."
The General Assembly, under the impact of the African states, did create implementation organs, but only in two specific areas: decolonization and apartheid. Permanent committees were established to receive communications from organizations and individuals, hold hearings with petitioners and publish reports on their findings. The effective functioning of these Assembly mechanisms made it clear, if proof was ever needed, that the "domestic jurisdiction" clause of the Charter constituted no obstacle to a determined majority. And it also demonstrated that the U.N. could develop an elaborate machinery for implementation when desired.
The Commission on Human Rights, too, succumbed to the thrust of the Afro-Asian bloc. In 1967, it created an Ad Hoc Working Group of Experts on South African Prisoners and Detainees. Formal inquiry was to be made into the abridgement of the rights of prisoners in South Africa. And since then, the powerful Arab bloc has succeeded in adding Israel to the targeted Southern African areas as appropriate for formal inquiry.
Clearly, the machinery for human rights implementation is restricted to those areas in which the new majority has a direct political interest. The far broader gamut of human rights issues embracing all sectors of the globe is treated with deliberate neglect.
There is a sharply defined double standard in the U.N. world. Rights issues with which the majority are concerned - to which torture and arbitrary detention in Chile have now been added - merit the installation of compliance machinery; other rights issues warrant no action.
The double standard explains why the most egregious form of human rights violation - genocide - has been neglected. Since 1965, at least five instances of genocide or massive ethnic killings bordering on genocide have occurred - In Indonesia against the Chinese in 1965; in Nigeria against the Ibos in 1968; in Pakistan against the Bengalis in 1971; in Burundi against the Hutus in 1972; and in Iraq against the Kurds in the last two years. No U.N. action was taken.
The wholesale expulsion of masses of Asians from Uganda in 1972 was noted by the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities but, by a vote of 14 to 1, it rejected a proposal to send a cable to President Adi Amin expressing concern.When the issue was again raised by Britain for inclusion in the General Assembly's agenda, an African spokesman denounced any effort that would have "an African State which is exercising its sovereignty to pass before the bar of justice of our Organization . . . " Faced by this determined opposition, the British withdrew their proposal, and the Ugandan regime has gone on untrameled to amass a record of human rights abridgements.
The double standard, together with the fierce ideological opposition of the Communist countries, also explains why the most imaginative suggestion ever advanced at the U.N. for implementation machinery in the broad human rights field has been repeatedly shunted aside. In 1965, Costa Rica first proposed appointment of a U.N. high commissioner for human rights who would have access to the complaint communications and would, with tact and "quiet persuasion," attempt to remedy serius greivances. The commissioner was to be a person whose intergrity and prestige was so great that his relative independence from the buffeting political winds at the U.N. would enable him to function effectively in a difficult job. The post was never created.
A similar fate overtook an effort to adopt a Declaratioon and a Convention barring all forms of religious intolerance to parallel the Declaration and the Convention on the Elimmation of All Forms of Racial Discrimination approved by the General Assembly in 1963 and 1965 respectively. The idea of combating both religious and racial bigotry, significantly and ironically, was prompted by the extraordinary world wide anti-Semitic swastika epidemic of 1959-60. But the Afro-Asian bloc, supported by the Communists, erected an artificial wall between the two forms of bigotry and then quickly moved to draft appropriate instruments on racial discrimation.
Promised instruments on religious discriminatioon evoke interest only among some Western delegates and the drafting process has been repeatedly delayed. Although work on this started in 1964, there still exist only a preamble and one article of a Declaration.
An effort was finally initiated to overomce the double standard at east with reference to "gross" violations of human rights. But the progress thus far is hardly encouraging. In 1967, the Economic and Social Council called upon the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities to examine the "communications" on human rights violation, for the first time, and report to the Commission on situations which reveal a "consistent pattern" of gross violations. The Sub Commission initally performed the required function and suggested that such a "pattern" appeared in 1968 to exist in Greece and Haiti, but the Commission failed to act.
In 1970, the Economic and Social Council attempted to placate critics by resurrecting, with some modifications, the original proposal but enclosing it in virtually total confidentiality. The Sub-Commission was to appoint a 5-man Working Group which would examine the "communications" and determine which complaints "appear to reveal a consistent pattern of gross and reliably attested violations." When approved by the Sub-Commission, the report was to go to the Commission which would decide whether to undertake a thorough study or, with the consent of the governments concerned, arrange for an investigation. In the meantime, the entire proceeding was to be shrounded in secrecy without even the complainants knowing what was happening to their petitions.
Since the Sub-Commission is the first and crucial stage of the new procedure, it is important in the late 1940s, it was designed as a body of "experts" who would be relatively immune from direct political pressure of governments. This conception is widely divorced from current reality. As Prof. John Humphrey, former head of the U.N. Divison on Human Rights, has testified, most Sub-Commission members take their instructions directly or indirectly from the regimes which nominated them.
The Commission itself has become "politicized," as President Carter suggested in his recent U.N. address. Its most notable achievement at the spring 1975 session, for example, was a resolution censuring Israel for the arrest and conviction of the self admitted transmitter of murder weapons to Palestinian terrorists, Archbishop Capucci, the Melkite Catholic vicar of Jerusalem.
The 1976 session was marked by an even more distressing resolution. Prompted by the Soviet Union, the Commission decided that the "right to life" took precedence over all other human rights. The cynical implication is clear; if a state arbitrarily determines that its "security" is threatened, it can suspend all other human rights - speech, religious exercise, assembly, emigration. The most recent session was distinguished by a refusal to take any action on the reported massacres in Uganda. (Last week the International Commission of Jurists reported that more than 100,000 people may have been killed by Ugandan security forces since Idi Amin became president six years ago.)
In 1973, the Sub-Commission actually approved eight human rights cases examined by the Working Group and forwarded them to the Commission. But the Commission in 1974 decided not to act. Instead, in closed session, it voted to set up a new 5-member Working Group from the Commission itself which would review in 1975 the eight cases and all subsequent cases filed by the Sub-Commission. An informed observer, Rep. Donald Fraser (D-Minn.), commented with irony that the oppressed in the cases listed would simply have "to withstand the oppression for another year." The 1975 session produced no action on those cases or on two additional cases. By 1976, the Commission had swept all these cases involving gross violations into the limbo of history. The Reasons Why
HOW IS the disappointing record in the implementation field to be explained? Two interrelated factors throw light on the problem.
First was the illusory character of the assumption held by the U.N.'s founding fathers that liberal democratic values, nourished in a cooperative post-war atmosphere, would eventually prevail. Today, only 39 of the 147 member-states of the United Nations - as a Freedom House survey reveals - can be considered free societies in terms of political and civil rights. If the overwhelming majority of the U.N. member-states lack the fundamentals of a liberal democratic structure, it can hardly be expected that they will champion broad human rights objectives. In the Commission on Human Rights, only 9 of 32 represent free societies. Even Uganda is a member.
Communist countries from the very beginning, of course, held to a fundamentally different conception of the relationship between the individual and the state from that in democratic countries. At a world peace congress in Moscow in 1973, Leonid Brezhnev referred to "talk of freedom . . . and human rights" in the West as only an attempt "to interfere in the internal affairs of the socialist countries.
A not too dissimilar view prevails among many of the developing countries. If they have opted for programs of modernization and industrialization, the usual method chosen has been authoritarian. Thus, 18 of the 35 African states south of the Sabara are governed by military dictatorships; most of the rest are one-party states.
A revealing document is the official summary of the U.N.-sponsored "Seminar on the Study of New Ways and Means for Promoting Human Rights with Special! Attention to the Problems and Needs of Africa," held in Tanzania in 1973. Protection of the rights of the individual was frankly acknowledged to be secondary to the needs of the state. As a result, "some violations of human rights were inevitable." Indeed, a number of African participants argued, "there was no point in talking about human rights as long as the serious economic problems had not been solved and that, on the whole, the international standards concerning human rights as set out in the various instruments of the United Nations were alien to African reality."
The strength of this view is augmented many times over as a result of the tendency at the U.N. for countries to group together and vote in bloc. With regionalism as the dominant political mechanism of the U.N. system, countries within a bloc have a stake in supporting overall bloc objectives and warding off embarrassment to others within the bloc.
A second reason for the reluctance to develop implementation machinery springs from the very nature of foreign policy-making in virtually all countries. As Prof. Richard Bilder has argued, the responsibility of a government official in foreign affairs lies, first and foremost, in the protection and promotion of his own state's interests, and not in advancing human rights elsewhere.
Further, many officials consider human rights to be a dangerouos Pandora's box. If it were opened, no government would be safe from attack. For this reason, Nobel Laureate Sean McBride contended that there exists a "conspiracy of governments" to evade and avoid giving effect to the international rights of man.
Raison d'etat will preclude, for example, subjecting a friendly government to criticism in the human rights field at the U.N. A State Department official was especially canded when he told a congressional subcommittee two years ago that "it is obviously much easier for us to attach special weight to an adverse finding of an international body when that finding relates to a country with which we do not have a particularly close relation." Two former U.S. representatives to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, Morris Abram and Rita Hauser, have said the State Department did not permit them to speak out on human rights violations in the Greece of the colonels and in Northern Ireland. Similary, the policy of detente, under Henry Kissinger's guidance, required silence about Soviet non-compliance in the human rights field. William Buckley, U.S. representive on the General Assembly's Third Committee, learned that he was "to ignore Soviet infractions against the stated goals of the U.N. organization."
This attitude is, of course, antithetical to the Carter approach. Human rights are proclaimed as central to the new administration's posture in international affairs. As the President told the U.N. delegates, no U.N. member "can avoid its responsibilities . . . to speak when torture or unwarranted deprivation occurs in any part of the world." The speech indicated that he was acutely aware of the fact that, since the 1950s, the U.S. had abdicated any meaningful responsibility for advancing human rights at the U.N., even to the point of refusing to ratify the Genocide Convention and other key human rights treaties (only 5 to 19 treaties were ratified). The failure to become a contracting party to critical international instruments had challenged the credibility of American concern and raised charges of hypocrisy.
Carter promised to push for ratification of the Genocide Convention, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and two Covenants, one on economic, social and cultural rights, one on civil and political rights. Ratification of the genocide pact, which the U.S. signed 28 years ago, should not prove too difficult, for the stiff resistance to it from the American Bar Association has, significantly, come to an end. Both the racial convention, which the U.S. signed in January, 1966, and the Covenants will undoubtedly elicit stronger opposition as civil liberties and states' rights questions are involved in various clauses. These, however, could be handled by "reservations." Paper Facades
THE FAR more serious quesiton is whether ratification, beyond establishing credibility and good faith, will advance human rights. The genocide treaty provides no implementing machinery. The implementing organ of the racial treaty has relied principally on reports of governments. The Covenants, too, in their enforcement procedures, largely depend upon official reports. The key Covenant on Civil and Political Rights does not even permit one state to complain about human rights violations in a second state unless the latter agress. (The Covenant's Optional Protocol allowing complaints by aggrieved individuals has been ratified by only 15 governments.)
Precisely because of such limitations, Britain's Ivor Richard warned last year that the Covenants could be considered a paper facade for "camouflaging reality." It would be dangerous, he added, to assume that torture does not exit in a state simply because its government ratified the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which bans torture. Ironically, this Covenant was brought into force through ratification by Czechoslovakia, whose record on human rights is scarely beneficent.
A second proposal in Carter's U.N. speech was that the U.N. Division on Human Rights be returned to New York. The Division has been transferred to Geneva in 1973, by General Assembly vote, presumably on grounds of saving money, even though expert opinion demonstrated that the costs of transfer and the drop in the value of the dollar in Switzerland would result in hidden outlays. The real motivation for the decision was hidden from the public, but a prominent Asian delegate, during the debate, commented that the move "would downgrade the importance of human rights within the U.N. both psychologically and administratively."
Observers were aware that a large number of the most active human rights non-governmental organizations are based in New York. Equally important is the presence at U.N. Headquarters of numerous newspaper correspondents whose disclosures and proddings have frequently prompted positive human rights action. The permanent press corps in Geneva, in contrasts, is almost negligible. A high U.N. official commented at the time that the Division "will be more asleep" in Geneva.
Carter noted that the return of the 68-member Division to New York would permit its activities to be "in the forefront of our attention" and enable the press corps to "stimulate us to deal honestly with this sensitive [human rights] issue." However, the very character of the General Assembly and the attitude of its majority to human rights makes a favorable response to the President's recommendation most unlikely. A possible compromise is to require at least the Commission on Human Rights and its Sub-Commission to meet on alternate years in New York - as happened in the early 1970s.
The President also proposed that the Commission meet more often - it currently meets for a 5-week session once a year - and that all nations extend to it their "fullest cooperation." But to the extent that the Commission is politicized, a longer session or more sessions will contribute little to removing the challenge of its selective morality.
The crux of the problem remains the depoliticization of the U.N. human rights program and on this the President said little. He did strongly endorse the idea of a U.N. high commissioner for human rights, but the limited time given the subject suggests that he is painfully aware of how difficult it will be to win majority support for the proposal. Until this type of institution is accepted by the General Assembly, however, any significant progress in the human rights field is doubt. Bridges to the Third World
WHAT becomes the principal task of those committed to human rights, in view of existing flawed structural realities, is resistance to any erosion of the basic norms already established by the U.N. (Several examples of such erosion have already taken place including the adoption of the resolution defining Zionism as a form of racism.) The task will require the United States to press its Western allies, all too ofen inclined to with draw or abstain, to join in the battle for preserving human rights. A leading Dutch rights expert has emphasized that a principled opposition by a determined Western minority is as essential today as it was for the Soviet bloc during the 1950s when it warded off assaults by a U.N. majority against its ideological system.
Even more important tactically, in view of U.N. voting patterns, is the building of bridges to various elements within the Third World. The search for a common ground is by no means hopeless. Several African leaders have demonstrated interest in human rights and contempt for Idi Amin's excesses in Uganda. What is required is a sensitivity on the part of the West to two broad concerns: a) apartheid and racial discrimination in southern Africa, and b) assistance to overcome the serious economic deprivations in the Third World.
The congressional removal of the pro-Rhodesia Byrd amendment is a welcome development as is the continued pressure upon the Rhodesian regime to alter its racist electoral system fundamentally. Vigorous articulation of our traditional contempt for apartheid is certain to evoke a positive response. Equally essential is the launching of a campaign against hunger buttressed by what Henry Kissinger has called a "strategy of development" - the creation of international agencies of provide balance of payment support, to make export earnings stable and to extend large-scale credits.
Even as it searches for a common ground, the United States would go astray badly were it to emphasize "human needs" at the expense of "human rights." Balancing off unmet economic needs against human rights violations would provide a bizarre calculus. The basic freedoms provide the means by which solutions to "human needs" can be considered and acted upon. Indeed, our stress should be on integrating human rights objectives into the major U.N. economic programs. The so-called International Development Strategy prepared by the U.N. to achieve goals of the Second U.N. Development Decade, regrettably, carries not a single reference to the promotion of human rights. Neither does the key U.N. declaration on the establishment of the New International Economic Order. These serious gaps require filling both on a symbolic and substantive level.
Foremost among our purposes in building bridges to the Third World is the educational objective ultimately of ending selectivity and the double standard. Imprisonment of dissenters, torture, expulsion, genocidal practices and denial of freedoms whenever they occur should be the concern of the international community and the target of exposure and elimination. At issue is the very credibility of the U.S. as an instrument for realizing what President Carter called "a more universal demand for fundamental human rights."