The independent human rights movement -- vigilant reporter, critic, sentinel, conscience -- can claim the rare feat of having aroused public opinion and awakened diverse governments to an unprecedented recognition of human rights principles.
Yet, despite democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe, reform in South Africa and intermittent evidence of progress in Latin America, a recent Amnesty International survey of 138 countries emphasizes a harsh and ominous reality. For the bulk of the world's peoples in less-developed regions, the threat of oppressive rule remains constant.
Paradoxically, leading organizations that hastened global awareness of human rights issues tend still to assess Third World countries through the limited prism of Western cultural norms. Two facts of international life appear to be largely disregarded: endemic underdevelopment and its twin corollaries of mass poverty and regressive social traditions are pivotal reasons for chronic repression.
Implacable despots with messianic ambitions, like Iraq's Saddam Hussein and North Korea's Kim Il Sung, are not swayed by moral appeals or foreign criticisms. Haiti, the Philippines, much of Latin America and most of Africa illustrate that respect for human rights does not prevail in a climate of economic stagnation and social despair. The promise of personal liberty without the prospect of economic redress is a formula for lingering political unrest and turbulence.
Civic injustice ensues not only from calculated state-sponsored tyranny, as in Iraq, North Korea and Ethiopia. It occurs also when ill-prepared, and even well-intended, governments inherit legacies of penury, misrule and instability beyond their capacity to control.
The seminal reports and expose's of mainline advocacy groups remain indispensable. Censorious in tone and prosecutorial in style, they seldom acknowledge that the derelictions of neophyte states can be due to domestic disarray as well as deliberate design. Animated by a historic distrust of state power, they are prone to moralize when they need to analyze.
Primarily, human rights organizations serve to educate, alert and activate committed Western constituencies. On occasion they are heeded by sympathetic governments; less frequently they inhibit unrepentant regimes. They do not deter ruthless dictators, whose personal and political survival depends on sustained coercion.
Public protests, gratifying to the Western conscience, exert scant impact unless buttressed by the political and economic might of major governments. The occasional release of prominent political prisoners, such as Natan Sharansky in the Soviet Union or Jacobo Timerman in Argentina, occurred only after private entreaties had elicited Washington interventions. But even a superpower has limited capacity to moderate foreign conditions, as ineffectual U.S. efforts in Central American and Caribbean mini-states attest.
Prominent Western organizations extol human rights as a simplified panacea for complex distant problems. Even Amnesty International with its incomparable informational network is not immune to inflated claims. "We now have the ability to stop torture by repressive governments," an Amnesty communication implausibly asserts, "and to herald a new era when torture will be a thing of the past."
Unlike London-based Amnesty with its focus on prisoners of conscience, leading U.S. organizations stray beyond the defense of core rights into political generalities derived from the American experience. Imperious calls are issued to cease U.S. economic aid without weighing whether such measures would penalize the needy while leaving ruling elites unscathed. Instantaneous democracy is urged for fragmented societies yet to attain the foundations of national unity.
Democracy does not arise pristine and full-blown from the ashes of tyranny; nor is it imposed by distant exhortation. It evolves indigenously over time through a social compact between a responsible leadership and a responsive citizenry.
All centralized power may well be suspect; but not all derelict governments are irredeemably malevolent. They, and their harried citizens, may benefit more from tempered assessment than blanket condemnation.
The Western historical experience, in fact, offers few readily applicable models for pre-industrial and feudal societies. A more just national order is achieved basically by those who live within their own lands.
The next phase of public service for the human rights movement could be to accept more fully that political and civil progress will not be enduring without economic and social development. This recognition could lead to more concerted efforts to foster local and regional institutions that seek their own solutions within the context of indigenous priorities and historical realities.
The unique significance of human rights, Andrei Sakharov wrote during exile in Gorky, lies in its universal relevance for diverse political systems and ideologies. It is not in itself a system of governance, but a set of fundamental principles that can underlie varying forms of political authority. It is this quality of adaptability that Western organizations need to recall as they crusade for more humane relationships between the state and its citizens in a pluralistic world.
The writer is board chairman of Human Rights Internet, an international human rights documentation service associated with Harvard University.