THAT CHIMERICAL ENTITY known as the "international community" took on a gratifying reality over the weekend at the United Nations-sponsored meeting on Vietnam refugees in Geneva. With the United States setting a compassionate example, a good number of the 60-odd nations in attendance made important pledges of premanent-resettlement places and supporting funds in order to empty the camps in Malaysia and Indonesia and Thailand where some 300,000 "boat people" and "land people" are currently hunddled. This should prove to those countries of "first asylum" that it is safe for them to accept more refugees if circumstances require. The new pledges are also essential, of course, to the welfare of the displaced people themselves.
The point at which the weight of the international community was brought most effectively to bear was Vietnam. Heretofore, Hanoi has disdained responsibility for its policy of stripping the assets of its longresident Chinese and forcing them -- many in frail boats prey to the perils of the sea -- into hazardous exile. By their combined political and moral force, however, the Geneva group compelled Hanoi's attendance and got it to agree that "for a resonable period of time it will make every effort to stop illegal departures", Vietnman has been pretending that most of the Chinese leaving were sneaking out. The Vietnamese also are committed in some way to set up "holding center"s for would-be emigrants for whom safe transit and sure havens are not yet available. at the same time, those at Geneva agreed to put greater reliance on the little-tested orderly-departure procedures worked out some months ago through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Vietnam has been conducting a policy that hovers between brutality and genocide, and it cannot expect others to flip over and applaud its new promise -- an uncertain promise -- to start regulating the outbound flow. After al, the current monsoon would have reduced the flow for these few months anyway. The "holding center" proposal, moreover, has to it a certain concentration-camp ring. Still, whatever increases the chances for safe passage and a welcome haven for the refugees has to be welcomed -- as long as their basic right to emigrate is not abridged. Vietnam may be wondering whether modicications in its policy will earn it at least minimal respect in the international community, and the answer must be that it will be judged entirely on its performance, not on its hints or words.