VIENNA, JUNE 14 -- U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, addressing the opening session of a global human rights conference, called today for the establishment of a U.N. high commissioner on human rights and indirectly attacked Third World nations that have sought to limit the power of the United Nations to pursue human rights issues around the world.
Christopher also said the Clinton administration will shortly ask the Senate to ratify four human rights treaties signed during the Carter administration. The treaties have languished without ratification because the Republican administrations of the 1980s did not regard them as compelling issues and because there might be opposition to at least one.
The opening session of the conference, which is being attended by 161 nations and nearly 2,000 non-governmental groups, was marred by a controversy over the conference leadership's refusal -- at China's request -- to permit a speech by the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader and a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
The action prompted 13 other Nobel Peace laureates invited here by the host country, Austria, to boycott the opening of the 12-day World Conference on Human Rights.
The issue of "cultural relativism" is shaping up as one of the most controversial ones that Western nations face here as they strive to defend the universality of human rights in the face of some Third World countries' demand for varying standards.
Christopher indirectly attacked the nations that seek to limit the power of the United Nations and other bodies to interfere in a country's internal affairs in the name of human rights.
In April, in preparation for this conference, 34 Arab and Asian governments issued the Bangkok Declaration, arguing that the notion of human rights is a relative one linked to the cultural, religious and historical diversity of nations. They demanded respect for national sovereignty and opposed the use of human rights "as an instrument of political pressures."
Christopher took issue with the Bangkok Declaration, saying: "We respect the religious, social and cultural characteristics that make each country unique, but we cannot let cultural relativism become the last refuge of repression."
Christopher presented the administration's "action plan," which includes a new emphasis on protection of women's rights and strengthening of U.N. organizations that deal with human rights violations around the world. The audience applauded when he said the United States would seek appointment of a U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women.
Most of the non-governmental groups here doubt that the human rights conference, the largest since a 1968 gathering in Tehran, can do anything to reduce human rights violations around the world.
The conference has decided to bar discussion of specific cases and countries allegedly involved in violations. Nevertheless, Christopher mentioned "the fresh horrors" in Bosnia, saying that while the former Yugoslav republic, the site of massive "ethnic cleansing" of Muslims by Serbs, is only a few hundred miles from Vienna, it is "worlds away" from the ideals being discussed here.
Prospects for creation of a U.N. high commissioner on human rights are not good, according to former president Jimmy Carter, who is attending as a guest.
U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali gave no indication in a speech opening the conference that he supported any new mechanism to enforce governmental respect for human rights.
He cited "a proliferation of bodies" already monitoring abuses and noted that the United Nations is promoting an international criminal court and a special war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia.
But he gave a boost to the concept that human rights are universal and to the right of the international community to intervene in countries to defend them.
"The international community," he said, "must take over from the states that fail to fulfill their obligations. Where sovereignty becomes the ultimate argument put forward by authoritarian regimes in order to conceal their abuse of men, women and children, such sovereignty . . . is already condemned by history."
Boutros-Ghali raised the hackles of the non-governmental organizations by warning governments not to allow "private agencies or non-governmental associations" to assume responsibility "sometimes in a disorganized, dangerous and ill-considered manner" for the protection of human rights.
Christopher said the Clinton administration plans to move promptly for Senate action on the four unratified treaties: the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimintation Against Women; the American Convention on Human Rights; and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.