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Sovereign rights, human rights.

THE CLOAK OF NATIONAL sovereignty cannot be used as a cover to perpetrate human rights abuses unchecked, says Boutros Boutros Ghali, the United Nations secretary-general. Regional and international organisations have a responsibility to consider intervention if it is needed to protect individuals and communities from governments which violate their rights.

He was addressing the UN Conference on Human Rights held last month in Vienna, the largest such gathering in a quarter of a century. He told the countries attending (many of them, of course, from the Middle East) that they should aim to improve the human condition by encouraging democratic development, accepting that human rights are indivisible and ensuring that their observance is guaranteed.

The sentiments are admirable. Their application is unfortunately unrealistic. But their broader implications are of the profoundest importance for any "new world order" which may emerge from the political debris of the Cold War.

First, the principle. No-one can produce a coherent rationale for suppressing human rights. The problem is the credibility of those Western countries which now so vociferously promote them. For too many years, the cause of human rights was used as one more weapon in the propaganda war with the Soviet bloc by countries which happily tolerated abuses among their own allies and satellites. In calling for greater respect for human rights, the United States and the West Europeans may have an irrefutable moral case, but they are ill-positioned to lecture oppressive regimes from the high moral ground.

The persistence of a black under-class in the United States, Britain's handling of Northern Ireland, overt racism in France and Germany -- all these make statements from Western capitals sound sanctimonious and hypocritical. The principle, however, remains incontrovertible.

Second, how can such a worthy principle be applied? There are plenty of regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere which take objection to the double standards already mentioned. They seek refuge for their misdeeds in the spurious need to "redefine" human rights on a "regional" basis which takes account of cultural and national "particularities".

The argument is blatantly offensive. Human rights are not based on a specifically "Western" value system. "Only democracy within states and within the international community can truly guarantee human rights," Boutros Ghali declared in Vienna. "It can and ought to be assimilated by all cultures."

But portraying human rights as indivisible gives regimes in any geographical region a politically correct excuse for ignoring them. As a correspondent for The Middle East reports from the Vienna conference, there is a guilty complicity in the Arab world about brushing the issue aside. If you don't talk about my human rights infringements, I won't mention yours.

Which leads on to the third question of how to bring recalcitrant regimes to respect basic human rights. Individual states are the best guarantors for human rights, the secretary-general says hopefully. But, he adds, if the state turns tormentor, international intervention may be warranted.

How, when and where -- and who is to be the judge? If any body is to arrogate powers of intervention on its own behalf, it must be the UN. It certainly has the right to do so under the UN Charter. But who calls the shots at the UN? Countries targeted by the United Nations for punitive treatment (Serbia, Iraq and most recently, Haiti) are quite correct in seeing the hand of the United States and its Western allies behind sanctions and embargoes.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Somalia where the Bush administration in its dying days decided on its own initiative to mount a huge relief effort accompanied by a well-publicised landing of US marines. The action was poorly coordinated with the United Nations which now finds itself lumbered with yet another crisis to handle for which it is patently unprepared.

Last month, US aircraft were used to bomb the hideouts and stockpiles of an uncooperative (and quite repellent) local warlord, Mohammed Farah Aideed. UN troops found themselves shooting at crowds of civilians, apparently manipulated as human shields for gunmen. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular episode, an operation authorised by the United Nations with humanitarian objectives has been transformed into an exercise in the use of suppressive firepower. Not untypically in such circumstances (Beirut in 1982, Belfast for many years) the would-be protectors find themselves reviled by the very people they thought they came to help.

UN intervention in Bosnia has ended up in just as much confusion. Military involvement was designed to assist in the distribution of relief supplies. With no end to the fighting between Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims, UN troops increasingly find that they are there with little better purpose than to defend themselves. Inevitably, being there, they have been set up as convenient targets for resentful militiamen on all sides.

The mistakes are easy to identify, even without the benefit of hindsight. In Bosnia and Somalia, the UN powers took action to provide humanitarian assistance. In neither case has the purpose or the implication of the military role been clearly thought through. It hardly matters that the United States was the chief initiator of the Somali expedition or has dragged its feet over Bosnia. In both cases, the United States (and its allies), by commission and omission, has simply made matters worse.

What to do now? The UN powers are confronted with a clear if unpleasant choice. They must either redefine their role in both countries with far more specific objectives in mind if they intend to take similar action in the future. Or they must pull out.

The danger is that the issue will not be seen in such clear-cut terms. Having taken on a degree of responsibility for the fate of Somalia and Bosnia, a precedent has been set. Outright abnegation of such responsibility would be humiliating. But if the precedent is followed up, the UN powers are liable to find themselves with an ever increasing call on their political will and their physical resources.

Established guidelines are needed if the United Nations is serious about overriding the sovereign rights of individual countries. So grave are the implications that they merit amendment of the UN Charter. That, unfortunately, will require the approbation of a UN General Assembly many of whose members must be afraid of finding themselves at some time in the future on the receiving end of UN-sanctioned intervention.
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Title Annotation:the issue of whether considerations of human rights should allow infringement of sovereignty
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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