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Get Tough on Rights

By Jimmy Carter

This article originally appeared in The New York Times, Sept. 21, 1993.

When the United Nations General Assembly convenes today, it faces an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen its rightful leadership role in promoting and defending the fragile cause of human rights.

The U.N. World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna last June should be seen as a catalyst for a dramatic move to strengthen the incredibly weak mechanisms in the U.N. system for preventing and correcting human rights crimes.

While the U.N. has an excellent record of setting human rights standards through international covenants, the failure of many countries to comply with these standards and the reluctance of the world community to provide the U.N. Center for Human Rights with adequate resources to carry out its mandate have had tragic results. According to the U.N., half the world's people experience some human rights abuse.

The Vienna conference reaffirmed the universality of all human rights and the legitimate role of the international community in protecting these rights worldwide. It reaffirmed the interdependence of all human rights, the importance of economic, social and cultural rights, and the right to development, and adopted practical steps to promote and protect the rights of women and indigenous peoples.

Unfortunately, the key proposal, to create a high commissioner for human rights, led only to a call for the General Assembly to make this question a high priority this fall. It is imperative that the international community adopt a proper mandate and structure for a high commissioner at this session.

The commissioner should serve as a strong focal point to coordinate the fragmented branches of the U.N. human rights system and to insure that human rights are integrated into the work of all U.N. programs. This would lead to greater effectiveness in the U.N. system and a reduction of bureaucracy and duplication. A better structured and managed U.N. Center for Human Rights can be the resource, research and information base supporting the work of this special commissioner.

For example, building on U.N. success in El Salvador and Cambodia, human rights could be integrated systematically into peace-keeping operations. There also is a need and opportunity to inject a strong human rights component into the work of the U.N. Development Program. Collaboration between the U.N. Center for Human Rights and the Development Program on technical assistance projects could help governments promote the rule of law and build permanent institutions to protect human rights.

The high commissioner should be empowered to act promptly to prevent or investigate violations of human rights when and where they occur. As it stands, the Commission on Human Rights, the main U.N. human rights body, meets only once a year and thus is powerless to take action in urgent situations.

The commissioner should be impartial and independent, appointed by the General Assembly, to which he or she would report. This is an important safeguard to avoid the selectivity and the double standards pervading the work of the commission and Security Council.

Opportunities exist for preventive actions, such as the development of technical assistance programs to help governments introduce legal and constitutional safeguards, promote the independence of the judiciary, assist national human rights institutions and promote rights education.

The challenge facing the Assembly is to overcome bureaucratic and political hurdles that stand in the way of carrying out the recommendations of the Vienna conference and to sustain the momentum for a new era in human rights in the post-Cold War world.

Jimmy Carter, the former President, is chairman of The Carter Center.

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