A darker image of multiculturalism

VIENNA—The banners outside the conference center offer one of those picturesque images from civics class. A full panoply of 183 flags of different nations are all blowing in the same direction.

The men and women entering this huge building, that sits against a backdrop of Austrian mountains, offer a similar happy portrait of internationalism. About five thousand strong, they form a rich human quilt of languages, cultures, clothing altogether.

But the U.N. Conference of Human Rights that opened here Monday also offers a darker image of multiculturalism. There is a second image here of tribalism, disintegration, a dis-United Nations where not even the simultaneous translators can always make one culture understand another.

The first conference on human rights in 25 years was called in the heady months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A world that had been divided into East and West, locked into a Cold War and superpower politics, was turned inside out. There was real hope that the human rights impulse which had been released in Eastern Europe would catch on across the world.

But this meeting is being held only a few hundred miles or more from Bosnia, where genocide and mass rapes, the horrors of “ethnic cleansing” go on unchecked by the world’s opinion or action. As the U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said with poignancy, “In place of two contending ideologies, there are many ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious conflicts. In place of one vast nuclear threat are fears of ambush, rape and random shelling.” He might have added that in place of optimism about expanding human rights there is anxiety about maintaining the simple principle that human rights are universal.

What is at stake here is values. In many ways, human rights have become our ecumenical, secular religion, a catalog of the world’s values. It’s a catalog that began in 1948 when the U.N.‘s Declaration of Universal Rights, modeled after our own Bill of Rights, declared that “all human being are born free and equal in dignity and right. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward each other in a spirit of brotherhood.”

For the first time, the United Nations had established the notion that no state had the moral authority to violate the rights of its own citizens. The world would look inside borders and judge a government by the way it treated its people.

Over the decades, the original catalog has grown to include not only political rights but economic rights—freedom from want as well as freedom from fear. It has been expanded to include the rights of indigenous people and the right to development, the rights of women and of children.

What has emerged gradually is an ethical shopping list of the things that people can and can’t do to each other. If this list is often used selectively, it’s nevertheless been a guidepost for foreign policy and for foreign aid from South Africa to China. It’s been a guiding light as well for the victims of abuses.

But in recent years, a backlash of sorts has emerged, especially from some Third World governments in Asia and Africa. Waving the banner of multiculturalism, they have come here to insist that their country cannot be judges by some universal standard but only by its own “particularities,” its own cultural and economic context. They resist the notion that democratic or human-rights strings should be tied to financial aid from the West or North.

There are serious questions that emerge out of any clash of countries or cultures, but many of the governments claiming special exemptions to universal rights are abusers of those rights: Burma, China, Yemen, Syria and others that a jaded U.N. spokesperson called “the usual suspects.” In stark contrast, activists in these countries disagree with their own government’s view of “cultural differences.” They insist there is no culture that favors discrimination, torture, “disappearings.”

In a strong speech on opening day in which he proposed an international tribunal, Secretary of State Warren Christopher put the issue bluntly: “We cannot let cultural relativism become the last refuge of repression.”

At the heart of the human rights movement in this fractionalized world is the notion that these rights are the same everywhere for everyone. As Boutros-Ghali said, these values are the way “we affirm together that we are a single human community.” A world community that accepts anything less is just flags flying in the wind.