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Expectations scaled back for human rights meeting

As delegates gathered here Sunday on the eve of the first global human-rights meeting in a quarter-century, their lofty goal of making the world a less oppressive place appeared about to drown in a sea of chaotic organization and diplomatic stumbling blocks.

The fact that the two-week-long meeting, officially known as the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights, will unfold in the very shadow of ongoing atrocities in nearby Bosnia-Herzegovina is likely only to underscore the distance that remains between good intention and hard reality on the human-rights issue in the post-Cold War era.

Bosnia, as such, will not even be discussed, organizers said. New ideas, not specific trouble spots, comprise the agenda, they noted.

Several foreign ministers, including U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, are scheduled to address the inaugural session of the conference today.

Representatives from more than 180 countries, more than 1,000 privately funded human rights groups and an array of prominent individuals are planning to take part in the sessions. The meeting was organized by the United Nations to find new ways of implementing a higher standard of human rights.

Despite the early hopes of organizers who had wanted to capitalize on the collapse of the Soviet Empire to usher in a higher plane of human behavior, ideas once considered essential for the conference to succeed now seem unlikely to materialize.

Even the most committed activists have concluded there is no longer enough support to recommend creation of either a U.N. high commissioner for human rights or an effective mechanism for investigating, trying and punishing major human-rights violators.

"My guess is that the conference is not going to do it," former President Carter told a small group of reporters Sunday, referring to the prospects of endorsing calls for a high commissioner modeled after the present U.N. high commissioner for refugees.

Many human-rights advocates believe such a prominent individual would be better able to focus international attention on abuses and would also be powerful enough to bring pressure on violators.

"There is a good chance the conference will do nothing," added Richard Bunting, a spokesman for the London-based, privately funded group Amnesty International. "The signs are not good. We're concentrating our efforts to prevent things from going backward."

He described the present draft version of the final declaration as "a series of contradictions, non-statements and open brackets."

At a briefing Sunday evening, U.S. officials also seemed to be trimming their expectations.

"The conference itself is far less important than the human rights movement," one U.S. official said.