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THE NEW TRIBALISM: Defending Human Rights in an Age of Ethnic Conflict : Rights of Nations Clash With Rights of Victims


WASHINGTON — Whenever a tyrant--or a tyrannical majority--tramples on the rights and lives of a people at home, the world outside rarely does more than grit its teeth and cry foul. The sacred principle of sovereignty stands in the way. No one has the right, according to a sheaf of international documents, to cross borders and interfere in the internal affairs of another country.

Yet the world's mood is changing, the principle is eroding. France's Bernard Kouchner, the flamboyant former health minister who led President Francois Mitterrand to Sarajevo last year and helped carry rice ashore in Somalia, offers an astounding prediction:

He envisions a global, standing U.N. Human Rights Army in 20 years. Filled with idealistic, well-meaning young recruits, this army, on orders from the United Nations, would march across borders to stand between antagonistic peoples and thus prevent the eruption of ethnic civil war.

"It can happen," he insisted to several Times reporters at a luncheon in Paris.

Most other human rights activists would be satisfied with more mundane steps to help people oppressed by leaders or by a country's dominant ethnic group. They would like to see the appointment of a U.N. high commissioner for human rights and a ringing endorsement of the thesis that the world as a whole is diminished when anyone tramples on human rights within his or her borders.

Hopes for these steps could be buoyed--or dashed--by the impending U.N. World Conference on Human Rights, the first such gathering in a quarter of a century.

Outbreak of Hatred

The 12-day conference, opening in Vienna next week, comes at a time when the world has been dispirited by a New Tribalism--an outbreak of ethnic hatred particularly among peoples in Eastern Europe whose rage at one another was suppressed by decades of communism.

This outburst of hate and cruelty is much like the Old Tribalism that came to the fore in independent Africa after decades of a colonialism that suppressed longstanding ethnic hatreds. But Eastern Europe and tropical Africa are not the only sites of ethnic and religious violence. Muslim Egyptians still persecute Christian Copts. The Indonesians still oppress East Timor. The list is long and woeful.

In fact, according to a major U.N. report released late last month, whether because of discrimination or other factors, "almost every country has one or more ethnic groups whose level of human development falls far below the national average."

Outrage over recent outbursts of particularly pointed ethnic violence in the post-Cold War world has led to some erosion of the principle of nonintervention in the internal affairs of a country.

Foreign troops and air power have protected the Kurds in northern Iraq. The United States and four European governments have proposed sending U.N. troops to half a dozen Bosnian towns to protect Muslim civilians against Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat aggression. The Clinton Administration is contemplating the dispatch of troops to Macedonia as a deterrent against any attempt by the Serbian government to suppress the Albanian people who live inside the Serbian province of Kosovo. U.S. and U.N. troops did not ask for any official Somali blessing before entering Somalia.

Some analysts insist that situations like Somalia and Iraq are special cases. But Sadako Ogata of Japan, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, dismisses that analysis as too glib.

"When there are so many special cases, I begin to wonder," she says. "There definitely has been an erosion of sovereignty."

Some human rights specialists believe that the international community of nations may be closer than ever to embracing the principle that violations of human rights are everyone's business--that there is no moral justification for closed borders serving as a sanctuary for those who abuse rights and peoples.

Former Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier, a onetime dissident who was punished and harassed for years in what was then Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia, sees progress in human rights issues despite the horrors of nearby Bosnia.

It was less than 20 years ago at a conference of 34 European nations in Helsinki, Finland, he recalls, that Soviet leaders were forced to accept the principle that human rights were a legitimate subject for discussion.

"Now there is acceptance of limitations of sovereignty in the defense of human rights," Dienstbier says, speaking in his small office off Wenceslas Square in Prague.

Within the space of a few breathtaking days in November, 1989, Dienstbier turned from a dissident stoking coal for a living into his country's foreign minister. "I know from my own experience that miracles are possible," he says.

Many human rights activists look toward the United Nations as a potential force for breaking borders to guarantee human rights. Yet the sovereignty of nations has no greater champion than the United Nations.

U.N. Bans Dissident

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