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Czech Republic: Human Rights Supporters Urged To Fight Oppressive Governments

By Jamie Paton

Prague, 7 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A top UN human rights official on Friday (Dec. 4) urged scholars and political leaders to focus on the Balkans, a volatile region where he said there is "an incredible level of hatred."

Jiri Dienstbier, special rapporteur for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, said human rights supporters worldwide must push for greater media freedom in the region. He added that many editors in Bosnia and Serbia still promote ethnic hatred, and others, succumbing to political pressure, censor themselves.

Dienstbier, who was the first post-communist Czechoslovak foreign minister, offered his perspectives at the beginning of a two-day human rights conference held at the Prague headquarters of RFE/RL.

Just days before the 50-year anniversary (Dec. 10) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Dienstbier and other participants urged human rights activists to maintain their vigilance in a battle with oppressive governments.

Human rights champions have hailed a number of recent achievements, including China's decision last October to sign a covenant pledging to respect several individual freedoms.

But experts at the conference noted that, 50 years after the declaration's creation, it is still difficult to envision a world devoid of human rights abuses. As Dienstbier put it, it seems U.N. leaders forged the declaration "just yesterday."

Haunted by vivid memories of Nazi atrocities, the declaration's framers in 1948 hoped the agreement would bring about a greater international respect for individual liberties.

Some critics have questioned the declaration's effectiveness in influencing oppressive governments. Others have been wary of the framers' motives, suggesting that the declaration merely reflects Western ideals.

Dienstbier noted it is important for human rights proponents to respect different government opinions but rejected the argument that universal human rights is purely a Western concept.

Manfred Nowak, a professor at the University of Vienna, said human rights groups have made significant progress in generating awareness about alleged abuses throughout the world. But he said that in the 21st century, governments must try to intervene before human rights crises erupt.

Nowak said governments ignored years of warning signs in Bosnia and again in Kosovo. In his words, "Governments have to realize its much more costly to play the fire brigade when the fire is already burning. We have communication. What is missing now is early action."

Several participants argued that in the next century, nations should concentrate on upholding the list of rights established in the declaration.