Rolling back human rights

A conversation with Bonnie Greene on the threat to multiculturalism in Europe

By Metta Spencer (interviewer)

Bonnie Greene is a regular NGO monitor of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). She specializes in human rights issues, representing the Canadian Council of Churches.

BONNIE GREENE: In 1975, the NGOs who began monitoring the Helsinki process concentrated on human rights violations in Eastern Europe, which was a pity. It should have been used to build human rights compliance in all states. There is the asylum question, and the right of people to migrate. There is the guest worker phenomenon and the plight of gypsies. The rights of women are not well protected throughout many countries. Religious minorities do not have legal guarantees everywhere, as for instance, the Protestants in Italy, who have not always been able to educate their children as they liked. And human rights workers in some countries need protection.

METTA SPENCER: What is happening in the CSCE?

GREENE: Until the Yugoslavia crisis, it was assumed that we could resolve problems in pluralistic societies. But now, with the recession and the decline of the Soviet Union, the Eastern European states have come out into a very cold market. Enormous expectations have been placed on them. More people are expecting to control their own destinies, but in a globalizing economic setting, the nation-states are hard pressed to meet that expectation and they are clamping down. Some state delegations basically say, "Whoops. We didn't mean the human rights movement to make so much headway. We have to roll back the commitments because we don't want to acknowledge the group rights of minorities." Many states in Europe fear the minorities question, lest their boundaries break up even further. I can understand why they react that way, but it doesn't resolve the problem.

SPENCER: The war in Yugoslavia has polarized opinion as to what self-determination means. Many peace activists now believe people have a human right to secede at the drop of a hat.

GREENE: In the United Nations, diplomatic energy has always been directed toward protecting the sovereignty of states territory. But now there are people who challenge the boundaries that existed when the CSCE was signed. I've been reading an article by a Hungarian who has lived in Canada for thirty years. He wants to take back most of Romania, Croatia, the remainder of Yugoslavia, and Austria, because as he sees it, his country has been robbed of 77percent of its territory. How can we deal with this sort of thing? I hope there is enough democracy so that people will be willing to live within existing political boundaries.

SPENCER: You said that Canadians are ridiculed for their ideals about multiculturalism.

GREENE: That's right. That was amongst delegations of governments. The NGOs do believe in multiculturalism, but most states are pessimistic about their capacity to sustain pluralistic societies. Even here in Toronto we have an example in our school boards question. People are asking whether our municipalities can support four separate school boards. It's self-government and it enhances pluralism, but it is costly. We could say, "Forget your differences! Let's assimilate everybody! It'll be cheaper and we'll have the least amount of bureaucracy!" Twenty years ago, we would have recoiled in horror at that idea. But our problems are minor compared to those in small states that have to provide education in the languages of minority populations. A share of the economic wealth of the state is divided up among all the minorities rather than all spent on the good of the whole. Their economies are so small and they are emerging at such a difficult time that they have to be scared of the Canadian model. SPENCER:

But the alternative is "ethnic cleansing." Forcing people to assimilate or get out. And there are costs in carving up new states.

GREENE: Exactly. And if you don't practice the skills of pluralism, you lose them. You start distrusting people with whom you don't have to rub shoulders. The commitment to minority rights is on paper and in the CSCE they can't roll it back, but we'll get no further progress there. And state delegations are talking about trying to roll back the commitment at the U.N. Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in June. Some states feel that rolling back universal standards of human rights is a good idea because they cannot be delivered in many parts of the world. China has openly said so. As NGOs we can't easily make new gains in the human rights field now, but we must not abandon the process.

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1993

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1993, page 12. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Metta Spencer here

Peace Magazine homepage