Behind the Headlines: How Hard Will U.S. Press Soviets at Paris Human Rights Conference?

An upcoming conference in Paris will test whether the Soviet Union is living up to its human rights commitments — and whether the United States is willing to single out Soviet abuses at a time of warming relations between the two countries.

So say a number of non-governmental organizations, including Soviet Jewry groups, which plan to send delegations to the Paris Conference on Human Dimensions, which opens May 30 in the French capital.

The conference, which runs through June 23, is being held under the auspices of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the 35-nation human rights process that produced the Helsinki human rights accords in 1975.

Previous CSCE meetings in Madrid and Vienna have seen the Soviets inching toward an acceptance of Western human rights standards, at least on paper.

In January, the Soviets signed a 35-nation human rights agreement committing themselves to a far-reaching range of freedoms, including freedom of information, travel, equal rights and religion.

The document, signed in Vienna at the end of a two-year process, also promised significant improvements in the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate.

Delegates to the Paris conference will review media accounts, diplomatic reports and eyewitness testimony to determine who is and is not complying with the Vienna document.

A NEW U.S. APPROACH?

The Paris conference will be "an opportunity to test the principles of Helsinki, Madrid and Vienna — to test the practices of the states against the principles they’ve agreed to," according to Morris Abram, the chief U.S. delegate to the conference.

Abram, who was named to the conference post Wednesday, is immediate past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the designated U.S. ambassador to the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva.

Non-governmental agencies support Abram’s goals for the Paris conference, but they are concerned that with Washington developing an increasingly conciliatory approach to the Soviets, the United States will moderate its human rights demands.

"The State Department human rights bureau has developed a new approach that has angered a lot of the human rights community," said Cathy Fitzpatrick, research director of Helsinki Watch, an independent monitoring group.

"They intend to be less critical of the Soviet Union, Poland and Hungary, and the bad countries are now East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania. I’m not sure how vigorous the U.S. is going to be about confronting the Soviets."

"I have no evidence to support that kind of pessimism," said Abram, when informed of the remarks by Fitzpatrick and others. "Romania is an extremely intractable case. But that doesn’t mean that if you treat someone for polio, you don’t treat another person with a heart attack."

Among the ways Abram said the United States could "goad" the Soviets into improving their human rights record is by making conditions for U.S. participation in another CSCE follow-up conference to take place in Moscow in 1991.

SOVIETS SAID TO BE BACKSLIDING

The Soviets are banking on that conference to build prestige among their citizens, allies and the West. A Western pullout would be disastrous.

"The Soviets know that the U.S. fully expects continued progress in human rights until then," said Abram. "They know that backsliding or lack of progress would cause us to reconsider our decision to attend."

Rights groups say the Soviets are already backsliding. They cite as evidence the killing by Soviet troops of ethnic Georgian protesters last month and widespread, albeit short-term, detention of ethnic protesters in Soviet Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Fitzpatrick acknowledged that the Soviets have "fine-tuned" their protection of human rights. But she said that while the Soviets have eased press censorship, for example, they also passed decrees in April that put new constraints on publicly criticizing the Soviet authorities.

Those contradictions, and the U.S. response to them, also trouble Pamela Cohen, president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews.

Cohen said she heard from European delegates to the London Information Forum, a CSCE conference on free speech and news-gathering ending May 12, that the United States was not specifically drawing attention to Soviet practices.

"It is incumbent on us to make sure the American delegation takes action on these issues," she said. "For the Paris meeting, they must take up obstacles to emigration. The Soviets promised to resolve all outstanding refusenik cases, but we still have a list of a hundred known cases."

HAVE NOT CODIFIED REFORMS

Martin Wenick, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, said the Soviets need to be pressed to codify emigration reforms, as they promised in Vienna.

Asked if the United States seems willing to exert that pressure, Wenick replied, "Our feeling is that all countries ought to be pressed equally on their commitments. It would be a mistake, if that is what the State Department is doing, to stress the lack of commitment of one country over another."

For his part, Abram puts great stock in the Soviets’ signatures both on the Vienna document and an East-West agreement Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev reached during their October 1987 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. He described that earlier document, which called for a "substantive meeting" on human rights and humanitarian issues, as a "watershed."

"The Declaration of Independence is only words. It had no power. But its message resonates throughout the world," said Abram. He added that Gorbachev’s signatures on the documents say "I am answerable" on human rights.

But he added that the bottom line is matching words with deeds.

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