The Haitian Refugee Crisis: A Quest for Human Rights

On June 14, 1993, the Vienna Conference on Human Rights, sponsored by the United Nations, commenced its opening session mired in controversy over the validity of a universal human rights doctrine. Many Third World or developing nations contended that Western norms of justice and fairness were not applicable to their societies. Thus, the developing nations articulated a culture-bound or relativistic concept of fundamental human rights. The developing nations’ particularistic position was championed by such nations as China, Iran, Cuba, and Vietnam, signatories to the Bangkok Declaration of 1993. The Bangkok Declaration provides, inter alia, that though human rights are universal, they “must be considered in the context of… national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural, and religious backgrounds.” Even the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, emphatically echoed the developing nations’ sentiment of cultural relativism when he opined: “Universality is not something that is decreed… It would be a contradiction in terms if this imperative of universality… were to become a source of misunderstanding among us.” Yet, Mr. Boutros-Ghali astutely observed that fundamental human rights reflect “the enduring elements of the world’s great philosophies, religions and cultures… We must remember that forces of repression often cloak their wrongdoing in claims of exception.”