The Vienna Declaration of the World Conference on Human Rights is not reading material for the faint of heart or the stylistically squeamish. Thirty-three densely packed pages of rhetoric—divided into the standard “preambular” (“Considering . . . ; recognizing . . . reaffirming . . . emphasizing . . .” etc., etc.), a thirteen-page statement of principles, and a sixteen-page “action plan”—were agreed to by 183 nations on the basis of “consensus.”
A “consensus” process in international meetings is one in which everybody has to agree on everything for anything at all to get done. (One Helsinki Accords review conference was held up for weeks because Malta—Malta!—got in a snit and “refused consensus.”) In Vienna, “consensus” meant that the final vote had to be 183-0 or there would be no final document. The consensus process often sets up negotiating dynamics in which countries whose governments could be criticized by their publics for “wrecking the conference”— by digging in their heels, for example, on points of moral or political principle—are at a serious disadvantage. Syria, Burma, Vietnam, and China can be as obscurantist and difficult as they want, secure in the knowledge that their people will hear only what the rulers want them to know about the conference. But open, democratic societies are placed in a different and difficult position by the consensus procedure.
Most democracies—especially those eager not to appear harsh toward the Third World—are deeply afraid of being charged with conference-wrecking. Moreover, while many Western European chanceries take exercises such as the Vienna conference—or last year’s world environmental summit—with a large grain of salt, Americans tend to think that the language of an international agreement ought to reflect at least a modicum of reality, and that commitments undertaken because of such agreements ought to be serious commitments. All this puts the United States at a disadvantage in these situations, and this disadvantage is magnified when the United States has a new team that is unclear about its policy goals, unfamiliar with the curve balls thrown in this particular league, and eager to get a document it can live with so that it can claim a major international success.
“Consensus” caused its usual headaches at Vienna. But the real problem, the enduring problem, of the Vienna Declaration was not the way it was produced but what it said and didn’t say.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.