Aside from its religious significance, December is a month for giving human rights their due.
Dec. 10 was Human Rights Day, an official U.N. observance marking the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. In addition, Dec. 15 is Bill of Rights Day, commemorating the day in 1791 that the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution took effect. Those amendments, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, were among the chief inspirations for the 1948 Universal Declaration.As it happens, human rights issues seem to be commanding more attention in world affairs just as these routine year-end observances draw near. Only last month, President Reagan signed into law a bill to implement U.S. ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The treaty dates from Dec. 9, 1948, one day before the Universal Declaration was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly.
The United States signed the genocide pact, and President Harry S. Truman submitted it to the Senate for approval in 1949. But ratification did not come until 1986, because of opposition by conservatives who feared the treaty would permit extradition of American citizens for trial in foreign countries and thus jeopardize their constitutional rights.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union continues to press the United States and Western Europe to agree to a proposed human rights conference in Moscow in 1991. The Reagan administration has said the Soviets must improve their human-rights performance before it will consent to such a meeting. Release of all remaining Soviet political prisoners is the administration's key objective.
Soviet officials told West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in October that "all persons regarded in the West as political prisoners" would be freed by yearend. The trouble is that human-rights monitoring groups in the West list many more Soviet "prisoners of conscience" than do the Soviets themselves.
This is only one of many fundamental differences between communist and democratic countries on human-rights questions. Western nations have tended to stress the freedoms protected in the American Constitution, including religion, assembly, movement and the press. In contrast, the Soviets attach greater weight to such "economic freedoms" as freedom from want and the right to employment.
Perhaps the most frequently abused right in communist nations has been the "right of the individual to know and act upon his rights" - one of the freedoms cited in the 1975 Helsinki Accords. This provision led to the formation in all 35 signatory countries of citizen groups that monitored the condition of human rights in their societies.
Almost immediately, these groups came under fire in the Soviet Union and other Eastern-bloc states. Even today, despite the policy of glasnost - or openness - promoted by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, peoples of the communist world still lack many of the individual rights taken for granted in the West.