Jimmy Carter has helped make human rights a more important factor in U.S. foreign policy and a matter of greater concern in most countries. What that concern can amount to is another matter. The perennial questions that have plagued the attempted marriage of morality and American diplomacy persist. Whose morality and at what cost to whom?

Like God, Mother and Country, human rights claim universal reverence. There are no calls for torture in what passes for polite society. The average American sees the Bill of Rights as an article of faith at home and an item for emulation abroad. Everyone should enjoy certain fundamental rights "be they political, civil, economic, cultural or social.

The main question is thus not whether most Americans applaud the President's general stress on human rights. They do. It is what they are ready to do about it. Words, while important, can be cheap and misleading. What happens when U.S. support for Soviet dissidents seems to sabotage détente, or if future economic sanctions against South Africa undercut U.S. trade? Are most Americans aware of the Administration's argument that promotion of human rights should include efforts to help fulfill economic and social needs? If so, would they accept an added claim on their tax dollars for increased foreign aid? Is the President right in claiming that Americans are as ready to do something about lapses in their own performance on human rights as they are to point fingers at others?

The answers are not clear. What public opinion analyst Pat Caddell once saw as a political asset for the Administration could become a liability. If the President proceeds on his present course of perceived retreat on human rights, he invites criticism. If, on the other hand, he pushes the concept of human rights to its logical conclusion, he risks stiff resistance in Congress.

The U.S. policy on human rights, in short, has reached a critical point of decision. It raises questions that need response, not just by the government, but by the American public. The issues have important implications for East-West and North-South relations and, indeed, for the redefinition of the national interest and consensus underlying U.S. foreign policy. Failure to address them may backfire to the political disadvantage of the President and the longer-term detriment of human rights.

To put these questions into context, this discussion moves from a specific balance sheet to more general propositions:

(1) What has the Carter Administration said and done about human rights and what difference has it made?

(2) What problems complicate promotion of human rights?

(3) What approaches and areas need more attention?


First, a look at the record.

Jimmy Carter did not discover human rights. Concern with a moral tone, if not policy, has dominated American diplomacy since the Declaration of Independence invoked a universal appeal for "unalienable rights." Woodrow Wilson's call to make the world "safe for democracy" and John F. Kennedy's pledge to "bear any burden, pay any price" anticipated the 1977 inaugural: "Because we are free, we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere."

What Carter did find was an issue in cyclical upswing. Disenchantment with U.S. experience in Vietnam -- whether seen as an example of executive branch excess, a distortion of national interest, or an instance of American moralism run amok -- had helped, together with the civil rights movement of the 1960s, to set the stage for emphasis on international human rights in the 1970s.1 Landmark congressional hearings, launched by Representative Donald Fraser in 1973, and increasingly explicit legislation countered alleged indifference to human rights on the part of the Republican White House and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

The contrast between Kissinger and Carter on human rights proved instructive, if not crucial, in the 1976 presidential election. Although Kissinger had stressed in speeches since 1973 that "America cannot be true to itself without moral purpose," he had also warned that the United States, post-Vietnam, lacked power to impose its values on the world. There was no realistic alternative to "quiet diplomacy" and a "sense of proportion" between the "art of the possible" and "the science of the relative."

Carter used the same references to morality and Vietnam to diametrically opposed effect. The new limits on power and the "moral crisis" produced by the Indochina War were reason, he argued, not to retreat into some variant of Realpolitik, but to help shape a "new world." He sensed that the electorate, ready for reaffirmation in bicentennial rhetoric, would respond better to confidence than caution. Thus the promise of a foreign policy that would "make Americans feel proud again."

A fundamental tenet of that policy was to be -- and is -- stress on human rights. The opening line in a Presidential Directive early this year reconfirms the course set out during the campaign: "It shall be a major objective of U.S. foreign policy to promote human rights throughout the world."2 The scope of concern -- stated in a major address by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in Athens, Georgia, on April 30, 1977 -- encompasses three sets of rights:

The "right to be free from governmental violation of the integrity of the person. Such violations include torture; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; and arbitrary arrest or imprisonment," as well as "denial of fair public trial and invasion of the home";

The "right to the fulfillment of such vital needs as food, shelter, health care, and education";

The "right to enjoy civil and political liberties," such as freedom of thought, religion, assembly, speech and the press, as well as freedom of movement within and outside one's own country and freedom to take part in government.

Secretary Vance presented the Administration's definition of human rights in that order and stressed that "our policy is to promote all these rights." Although he acknowledged that "there may be disagreement on the priorities these rights deserve," he emphasized that "all of these rights can become complementary and mutually reinforcing."

Integrity of the person, basic human needs and civil liberties are all objects of concern in various international obligations entered into by the United States, and the importance of these undertakings has been emphasized by the Carter Administration. The U.N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights, drawn in part from points in President Franklin Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" of 1941 and in his "second Bill of Rights" (economic and social) in 1944, was adopted, with no negative votes, by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948. It emphasizes both political/civil liberties (or rights) and economic, social and cultural rights. Although a nonbinding resolution, the Declaration is considered an authoritative definition of the "human rights and fundamental freedoms" that, under the U.N. Charter, U.N. member states are under legal obligation to promote.3 Other statements -- ranging from the Inter-American Charter of Social Guarantees, adopted by the Organization of American States in 1948, and the Social Charter that makes promotion of economic and social "rights" a matter of treaty obligation for members of the Council of Europe -- illustrate further the international basis for the Carter Administration's broad interpretation of human rights.

Despite the ambitious scope of its policy, the main question before the Administration has been not whether to promote human rights, but how. The extent of repression and deprivation remains staggering. Amnesty International, winner of the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize for its work in behalf of "prisoners of conscience," warns that serious violations continue in 119 countries. State-sanctioned torture has become a worldwide "social cancer" in the body politic, despite the new U.N. declaration against it. "Death squads," tacitly or openly approved by governments, kidnap and kill students, labor leaders, lawyers and journalists. Thousands of political prisoners remain in remote jails, without recourse to legal defense, food, water or health care. Genocide recurs on a scale to rival that practiced by Hitler or Stalin.

Administration officials say that they are neither at the end nor the beginning, but, perhaps, at the end of the beginning in dealing with such inhumanity. Although it is hard to know how much credit the United States can or should take, the latest annual reports from Freedom House and the International League for Human Rights do confirm that respect for human rights has improved in many countries and that some of those improvements reflect emphasis placed on human rights by the Carter Administration. Thanks in part to U.S. efforts, thousands of political prisoners have been released since early 1977 in such nations as Indonesia, Korea, the Philippines, Poland, Morocco, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Tanzania and the Dominican Republic. Emigration has increased from the U.S.S.R., some nations in Eastern Europe and Syria. Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador promised elections this year. El Salvador and Haiti have agreed to visits by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The Administration has built on prior initiatives and achieved some movement toward the newly emphasized U.S. goal of the achievement of racial justice in southern Africa -- through the U.S.-U.K. plan for majority rule in Zimbabwe, the repeal of the so-called Byrd Amendment allowing chrome imports from that country, initiatives to speed Namibian independence, and U.S. support for the 1977 mandatory U.N. arms embargo against South Africa. Although some recent actions suggest that the Shah of Iran intends to maintain his authoritarian system of government, he has responded to criticism from the United States and others by releasing political prisoners, engaging in fewer reported cases of torture, inviting the International Committee of the Red Cross to make two inspections of Iranian prisons, permitting meetings with representatives of the International Commission of Jurists, and continuing to give high priority to such basic human needs as health care and housing. And much more has been done elsewhere -- such as making U.S. arms sales contingent on recipient-nation release of political prisoners or more general improvement in the human rights situation -- that cannot be made public without jeopardizing progress underway or hurting already delicate bilateral relations.

The United States has helped encourage broader attention to human rights. Washington is not now, as once claimed, perched at the end of a unilateral limb. International initiatives -- some recent, some begun by the Nixon-Ford Administration and by other nations -- are bearing fruit. In particular:

- The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 has surprised most signatories by assuming a life of its own, shown in the proliferation of monitoring groups in communist nations and pressure for "full implementation" of the so-called Basket Three on humanitarian measures at the Belgrade meeting for follow-up on the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). Although the omission of human rights from the summary document at Belgrade was a disappointment -- in part reflecting Edmund Burke's conclusion that most political decisions are a choice "between the disagreeable and the intolerable" -- the central fact remains: 35 nations are nonetheless accountable to each other for how they treat their own citizens.

- Human rights have become a central focus in the Organization of American States (OAS), constituting the main point of debate at the 1977 OAS General Assembly and the reason OAS member states voted, 13 to 10, to shift this year's meeting from Uruguay, a major violator of human rights, to the United States. (In contrast, Henry Kissinger did go to Santiago for the 1976 meeting of the OAS General Assembly, even though atrocities by Chile's military junta were widely criticized at the time.) The United States is working with Latin American nations to expand on earlier efforts to give more money and authority to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

- The United Nations shows more promise in the area of human rights. American delegates to the 1978 session of the U.N. Human Rights Commission (HRC) report continuing movement, away from the "selective morality" criticized by Senator Moynihan when he was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, to concern with countries other than Israel, Chile and South Africa. For the first time, the Commission announced this year that it had taken decisions -- according to Resolution 1503 of the Economic and Social Council that establishes a procedure for dealing with complaints by individuals and nongovernmental organizations -- on Bolivia, Equatorial Guinea, Malawi, the Republic of Korea, Uganda, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Paraguay and Uruguay. The U.N. Secretary General is to inform Cambodia of allegations made about human rights violations there and to have all relevant information available for the next session of the HRC. In addition, Nigeria and other African nations are supporting creation of an African Human Rights Commission under U.N. auspices.

- Many West European nations are increasing their attention to human rights. Their spokesmen are, however, quick to point out that they had discovered that issue long before Jimmy Carter came to the White House. It was they who took the lead on the human rights provision of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975 and who have often outdone the United States on the percent of gross national product devoted to foreign aid focused on fulfilling economic and social rights of the poor. On the other hand, Carter's stress on human rights and increased consultations with European leaders on this topic have helped move several European nations to vote "no" on international loans to major violators on human rights grounds (something they did not do before, even in the case of Chile) and to propose adding human rights provisions to the European Community's Lomé Convention, an initiative that could have substantial effect on the trade preferences granted scores of former colonies in Africa and the Caribbean.

- There has been a dramatic increase in unofficial activity within the United States and elsewhere to complement the moves of official international actors. The "human rights lobby" on Capitol Hill and in New York has grown since the early 1970s from a relative handful with no voice to over 50 organizations exercising major influence through congressional testimony, background information for U.S. legislation and U.N. deliberations, pressure on multinational firms, and operation of a communication "internet." Groups like the Human Rights Working Group of the Coalition for a New Foreign and Military Policy, the Washington Office on Latin America, and the Center for International Policy have helped to mobilize the votes behind Congressman Tom Harkin's human rights amendments to legislation on foreign economic assistance. Religious organizations, like the National Council of Churches, have spearheaded campaigns to block U.S. private investment in South Africa.

To reinforce or to respond to this range of activity, the Administration has tried to institutionalize the process of decision-making on human rights within the U.S. government. Efforts to bolster that process include expansion of an independent State Department Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs (HA), directed by Patricia Derian, a determined political appointee with direct access to the President; inclusion of human rights concerns in most major strategy papers and statements of objectives; a directive to all ambassadors, assigning them personal responsibility for policy follow-up; and creation of an Interagency Group on Human Rights and Foreign Assistance, chaired by Warren Christopher, the discreetly effective Deputy Secretary of State.

Officials in the executive branch try to advance human rights by tailoring their tactics to the case at hand -- taking due note of such factors as the pattern and trend of violations, the degree of responsibility by the government concerned, its openness to outside inquiry, and the utility of U.S. action. The Administration thus uses a mix of means: symbolic gestures like meeting with Chilean opposition leaders, sanctions such as ending grant military matériel for Ethiopia, talk behind the scenes with leaders like the Shah of Iran, public condemnation of international pariahs like Ugandan President Idi Amin Dada, bilateral discussions with repressive regimes like that in the Philippines, and multilateral initiatives in organizations like the United Nations or Organization of American States.

As the President's visit to Brazil in March 1978 illustrated, he and members of his family and the Cabinet make human rights an important talking point with foreign leaders. The Administration also backs its expressed policy with some leverage. It has made human rights a factor in the allocation of funds or materials through bilateral aid, PL 480 Title I food aid agreements, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Export-Import Bank. It has also complied with U.S. law and a perceived "spirit of the Congress" to use its "voice and vote" to try to channel funds from major international financial institutions, like the World Bank, away from those governments that engage in what U.S. legislation calls a "consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights."4 To that end, the United States had, by early this year, delivered demarches to 18 countries, abstained on loans to seven countries (including Korea and the Philippines), and voted "no" on loans to such nations as Argentina and Chile. Human rights was a factor in determining that the United States would decline to increase Fiscal Year (FY) 1979 security assistance to the Philippines, Korea, Indonesia and Thailand (effectively a decrease, given inflation).

Actions of this sort have been seen as a reaffirmation of American traditions. Public opinion polls around the world, as well as accounts in the press, suggest that Carter's stress on human rights is one reason for renewed foreign respect for the United States in the post-Vietnam and Watergate period. According to one Brazilian journalist: "From the moment Latin Americans, Africans, and Asians started looking at President Carter as a politician interested in human rights, the United States Embassy ceased being seen by thousands of third-world liberals as a headquarters for conservative maneuvers; it became identified with the nation it represents."5


As much as the Administration may have accomplished on human rights, however, the progress thus far has brought this country up against formidable obstacles. These hurdles effectively block any flying leap into the millennium -- even by the most agile Baptist.

The primary frustration for promotion of human rights is the resistance of repressive governments to reform. Governments violate human rights because their leaders believe it in their interest to do so. Because of real or imagined threats to security, love of wealth and power, ideological stance, or personal idiosyncrasy, such states and leaders do not wither away willingly.

For that reason, the U.N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights is often anything but universal in the support it claims in practice. Most nations consider foreign criticism of their performance on human rights an unacceptable assault on their sovereignty. Indeed, there is tension within the U.N. Charter itself (repeated in the Helsinki accords) because of reference to the principle of noninterference by one state in the internal affairs of another (Article 2) and attention to human rights (Articles 1, 55, and 56). Thus, the United Nations often turns a blind eye to blatant violations by member states. By advocating more study and no action against Uganda or Cambodia, it elevates hypocrisy to the highest diplomatic art.

Violations of human rights -- like the often related phenomenon of contemporary terrorism -- can be more significant as symptoms than as causes of problems. They are likely to persist until underlying problems are faced. For example, there will be little respect for human rights as long as the ultraconservative oligarchy in El Salvador considers land reform a communist plot to give peasants power.

Washington's leverage on such problems may be limited, at least in the short run, or vary dramatically because of the government in question, U.S. relations with it, and other U.S. interests. Singling out Nicaragua for cuts in security assistance, while catering to arms calls from Iran, has evoked criticism of a U.S. double standard. (As one humorist put it, Nicaragua's situation may not improve until "U.S. cars run on bananas.") Access to some countries, like Democratic Kampuchea, has been nil and thus has left the United States (and all other nations) helpless to avert genocide of as many as an estimated one million Cambodians. (The fact that the Administration could not affect events inside Cambodia does not excuse its disgracefully late and inadequate response to that part of the human rights problem it could address: helping find a home for the over 100,000 Indochinese "boat people.") On the other hand, U.S. dissociation from the corrupt Somoza regime in Nicaragua, which the United States has supported for more than 40 years, can help reduce repression directly. At the same time, such actions can help scale back U.S. involvement there to more realistic proportions and lay the basis for better relations with what may some day be a more progressive successor.

Concentration on consistency thus misses the point. There can and should be consistent determination to take human rights into serious account for U.S. foreign policy. Yet, stress on human rights must at all times be weighed against other factors. A rigid rubric for human rights can obscure the importance of other goals, some of which may have overarching global significance. For example, nuclear nonproliferation and military strength bear on that most fundamental human right -- survival. Whereas the previous Administration tended almost invariably to give primacy to other foreign policy goals when they competed with human rights, the Carter Administration has generally given greater weight to human rights than did its predecessor. This commitment cannot be maintained, however, without affecting other U.S. interests. The Carter human rights drive has not been without costs in terms of other U.S. goals:

- Treating Argentina like a moral outcast has hardened anti-U.S. attitudes in right-wing circles throughout Latin America and has threatened other U.S. objectives. Argentina could accelerate efforts to develop its own capability to reprocess nuclear fuels, without proper safeguards. The legislative requirement to end all new arms transfers to Argentina, effective in FY 1979, could push that nation to European markets, thus losing export sales for the United States, or to increased efforts at self-sufficiency, thus exacerbating the spiral of global arms expenditures and feeding international tension.

- Embracing Soviet dissidents has struck some as a dagger thrust to détente and SALT II. The fact that President Carter answered a letter from Soviet dissident Sakharov and received another dissident in the White House in early 1977 angered the Kremlin leadership and seemed to sour the atmosphere for Secretary Vance's presentation of a new arms control package in Moscow in March 1977. (It also resulted in an accelerated decimation of dissident ranks and far less Soviet emigration than former Secretary of State Kissinger had facilitated through quiet diplomacy.)

- Exempting the People's Republic of China from the stress on human rights, because of the fragility and value of new U.S.-Chinese ties, has handed Soviet leaders a propaganda point, baffled other nations, and given U.S. domestic opponents to eventual normalization of diplomatic relations easy cause to cry "foul."

- Pressing hard on human rights has upset important NATO allies. Particularly in early 1977, many considered Carter's "moral crusade" ill-conceived, naïve, and harmful to East-West rapport, which, in turn, affected détente in their own backyard. West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt minced no words at that time. He feared then and now that a U.S. frontal attack on Soviet repression might undermine his quietly effective efforts to repatriate ethnic Germans and to facilitate family visits in Berlin.

- Raising human rights in institutions like the World Bank has, according to some, politicized them (even more than they already are), has complicated U.S. efforts to encourage more multilateral assistance for economic development, and has established precedents that may undercut U.S. interests later. Further, since U.S. "no" votes lack veto power, except on certain "soft loans," Washington has so far antagonized nations like Argentina, Chile and Uruguay without gaining the voting support necessary to block any loans.

Because of those conflicting priorities and because of different situations in different countries or even a different situation in the same country at different times, the Administration has confronted a serious problem of perception and public relations with American citizens and the Congress. The case-by-case approach and apparent move to more quiet diplomacy in mid-1977, impelled by a backlash from the Soviets and urgings from key allies, has struck some as a capitulation on more general commitments to human rights. The Administration has paid for such adjustments with critical press accounts about "retreat on human rights" and the sentiment, registered in public opinion polls, that the Administration lacks "direction."

Part of the problem in this regard is one that would face any Administration trying to deal with human rights. The "hell of good intentions" described by Stanley Hoffmann6 is often due to the time it takes to achieve them. Americans are notoriously impatient with long-term crusades. Just as most turned against the Vietnam War because they were tired and saw no "light at the end of the tunnel," so might they turn on the policy envisaged as the moral antidote to that war. If stress on human rights provides few quick fixes, as seems likely, or costs too much, as seems possible, it could boomerang by 1980. Human rights might then, for that and other reasons, lose one of its most influential spokesmen.

Consequences could be comparably serious in the U.S. Congress. Many members of the legislative branch are still suspicious about executive intentions on human rights, despite the differences between the Carter Administration and its immediate predecessor on this subject. Congress has thus felt compelled to hold White House feet to the fire for reasons as varied as its own membership: some skepticism about the depth of Carter's dedication to human rights, some jealousy about his capturing the initiative on this issue, some poor communication between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue about what human rights legislation could be useful, and some unholy alliances between those who want to use human rights to cut other programs like foreign aid and those who are sincere (if sometimes overly zealous) advocates of human rights. With Congress in what amounts to a wrecking mood, there could be a backlash against promotion of human rights or a setback to other expressed U.S. objectives -- or both.

For both the Congress and the Administration, establishing priorities among human rights is a problem. Which ones merit most attention? There are hard choices to make in a world where secret police torture detainees with electric shocks to the genitals, where children starve in the shadow of plush tourist resorts, and where writing a poem can lead to political exile or worse. Although the Carter Administration has said that its concern for human rights includes three comparably important sets of rights, it has had to recognize the constraints on its own resources and to put most emphasis on crimes against the security of the person.

Current U.S. decision-makers have only begun to deal with the issue of how to weigh economic and social rights in relation to political and civil rights. To comply with current legislation on foreign economic assistance, the Administration's Interagency Group does approve projects like health clinics which meet basic human needs -- even if the recipient government engages in a "consistent pattern of gross violations." It does so on the theory that the oppressed should not suffer for the sins of their oppressor. On the other hand, neither the Administration nor the Congress seems inclined to make a major shift of U.S. foreign aid toward nations like Tanzania and Mozambique (not to mention Cuba) that stress economic and social progress, at the cost of political freedom (and with an ideological cast still suspect in Washington).

Molding a policy on human rights that embraces both political and civil liberties and social, economic and cultural rights may thus prove to be one of the most difficult challenges in this area for Jimmy Carter and, indeed, for any future occupant of the White House. Although there is some legal reprieve on active pursuit of economic and social rights,7 there is little political latitude for ignoring the issue. The Administration has thus adopted the broad scope of human rights spelled out in U.N. documents, not only because of its perceived legal commitment to do so, but also because it knows that no narrow reading of human rights, restricted to political and civil freedoms, can win wide support from the majority of U.N. member states. Most communist and developing nations claim that a roof over the head is more important than the right to free speech. More radical Third World leaders suspect that the United States is "using" human rights to thwart economic development in their countries and promulgate a new "moral imperialism."

American representatives can and do argue that economic advance is directly related to popular political participation. They claim that many leaders from developing countries employ talk about economic and social rights more to deflect criticism of their repressive policies than to meet the basic human needs of their poorest citizens. Yet, developing country elites do not feel compelled to listen to that argument as long as the United States and other developed nations ignore calls for a New International Economic Order, for more equitable distribution of resources among nations. They believe that the United States could help establish its bona fides on more critical human rights by increasing development assistance to the Third World. Such requests, however, run counter to the mood of the American majority where concern about domestic economic recovery and high taxes dominates.

The limited domestic constituency for a broadly conceived policy is likely to be a continuing problem in maintaining impetus. Public opinion polls show Americans solid in their support of the general outlines of current policy, but soft on specifics. Most associate human rights with the political and civil liberties of the Bill of Rights and not with the ambitious scope set forth by the Administration and favored by the Third World. Analogies between the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s and the movement for international human rights in the 1970s may be appropriate. Many whites a decade ago were all for equality of racial opportunity until a black moved next door. Similarly, many Americans today are all for proclamations in behalf of international human rights but against increasing their taxes to pay for more foreign aid.

Beyond that problem of limited support by the American majority for a broad interpretation of human rights is the related issue of strong support by vocal American minorities for just such a program -- if it benefits their constituency. Representatives of American minority groups, important to Carter's election as President, argue that they cannot back a foreign policy that ignores the economic and social rights they consider part of their human rights at home. (A corollary to this point is the fact that domestic demands for fulfillment of economic and social rights compete with requests for more foreign aid abroad.)

The participants this year at a "National Foreign Policy Conference on Human Rights" -- though hardly a representative cross-section of America -- illustrated the political dilemma before the Administration. Calls for reform from the 500 delegates resembled cacophony from a contemporary Tower of Babel. There was little common concern among causes and speakers, and little reflection of the great majority of American citizens who were not there.

Feminists wanted prompt passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, black men asked protection for "America's most endangered species" (themselves), Asian-Americans sought "reparations" for World War II incarceration in California concentration camps, Hispanics condemned U.S. "police brutality," and Indians demanded their treaty rights to resource-rich land. One result of the session for some stunned State Department officials who had arranged the conference: the proposal that U.S. victims of human rights violations establish their own Helsinki monitoring group.

Several points that were not made may have been as important as those that were. The disparate pleas for protection of human rights came in the context of what amounts to a schizoid citizenry, partly aroused by social issues, but mostly more absorbed by private matters. Ten years after the Kerner Report on urban riots in the 1960s, the United States is moving toward two societies -- not one black and one white as then predicted, but one of haves and one of have-nots, separate and unequal. The one rarely sees and thereby understands the other.

The invisible poor of this latter-day "other America" foreseen by Michael Harrington are the domestic counterpart of a global phenomenon: one billion people unnoticed below what the United Nations calls "the absolute poverty line." Still others are deprived of basic dignity because of their sex or race. Yet, neither the haves nor the have-nots of the United States seem inclined to make the connection. The American public's line of sight seldom extends from Peoria to Pretoria.

The old issue resurfaces in new guise. Whose human rights and at what cost to whom?


Fear that human rights will not flourish easily and that consensus may be thinner than thought need not deter the Administration. Much can be done. The agenda for the duration of the first term should concentrate on a clearer identification of what should be done now and what might be the basis for later and larger change. The challenge is a test of two time frames -- immediate and long term.

My proposals for improving present U.S. policy start from the premise that a broad interpretation of human rights is in order. A more narrow or traditionally Anglo-Saxon recital of political and civil rights alone misses the point of what worries most of the world and many disaffected Americans, misses the crucial connection between access to political and economic opportunity, and misses the needed chance to redress some imbalance in U.S. national priorities.

The issue is thus not direction, but degree: how much can be done how fast? This Administration cannot take on promotion of all human rights all at once in all countries, given the real political and economic constraints on its resources. Nor should it. It is necessary to accept the fact that there may be no solution to some of the problems outlined in the previous section. Some goals, like developing political will at home and abroad to fulfill economic and social rights, will take time and patience to achieve. Some problems, however, do suggest their own solution.

The task before the Administration is to differentiate among the categories of the impossible, the desirable and the possible. Solidifying impressive gains already made and maintaining momentum would in itself be an important goal and significant achievement. To do so requires a better choice of focus, timing and perspective. The Administration's policy on human rights will gain most credibility if it starts with a sense of priority -- what is most important? -- and management -- how can we proceed most effectively?

On the question of priority, both the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government should begin by bringing their limited resources to bear on the worst violators of human rights and, perhaps coincidentally, those the United States can affect. That does not mean forswearing universal concern for human rights or ignoring many serious situations. It does suggest making some hard choices.

The Congress should thus drop its requirement for annual public reports on human rights conditions in 105 countries -- reports that discuss Switzerland as well as South Korea, but say nothing about Uganda or the Soviet Union, and that needlessly antagonize other nations to no demonstrably useful effect. Instead, the State Department should be required to prepare in-depth strategy papers for the approximately 20 countries that are widely regarded as the most egregious violators of internationally recognized human rights. Those papers should spell out what the problem is and what, specifically, can or should be done, in what period of time, and in conjunction with what other nations.

In the meantime, lest other offenders escape public scrutiny and condemnation, the executive and legislative branches should encourage nongovernmental organizations to form a data bank on human rights violations and trends of performance. Such organizations -- with links to the First, Second and Third Worlds and no official financing from any one government -- could provide the United Nations and other interested organizations and governments with reports that reflect the credibility, scope, and dispassionate assessment now missing in U.S. and U.N. accounts. As an official domestic counterpart to that international data bank, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission should be expanded into a Human Rights Commission, empowered to monitor U.S. implementation of human rights at home. Other readily attainable specific objectives that deserve priority attention include:

- Even if the effect is primarily symbolic, the Senate should ratify those human rights documents sent for advice and consent by the President this year, as well as the Genocide Convention, which has languished unapproved since 1949.8 Should election year pressure preclude passage of the whole package, the Senate, with strong encouragement from the White House, should put top priority on ratification of the Genocide Convention -- if only because 30 years of neglect for that Convention makes U.S. advocacy of human rights ring most hollow in this thirtieth anniversary year of the Universal Declaration.

- The United States, together with its allies and Western neutrals, should not wait until the Madrid meeting (1980) on CSCE follow-up to assure continuing compliance with Basket Three of the Helsinki Final Act. Members of both the Administration and the Congress, given the useful experience of the joint executive-legislative commission on the CSCE chaired by Congressman Dante Fascell, should start now to shape a coordinating mechanism, with specified objectives and approaches, for keeping a protective spotlight on dissidents in communist countries. Working on the multilateral CSCE mechanism is likely to do more good for victims of violations than would expending valuable political capital on repeal (unlikely for the foreseeable future) of the Jackson-Vanik and Stevenson Amendments to the 1974 Trade Act, even though those legislative links between trade and credits and freer emigration from the U.S.S.R. should be dropped because they have not accomplished their intended purpose and have hurt U.S.-Soviet relations.

- Given progress at the 1978 session of the U.N. Human Rights Commission (HRC) and the massive increase in the HRC case load, the United States should accelerate efforts at the U.N. General Assembly this autumn to have the Commission meet more often or in permanent session. At the same time, the United States should press efforts with other U.N. member states to get approval of a U.N. High Commissioner or Coordinator on Human Rights.

- Both the Congress and the Administration can and should put more stress on positive, versus punitive, action to further fundamental freedoms. One important area for more attention is the connection between increased respect for human rights in general and rights of women in particular. There has been little serious follow-up on the fanfare of International Women's Year (1976). The U.S. government should thus give prompt attention to the deprivation of political and economic rights among women -- both by targeting more of its foreign assistance programs to increased job training and education and better health care and nutrition for women in developing nations and by pushing far harder for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment within the United States. Such concrete steps might give credence to the minimal goals set for the U.N.'s World Plan of Action in the Decade for Women, 1975-85.

On the question of management, both the Administration and the Congress need to overcome the appearance and some reality of random reaction to human rights. At issue are those perennial problems in government: coordination, consultation, and planning. Several relatively simple suggestions might help:

The Administration could build on the impressive model of the Interagency Group on Human Rights and Foreign Economic Assistance chaired by Deputy Secretary Christopher. The Christopher group has made an increasingly successful effort to pursue what it calls a "sequential and calibrated" strategy that takes into account what the proposed recipient of U.S. aid is doing on human rights and why; what the United States and others have said or done before about that performance; and what else might be done constructively without unduly jeopardizing other U.S. interests. No such coordinated attempt at overview, ex post or ex ante, is now made on any other part of U.S. policy on human rights. There is, in effect, little effort to relate what is said or done in one country to words and deeds elsewhere, or in one forum (such as an OAS General Assembly) to another (such as regional programming by the International Communication Agency).

The Christopher group, or some facsimile thereof, should thus expand its scope in at least two respects. First, it should review all major new departures on human rights (such as projected U.S. strategy on human rights for the next U.N. General Assembly or significant new diplomatic moves with important countries). Although it could not and should not monitor all aspects of U.S. policy on human rights it could serve as a fulcrum to assure better balance and a clearinghouse to catch significant contradictions or, perhaps more important, to identify new opportunities for positive U.S. action.

Second, such an interagency committee should use the authority implicit in the original mandate for the Christopher group to subsume the human rights role of the Arms Export Control Board and other more informal means of decision-making on arms sales. The gap between proposed application of human rights criteria to arms transfers and actual performance has been one of the major shortcomings of the Carter Administration. Most cuts have hit Latin America and left the Middle East and East Asia untouched.

The Administration should take firmer steps to ensure that all relevant parts of the Federal bureaucracy give more consistent support to the President's emphasis on human rights. Institutionalization of this policy still lacks deep roots, as shown by conflicting signals sent from the State Department on human rights legislation or the continuing preference of many defense attaches and CIA personnel in U.S. embassies for working closely with the security police in repressive host-country regimes.

Much improved management of the human rights policy will depend on better consultation between the legislative and executive branches. So far, there has been poor communication between the two -- with the Administration not sorting out what it considered most important on human rights, the Congress resorting to a plethora of ill-defined legislative proposals -- and neither telling the other what it was up to and why. One important function of the aforementioned Interagency Group might be to have some of its members meet on a regular basis with a small but representative number of Congressmen so that the U.S. government might speak with a more coherent voice on human rights.

Those consultations would facilitate advanced planning -- pacing presentation of initiatives or anticipating problems. They might range from such relatively straightforward questions as to which U.N. documents to push first for ratification and with what reservations, to more complex issues. Among the latter, I would flag for early attention -- before either the Congress or the Administration becomes locked in by its respective deliberations -- the following illustrative items:

- Extension of human rights criteria to the private sector. The executive branch has yet to address the long-run implications of existing and proposed congressional attempts to expand human rights restrictions on international business transactions. Even before effects of linking human rights requirements to U.S. foreign aid become evident, the Congress is proceeding with proposals to add such considerations to reauthorization for the Export-Import Bank, and has already done so in the renewal legislation for the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. Human rights activists are pressing for restrictions on trade with South Africa, Uganda and other nations, and may move to broader limits on all U.S. export licenses and codes of conduct for multinational corporations.

More and more members of Congress see trade and aid as part of a continuum of tools to affect performance on human rights. Before important precedents are set, representatives from the Administration and the Congress should consider together the larger issues at play: To what extent should or can the U.S. government seek support from U.S. private business to help make official stress on international human rights more effective? Is one sovereign state justified in using economic power to try to affect what some consider the internal affairs of another? What is the effect on the international system of using such economic instruments for political purposes?

- Treatment of foreign aid. The proposed International Development Cooperation Act of 1978 -- touted as the first major reform of U.S. foreign aid since 1961 -- makes this question timely. Since the Congress is not apt to find an opportunity during an election year to give this bill the time it deserves, representatives from the executive and legislative branches might use the interim to plan how that bill might be reshaped to reinforce goals on human rights expressed by both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. As it stands, the bill more nearly resembles reorganization of the deck chairs on a sinking vessel than the needed overhaul in dry dock. It does not address the fundamental questions: How can U.S. aid be more effective in meeting basic human needs abroad, what kinds of resources are needed and available, and what political will is there in the United States to apply them?

In the areas of both trade and aid, the Administration and the Congress recognize that the American public is not now willing to pay a big economic price for promotion of human rights -- either in tax hikes for development assistance or lost American jobs for the sake of sanctions against repressive regimes. If the public is to adopt a different view, as I believe it should over the long run, a considerable educational effort is in order. Jimmy Carter might find the makings of a politically courageous "fireside chat" in the larger significance of human rights and national interest.


That bolder dimension of human rights diplomacy merits some mention here. The question is whether promotion of human rights -- in the broadest sense of political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights -- should be a catalyst to a larger debate on national interest.

Opponents of that perspective resist what they view as efforts to shove every general policy problem into the human rights tent. They stress serious attention to the relatively definable foreign policy aspect of human rights and concentration on curtailing crimes against the security of the person. Proponents of the wider view claim that the significance of human rights as an issue derives from the fact that it reflects, in microcosm, the new complexity of U.S. diplomacy. It pervades traditional concerns about national security and domestic consensus, as well as the newer questions raised in North-South and East-West relations and debates about the "crisis of democracy" and "quality of life" within advanced industrial nations. The lines, so this argument goes, blur between economics and politics and between domestic policy and diplomacy.

The truth may well lie somewhere between the proverbial extremes. I would argue, however, that the broader view does merit more attention than so far accorded it by the Administration or Congress. It is not by coincidence nor without good reason that many who once saw U.S. involvement in Vietnam as cause to rethink old conceptions about national security and priorities now see promotion of human rights as a related means to the same end. There is growing attention, promoted by major U.S. human rights organizations, to efforts like the transfer amendments offered this year by Representative Parren Mitchell and Senator George McGovern. They recommend shifting funds within the federal budget from "wasteful and dangerous military programs" to stress on housing, nutrition and health care. Although these are old goals in new guise, they do exemplify the more profound question expressed by Marshall Shulman:

If security means that what we seek to protect is not only territory but a system of values, then we need a broader and more enlightened understanding of our real security interests than now prevails. . . . It is not a question whether or not to act upon the national interest, but whether we perceive and define that national interest in terms broad enough to respond to the actual determinants of political behavior.9

Just such efforts to get a "broader and more enlightened understanding of our real security interests" prompt many advocates of human rights to move beyond specific concern about political prisoners to such questions as: At what price must Washington accommodate dictators like Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines or Park Chung-hee in South Korea? Does short-term preoccupation with stability assure or prevent longer term access to strategic real estate, vital resources, or the next generation of leaders? Is there some still largely unrecognized reason to readjust 30-year-old views about national security?

Further, human rights may provide the connecting link in the largely dormant North-South dialogue between developed and developing nations. As we have seen, both U.S. stress on basic human needs and Third World emphasis on the New International Economic Order deal with transfers of real resources, either within or among sovereign states. If the developed nations accede to the developing countries' demands for a larger slice of the global pie, the donors may require that their aid to developing nations reaches the poor. Is there the makings of a mutually advantageous bargain and the political will to effect it? The fact that more U.S. exports now go to developing countries than to Japan or Europe and that almost half of all U.S. direct foreign investment is in the Third World suggests a strong U.S. stake in the progress of poor countries, one that cannot be separated from U.S. national security and well-being.

The need to weigh priorities is no less urgent in the area of East-West relations than in the North-South context. The tendency of some Administration officials to crow about the "ideological offensive" gained from pressing for human rights in the Soviet Union and of some Congressmen to cling to narrow concepts of linkage obscures the overriding U.S. national interest in pursuing a more rational route to rapprochement. The U.S. response to human rights in the U.S.S.R. should move beyond understandable focus on Jewish "refuseniks" to reflect the diverse concerns within the entire Soviet dissident community and, more important, broader and longer term changes within Soviet and East European society.

Finally, no attention to pursuing human rights in East-West or North-South relations makes much sense without reference to what is happening close to home. For example, any transfer of resources, even if proclaimed in the name of human rights, seems doomed if leaders within the industrial nations will not or cannot look beyond their own immediate problems. Persistent "stagflation" and slow economic growth cripple many current efforts to meet basic human needs at home, not to mention abroad. Terrorism by young extremists and counterattacks by governments in Italy, West Germany and elsewhere underscore the fragility of political and civil rights. There is a need to understand how deep the roots for human rights go in the so-called advanced democracies and what determination remains to nurture them.

The new perspective on national interest that stress on human rights might suggest thus depends on the domestic underpinnings for diplomacy. If one of the Administration's original reasons for promoting human rights was to restore public consensus behind U.S. foreign policy, that venture could be either hoist on its own petard or used to establish an entirely new agreement on national goals. This is the alternate peril and promise of the Administration's human rights policy.


Taking stock on human rights misses the point if it turns into taking any one Administration to task. Although Harry Truman's plaque now sits on Jimmy Carter's desk, "the buck" does not necessarily stop there.

A more far-reaching crisis of credibility and capability confronts the nation's human rights policy. The Administration has staked much of its political reputation on promotion of human rights. And it has said that those fundamental freedoms include all rights set forth in the Universal Declaration and that they apply at home and abroad. However, a look at the Administration's record on human rights, the challenges ahead, and the areas for different emphasis gives pause. Stress on human rights is neither a guarantee of help to victims of violations nor a panacea for a nation in pursuit of new consensus for its foreign policy.

In fact, the traditional litany of American values may clash with reality. There may be increased U.S. dependence on nations like Saudi Arabia and decreased domestic compassion for neighborhoods like the South Bronx. Condemning apartheid in South Africa without cutting most investment there may amount to slapping wrists while greasing palms. The sagging dollar and soaring U.S. trade deficit may contract the economic margin for magnanimity and morality.

Promotion of human rights may therefore be more significant for the questions it raises than the answers it gives. The President, together with others, has helped bring a neglected issue to the fore. He has raised world consciousness and won new international respect for the United States. He has opened the door to new directions and made an important beginning. One of the next steps depends on whether the American people are ready to give further credence to the credo behind present policy. In sum, the future of U.S. policy on human rights lies in the response to the larger question that launched the Republic: What price principle?


1 One of the more interesting aspects of the human rights issue is the large number of proponents who were once either activists in the civil rights movement or opponents of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia -- or both. Congressmen Donald Fraser and Tom Harkin, U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, Allard Lowenstein (U.S. Representative to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in 1977), Patricia Derian (Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs), David Hawk (Executive Director of the U.S. Section of Amnesty International), William Goodfellow (Associate at the Washington-based Center for International Policy), and Jacqui Chagnon (Coordinator of the Human Rights Working Group of the Coalition for a New Foreign and Military Policy) are representative graduates of one or both of these movements.

2 Quoted by Strobe Talbott, Time, February 27, 1978, p. 22.

3 The two U.N. Covenants on the above sets of rights, which came into force in 1976 but which still lack U.S. ratification, were designed as additional means to transform the principles proclaimed in the 1948 Declaration into binding treaty obligations.

4 Much action taken by the Carter Administration is in fact pursuant to legislation passed or contemplated during the Kissinger period when Congress grew increasingly angry about close U.S. relations with certain repressive regimes. Major items of legislation include: Section 502b of the International Security Assistance and Arms Export Control Act of 1976 and Section 116 of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, as amended by Section 111 of the International Development and Food Assistance Act of 1977.

5 Elio Gaspari, "Carter, Si!", The New York Times, April 30, 1978, section 4, p. 19.

7 The distinction in the treatment of the two sets of rights is reflected in academic discussions, such as Maurice Cranston's What Are Human Rights (1973) and Richard Claude's Comparative Human Rights (1976) and in the different obligations on governments that ratify the relevant U.N. Covenants. Whereas a state that becomes party to the Covenant of Civil and Political Rights is under an "immediate" legal obligation to comply with its provisions, ratification of the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights merely obligates each State Party "to take steps . . . to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means. . . ."

8 The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the American Convention on Human Rights.

9 See Marshall D. Shulman, "On Learning to Live with Authoritarian Regimes," Foreign Affairs, January 1977, p. 337.

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  • Sandra Vogelgesang is currently an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; from 1975 to 1977, she was a member of the Policy Planning Staff in the U.S. State Department. She is the author of The Long Dark Night of the Soul: The American Intellectual Left and the Vietnam War. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not represent those of the Department of State.
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