A Matter of Principle; Human Rights and Politics

By Neier, Aryeh | The Nation, April 22, 1991 | Go to article overview

A Matter of Principle; Human Rights and Politics


Neier, Aryeh, The Nation


In principle, concern with human rights has no politics. Indeed, it could be said that politics-that is, efforts to advance one's own cause or the cause of one's allies, or to retard the cause of one's antagonists-is antithetical to concern for human rights. George Bush, Saddam Hussein, Yitzhak Shamir, Deng Xiaoping, Augusto Pinochet, Mobutu Sese Seko or anyone else would protest abuses of human rights against themselves or their friends. Similarly, they, would denounce such abuses by their enemies. Yet, by itself, this hardly adds up to a commitment to human rights. Such a commitment also requires a readiness to oppose abuses when they are committed by one's allies or those with whom one sympathizes politically; and a willingness to defend human rights when the victims are one's enemies or political antagonists, or when denouncing abuses may play into the hands of one's political opponents.

That said, it must be acknowledged that most of the energy that has gone into the human rights movement worldwide and helped it to become a powerful force in world affairs is generated by politics. It is not that principled advocates of human rights do not matter. In defying state power in defense of human rights, an Andrei Sakharov, a Fang Lizhi, a Paulo Evaristo Cardinal Arns of Brazil or a Gibson Kamau Kuria of Kenya may have enormous impact. Yet it is also the case that those who are politically motivated will seize on the efforts of even the most principled defenders of human rights for their own purposes. When Amnesty International published its recent report on Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait, for example, George Bush seemed to commit that report to memory and repeatedly cited Amnesty's findings in interviews. Yet Amnesty's reports on Iraq prior to August 2, 1990, and its reports on some nations in the military alliance against Iraq have had little impact for lack of a powerful political constituency eager to exploit those reports for its own political purposes.

Until the early 1980s, most of the political energy available to the human rights movement was supplied by the left. Although some organizations concerned with human rights internationally were founded long ago, and Amnesty International was established in 1%1, it was only in the 1970s that the movement started to become a force, first in Europe and then in the United States. In this country, it drew most of its support at the outset from some of those on the left who had opposed the U.S. role in Vietnam and from those who were outraged at the US. part in the 1973 coup led by Pinochet against Salvador Allende in Chile. The abuses that characterized the Pinochet regime-extrajudicial executions, "disappearances:' torture and political imprisonment-became the main focus of the human rights movement.*

As accounts of Pinochet's brutalities circulated, a few Democrats in Congress-former Representatives Don Fraser and Tom Harkin (the latter is now a senator) and Senator Edward Kennedy foremost among them-sponsored legislation to prohibit U.S. military and economic assistance to governments that practiced such cruelties. They succeeded in overcoming the opposition of President Gerald Ford and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, by enlisting support from members of Congress of both parties who were then discovering the human rights cause because of their interest in the dissident movement that had been emerging in the Soviet Union since its invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Also, some conservatives supported the laws barring foreign assistance on human rights grounds because of their general hostility to the use of U.S. tax dollars to support other governments.

The legislation adopted in the mid-1970s committed the United States to making the promotion of human rights internationally a major factor in our government's foreign policy. That legislation focused on the physical abuses associated with regimes such as Pinochet's. Governments that "practice" such "gross abuses" are ineligible for US. …

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