The Reagan Administration, the United Nations & Human Rights

By Vavrina, Vernon J. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview
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The Reagan Administration, the United Nations & Human Rights

Vavrina, Vernon J., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


The literature is dominated by a paradigm suggesting that the administration of Ronald Reagan was very poor with respect to the advocacy and promotion of international human rights. The "turnaround thesis" contends that only at the end of the Reagan era, after hardliners had left, were those truly concerned with human rights free to exercise a considerable effect on U.S. foreign policy.

The contention of this article is that rigid acceptance of the conventional view of Reagan's human rights policy conceals more than it reveals. From the beginning the Reagan team was responsible for substantial contributions in the field of human rights. This will be demonstrated by concentrating on the role played by Dr. Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Member of the Presidential Cabinet (1981-5). Kirkpatrick made many important human rights speeches for the administration and offered the most articulate rationale for Reagan's approach. She has been widely criticized by politicians, scholars and human rights activists. However, this paper will offer evidence that many criticisms are unfounded.

In 2003 Dr. Kirkpatrick led the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Her approach to human rights, therefore, deserves special attention.


As this paper is being written, the United Nations is on the verge of inaugurating a Human Rights Council. Its first meeting is tentatively scheduled for June, 19, 2006 in Geneva. Whether it will be an improvement over the outgoing Human Rights Commission remains to be seen. There have been numerous calls for UN reform over the years (Hoge 2006; 2005a; Schlesinger 2005). (1) The Oil-for Food fiasco has tarnished the reputation of the organization (Hoge 2005c). The United Nations' performance in human rights has been especially suspect. Its lack of proper action in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda is scandalous. History appears to be repeating itself in Darfur, Sudan (Hoge 2005b). (2)

The U.S. administration of President George W. Bush continues to push to make democracy a reality in Iraq. American authorities have been widely criticized for allegedly torturing some of those in their custody. Meanwhile, Slobodan Milosevic has died in prison before a verdict on his alleged war crimes could be reached and the trial of Saddam Hussein, full of theatrics, goes on and on. The Middle East remains a powder keg filled with charges and countercharges of human rights transgressions. Incapacitation of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon combined with the ascendance to power of Hamas greatly clouds the Arab-Israeli picture. When Chinese leader Hu Jintao is greeted on the White House lawn, he is heckled by a spectator regarding treatment of the Falun Gong in China. Throngs of people throughout the world protest the publication of cartoons in Denmark said to be blasphemous to Islam. Italy shelters a former-Muslim-turned-Christian while many in his native Afghanistan say his execution is mandated by their faith. It is clear that human rights concerns dominate our world now and will do so in the future. It is also apparent that the United Nations will continue to be linked to many of the world's most intractable human rights dilemmas. The Charter upon which the United Nations rests makes frequent mention of "human rights" (Henkin 1965, 504). As we approach the 5th anniversary of September 11th and the 61st anniversary of the United Nations, it is entirely fitting to assess the role played by this collective security institution in protecting human rights. Such a review is serious business and will help exhibit the strengths and weaknesses of this universal intergovernmental organization.

A word of caution is in order. The United Nations as a whole is an extremely complex organization. Those parts of the UN which deal with human rights per se form an intricate labyrinth. Since its inception the UN system for promoting human rights has grown "like topsy"(Alston 1992, 2).

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