Establishing a Viable Human Rights Policy

Article excerpt

In this paper I deal with three broad subjects: First, the content and consequences of the Carter administration's human rights policy;

Second, the prerequisites of a more adequate theory of human rights;

And third, some characteristics of a more successful human rights policy.


How the Carter administration came to be outspokenly committed to the cause of human rights is far from clear. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan has observed, "Human rights as an issue in foreign policy was by no means central to Jimmy Carter's campaign for the presidency. It was raised in the Democratic platform drafting committee, and at the Democratic Convention, but in each instance the Carter representatives were at best neutral, giving the impression of not having heard very much of the matter before and not having any particular views." Indeed, some of candidate Carter's remarks suggested that he was far from wedded to an activist human rights policy. "Our people have now learned," he told the Foreign Policy Association in June 1976, "the folly of our trying to inject our power into the internal affairs of other nations."

Nevertheless, by the time of his inaugural address, Jimmy Carter had become adamant on the subject of human rights. "Our commitment to human rights," the new president informed the nation, "must be absolute." Within weeks of his inauguration, President Carter replied to a letter from Andrei Sakharov, and met with the noted Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky in the White House. These symbolic acts generated a great deal of excitement, yet they hardly constituted a human rights policy. On April 30, 1977, however, Secretary of State Vance delivered a policy address in which he set out to explain just what it was the administration meant by "human rights" and how it intended to promote them. According to Vance, by "human rights" the administration meant three things:

1. 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. And they include denial of fair public trial and invasion of the home.

2. The right to the fulfillment of such vital needs as food, shelter, health care, and education. We recognize that the fulfillment of this right will depend, in part, upon the stage of a nation's economic development. But we also know that this right can be violated by a government's action or inaction--for example, through corrupt official processes which divert resources to an elite at the expense of the needy or through indifference to the plight of the poor.

3. The right to enjoy civil and political liberties: freedom of thought, of religion, of assembly; freedom of speech; freedom of the press; freedom of movement both within and outside one's own country; freedom to take part in government.

U.S. policy, Vance stated, "is to promote all these rights." "If we are determined to act," he continued, "the means available range from quiet diplomacy in its many forms, through public pronouncements, to withholding of assistance." Significantly, nowhere in his speech did Vance indicate that human rights rest on specific institutions and that, where these institutions do not exist, neither quiet diplomacy nor public pronouncements nor the withholding of assistance can conjure human rights into being.

In accepting the notion that economic and social "rights" are just as important as civil and political rights, Secretary Vance went well beyond any previous U.S. understanding of human rights. Another prominent administration spokesman on human rights, U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, went further still. "For most of the world," Young declared, "civil and political rights ... come as luxuries that are far away in the future." Young called on the U.S. to recognize that there are various equally valid concepts of human rights in the world. …