The New Human Rights Calculus

By Pat M. Holt. Pat M. Holt, former chief of of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington. | The Christian Science Monitor, July 1, 1993 | Go to article overview

The New Human Rights Calculus


Pat M. Holt. Pat M. Holt, former chief of of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington., The Christian Science Monitor


THE World Conference on Human Rights, which ended last weekend in Vienna, raised anew the question of what role human rights should play in United States foreign policy. Most of the talk in Vienna spread more confusion than clarity.

It will help to sort this out if we go back to basics. To begin with, greater respect for human rights throughout the world is in the US national interest. We tend to get along better with countries that have good human rights records than with those which do not. American citizens living or traveling in such countries have fewer problems.

So promotion of human rights is an appropriate objective of US foreign policy. But it is only one objective among others, including military security, access to essential raw materials, protection of American business abroad, the growth of foreign trade, and suppression of the drug trade. In the real world of diplomacy, it is rarely possible to promote one of these objectives without sacrificing another.

Second, we need to keep firmly in mind what rights we are talking about. There are all kinds, some more important than others. The modern phase of US emphasis on human rights in foreign policy was pushed on a reluctant executive branch by a Congress fed up with reports of torture in Brazil in the 1960s. The right not to be physically abused is the most basic of all rights; it is also the most narrow one.

Later, especially under Presidents Carter and Reagan, the promotion of democracy - that is, the right to vote - was added.

Freedom from torture and freedom to vote imply other rights - freedom of speech and assembly, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures - so that political parties can be organized and political campaigns conducted.

All of these rights, fundamental and narrow though they are, are matters of degree. There is a wide spectrum between a prisoner roughed up by police in the course of an arrest - and being subject to systematic torture over a period of weeks. Freedom of the press is circumscribed by the law of libel.

So in the real world of diplomacy another tradeoff has to be made:Where do you draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not?

IN the third place, there is no general agreement that US human-rights policy ought to be narrowly limited. …

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