Human rights: will Reagan learn from Congress?

By , Rep. Don Bonker of Washington, a Democrat, is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations.

Any attempt to dismantle or ignore our traditional commitment to human rights will be met with firm resistance in the Congress. Judging from recent statements coming from the Reagan administration, it wants to demote human rights and concentrate instead on terrorism. Secretary of State Haig's public statements about international terrorism as an alternative to human rights make no sense. Terrorism ism a human rights violation, be it a hijacked plane in West Germany, Red Brigade attacks in Italy, or state-sponsored torture in Latin America. He will have to define terrorism more carefully. For example, how does one distinguish between insurgencies that have a just cause, such as our own War of Independence, and the indiscriminate violence which plagues the world from time to time?

The new administration is obviously convinced that Jimmy Carter's alleged foreign policy failures were due, in part, to his commitment to human rights. These, however, are faulty assumptions, as Mr. Reagan and his advisers will soon discover.

A refresher course might be in order for those who are anxious to dismantle American human rights policies.

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* First, while the former President's clarion call raised the issue on the global scale, it was really Congress which laid the ground- work for our human rights policy.

As far back as 1973 Congress began limiting bilateral, and later multilateral , assistance to countries that persisted in a systematic pattern of gross violations of fundamental human rights. By amending the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the Congress mandated by law that all future administrations must enforce human rights policy. Also, specific legislation cut off aid to Chile, Argentina, Cuba, Uganda, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Zaire. In appropriations bills, Congress instructed our representatives to international financial institutions to vote against loans to countries which violated human rights unless such assistance was directed to serving the "basic needs of the impoverished majority."

It was Congress that required the State Department to publish, annually, country reports on human rights practices. Initially, the reports were only for countries receiving US military aid, but they were later extended to all 153 nations.

The position of assistant secretary for human and humanitarian affairs -- the in-house advocate for human rights issues in the Carter administration -- was also created by Congress.

In a variety of other ways, Congress has made explicit its concern for human rights, ranging from the so-called Jackson-Vanik amendment which linked freedom of emigration to East-West trade, to inclusion of a human rights curriculum in international military education and training programs.

* Second, human rights is not an exclusively American issue. There now exists an international consensus that recognizes basic human rights and obligations owed by all governments to their citizens. We are signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; and other international and regional human rights agreements. The US also helped to create and has actively participated in a number of organizations which promote and monitor adherence to international human rights standards, including the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the implementation of the Helsinki Final Act, now in session in Madrid. Our persistence in freeing Russian dissidents and unifying families and our attention to the problem of disappearances have put all repressive regimes on the defensive. What will be our future role at these sessions under an administration that wants to deemphasize human rights?

* Third, there is in this country, as well as abroad, growing support for human rights causes. Our allies look to us for leadership on human rights issues and in conjunction with us have started to develop their own policies.

Despite its shortcomings, supporters and critics agree that our human rights policy has saved lives, brought about the release of political prisoners, reduced torture, and given hope to those who remain oppressed.

The Reagan administration is well advised to carefully weigh public support for human rights, as well as our long-term best interests, before attempting to weaken the policy.

In the end, the administration will come to realize that our commitment to human rights is precisely what distinguishes us from the Soviet Union. Americans do care about individual liberty and freedom and strongly believe in expanding these fundamental rights to al l the people of the world.

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