Rights champion Reagan?

Ronald Reagan is not the first president to have trouble articulating the issue of human rights in foreign affairs. But it is somewhat ironic that he should have tripped over himself on this particular subject because his "policy" has been to say as little publicly about human rights as possible. The President sent his aides scrambling the other day when he stated, at a White House ceremony commemorating the Jewish victims of Nazi death camps, that "wherever it takes place in the world, the persecution of people, for whatever reason -- persecution of people for their religious belief -- that is a matter to be on the negotiating table or the United States does not belong at that table."

No, came the White House correction, Mr. Reagan did not mean to change his policy of playing down the rights issue. No, this was not meant as warning to Moscow that future negotiations with the US would be linked to human rights. It was simply a "general principle" that would be a "backdrop" for discussions with other governments.

Frankly, we applaud the President's spontaneous remarks -- certainly not the absence of diplomatic realism in them but the feelings behind them. They showed that Mr. Reagan does indeed care about "persecution" of the weak by the strong. That is a sentiment we hope does not become submerged in the administration's new approach on human rights. There is legitimate question about how far to press other nations publicly about violations of rights, a subject often left more effectively to quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy. But surely the leader of the world's largest and strongest democracy should be perceived as a champion of human d ecency and freedom.

Mr. Reagan's comment gives hope he intends to be that.

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