Washington — Ernest W. Lefever and Jacobo Timerman have yet to meet, but their ideas are clashing in this week's great debate over human rights. Dr. Lefever, President Reagan's nominee to head the State Department's human rights bureau, is fighting to get his nomination confirmed in the face of stiff opposition in the US Senate.
Mr. Timerman, a stocky newspaper publisher who was once Argentina's best-known political prisoner, is here to promote his new book. Having suffered more than two years of imprisonment, interrogation, and torture at the hands of the Argentine military, he speaks with a certain authority of the subject of human rights. He thinks that through the nomination of Lefever, President Reagan is renouncing America's ideals and returning to the cold war.
In contrast with Lefever, who has sharply criticized the Carter administration's human rights policy, Timerman says that under President Carter, the United States helped "thousands" of Argentinians in the face of repression that, in his view, has been unequaled elsewhere in the hemisphere. The US did this, he said, by providing information and legal advice to Argentinians in distress and by putting quiet diplomatic pressure on the Argentine military.
"It was through thousands of little, little steps," Timerman told reporters at a May 19 breakfast sponsored by Foreign Policy magazine. ". . . thousands of little situations in which lives were saved -- how many I don't know."
According to a report to Congress prepared earlier this year by the State Department, the most serious violations of human rights in Argentina in recent years have been the unexplained disappearances of thousands of people. In that report, the department said there was "substantial evidence" that most of these "disappeared" persons had been abducted by the Argentine security forces and interrogated under torture. But it said the situation had improved in 1980, with the number of credibly documented cases of such disappearences dropping to 12.
In a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee May 18, Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island questioned Lefever about Argentina and the Timerman book.
Lefever said he had read reviews but not the book itself. He declined to be drawn into a detailed discussion of Argentina. But the nominee did say he considered disappearances "a great evil and worthy of condemnation and correction." He noted that there had been an "improvement" in the situation, with the trend being toward fewer disapearances.
At the breakfast meeting, Timerman was asked to comment on the fact that only 12 disappearances had been credibly documented in 1980.
"The word 'only' is really an obscene word when it comes to the missing people," he said. "They say that this is an improvement. Well, I'm not so sure about that.
"After you have 20,000 people missing, the people involved in human rights in Argentina are really frightened. . . . You don't keep bombing a city once it's been destroyed."
"They say there is freedom of the press now -- that no editor is being persecuted," he continued. "But the only two editors who were outspoken are now in exile."
Timerman said that if the other editors were allowed to go back to Argentina and his own newspaper was given back to him, "that would be an improvement."
As publisher of the Buenos Aires paper La Opinion, Timerman criticized the Argentine government, military services, and secret police. In April 1977 he was arrested and held without charges for 30 months.
The Argentine Supreme court found no judicial grounds for his confinement, but he was tortured and interrogated about his Zionism and his loyalty to Argentina, to which he had come as a child from the Soviet Union. He was stripped of his citizenship and expelled in September 1979 and now lives in Israel .