Human rights: the banner still waves -- privately

Signals of a retreat from Jimmy Carter's human rights initiative have sent shudders through individuals and groups concerned with individual dignity and liberty. His defeat was toasted by governmental and private interests in Guatemala and elsewhere who want a free hand no matter what the cost in human rights.

But the human rights movement is not likely to wither away. A strong -- and growing -- private network in America and abroad remains to carry it forward. It includes non-governmental organizations and committed individuals in such international agencies as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Long before the Carter initiative the defense of human rights rested heavily on concerned private citizens and on small, embattled private groups. In our own time, Amnesty International has become the most prominent, but hundreds of others work on the issue.

In contrast with Amnesty, for example, one of the least vocal is the International Committee of the Red Cross, the drafter of the Geneva conventions on human rights and armed conflict. But its inquiries into the treatment of political prisoners also provide protection against inhumane conditions and torture. Although it publicizes violations only when behind-the-scenes efforts fail, its neutral authority is so great that governments that permit ICRC scrutiny in the first place tend to correct gross abuses. There is clear evidence, for example, that Red Cross visits helped stop torture in Iran under the Shah.

Several international treaties deal with arbitrary arrests, summary execution , torture, and other forms of political repression. But it takes carefully marshaled evidence and public exposure -- the stock-in-trade of most human rights groups -- to restrain obdurate governments. Organizations ranging from the International Commission of Jurists to Britain's Minority Rights Group employ a wide array of actions, from scholarly research to petitions. Victims of repression who have been released or permitted to emigrate testify to the vital role of these spotlights on official behaviour.

Although public authorities -- police, courts, diplomatic chancellories -- mainly steer the course of human rights, they are often hostage to prickly sensitivities of national sovereignty. A staunch moral stand by government, backed up with legislation and sanctions, greatly magnifies the efforts of private organizations.

David P. Forsythe, an authority on international humanitarian law, has documented this phenomenon in research for the Yale University Program on Nonprofit Organizations. "Human rights was given more attention [by the US government in the 1970s] save perhaps for the time of the Declaration of Independence and its claims of the rights of man." Forsythe notes. Private groups made considerable headway on State Department views and behaviour, more so with Congress. He cites evidence from the lobying of Freedom House, the Washington Office on Latin America, the Human Rights Working Group, the Association of American Publishers, and others.

Such groups will have less influence on the Reagan administration, but they will continue to serve as monitors, information sources, and watchdogs on human rights violations abroad and indifference by the US. Some agencies do receive substantial US government funds, and may therefore suffer under Reagan budget cuts, but the field as a whole has been getting increasing support from individuals, foundations, and other donors.

Moreover the human rights movement is not as Western-dominated as it once was. Even countries with bleak records of political repression, such as Brazil, Indonesia, and Chile, now have homegrown defense and research groups, and regional organizations devoted to human rights have formed in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The purview of human rights groups, especially abroad, is expanding to economic and social well-being.

Another hopeful trend is the expanded corps of human rights specialists. For many years organizations in this field struggled along with volunteers and often no more than one or two full-time staff members. Under an unusual internship program conducted by the University of Minnesota, young men and women have augmented the staffs of 31 human rights organizations around the world. They include not only American law graduates and scholars but also a magistrate from Egypt, lawyers from Brazil, Bangladesh, and Chile, a political scientist from India, and interns from other third-world countries.

The threat to individual security from the change of course in Washington is quite real. The recent arrest of human rights activists in Argentina, even if only for a week, may reflect a judgment abroad that the US will be highly selective -- denouncing violations in unfriendly countries and soft-pedaling them in friendly, even if authoritarian, regimes. The danger stems also from budget cuts in the human rights work of the Agency for International Development and the Inter-American Foundation and legislative muting of similar work in the State Department and US delegations to the UN and the Organization of American States.

But no matter what turn the Reagan policy may take, the private human rights community will keep up the pressure, legitimized by organizations and treaties that have placed human rights firmly in world affairs.

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