How to keep human rights alive under Reagan

Since the rejection of Ernest Lefever as United States assistant secretary of state for humanitarian affairs, the task of coordinating the administration's human rights policies has been in limbo. Much speculation focuses on the fate of the human rights bureau. Why not revamp it, bring the bureau into conformity with traditional Republican commitments to freedom and liberty at home and abroad?

In order to recast the bureau the administration first must recognize why President Carter's human rights notions got US foreign policy into trouble. Most Americans acknowledge that Carter's human rights failures were byproducts of well-meaning but ill-conceived policies. The Carter administration encouraged progressive change in many countries, but, once "change" began, Carter had no way of limiting or channelling it.

Though there was some excess enthusiasm under Carter, it was not the moral fervor of the American commitment to human rights that caused Washington's problems. Difficulties arose only when the administration made human rights standards a criterion for other US policies, trying to use diplomatic leverage in pursuit of human rights goals.

The Reagan administration must come to grips with morality in US foreign policy. It is neither necessary nor desirable to posit an amoral policy framework. If either friend or foe received the impression that Washington was abandoning its moral principles, this would imperil US nation interests.

However, the US should keep its moral principles in proper perspective. Moral ideals always should be seen as "ideals," not absolute criteria against which policy is measured. With rare exceptions, moral principles are poor coercive mechanisms in US foreign policy.

A revamped human rights office under President Reagan should be made less subjective, less politicized, and less policy-oriented by:

* Concentrating on minimum standards to which no reasonable people could object (i.e., ontorture., slavery, genocide, minimal jurisprudence, etc.)

* Measuring, in a uniform and objective manner, the performance of every state in the international system, regardless of its stature or influence:

* Making no attempt to impose these standards on the nations of the world or on US policy toward those nations.

Such a new mandate for the human rights office would strip it of any veto power over the policy recommendations of the regional or functional bureaus at the State Department. The power of human rights "clearance" under Carter led to an enormous waste of time, money, and effort. It also strengthened the voice of human rights activists. The combination of "clearance" and a noisy constituency produced more bureaucratic clout than the bureau deserved. All this could be reduced sharply be revamping the human rights office.

A revitalized human rights bureau should be more objective and more credible as an officially sanctioned guide to global conditions. This would allow Washington to retain a vehicle for upholding American moral goals. in the international arena without intervening in the affairs of other states.

The US still could proclaim its ideals for the world to examine. If it lives in accordance with its ideals, it can hope others will see it as an example to emulate. When most choose not to conform to what Americans see as minimal standards of behavior, they can tell the world where they think violations exist and how severe they are.

But, by not trying to use political or economic leverage to compel change in countries that violate such standards, the US frees itself from two liabilities. First, it will not aggravate instability in its client states. If they are going to fail internally and as an American ally, let it be their fault, not America's. Second, the US would not have to contend with guilty states flaunting their violations in the face of its human rights-burdened foreign policy, clearly exposing US inability to effect change.

Far from abdicating America's moral standards, this proposal would prove more effective by measuring every state on an equitable basis. This would be possible precisely because the revamped human rights bureau would not have to clear its judgments with any policy bureau. Its judgments would be independent and informational, not explicitly linked to policy considerations. This would free the Department of State from the rancorous infighting which inhibited both policy- makers and human rights officials under Carter , making neither as effective as they might have been.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.