Defining a human rights policy

''In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free . . .'' Annual Message to Congress, Abraham Lincoln, Dec. 1, 1862.

''. . . all of us in this country are dedicated to the belief in human rights.'' Press conference, Ronald Reagan, Nov. 6, 1980.m

After protracted rumination, the administration finally named Elliot Abrams to be assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs. A former special counsel to Henry Jackson and chief administrative assistant to Patrick Moynihan, he is approved in the new post by most Democrats, and his neoconservatism is more than acceptable to Republicans.

The State Department simultaneously released a paper arguing that ''the central distinction in international politics'' was between ''free nations and those that are not free,'' that ''overall US foreign policy'' has to be based on a ''strong human rights policy . . . as a positive force for freedom and decency.'' Acknowledging that a credible policy meant ''hard choices which may adversely affect certain bilateral relations,'' the authors suggested ''At the least we will have to speak honestly about our friends' human rights violations.''

Thus Mr. Abrams must formulate and carry out a human rights policy that will simultaneously satisfy the national interest and the national ethic. Woodrow Wilson once said we were ''. . . the only idealistic nation in the world,'' and a May 1981 poll showed 67 percent of us opposed to aiding even anti-communist allies who violated human rights.

While the newly enunciated human rights policy will necessarily be framed to help the United States in the long-term world confrontation with the Soviet Union and its allies, we will not blindly support our friends whatever their misdeeds.

This apparent about-face by the administration encourages moderates yet endorses valid criticisms of the Carter human rights policies, which too often made the national interest secondary to satisfying what Michael Novak has called the humanitarian's ''dream of . . . a non-ideological Archimedean point . . . above the fray.'' But of course human rights are not above the fray; the issue is instead of the essence of the world struggle. Those who found the Shah's government too repugnant for decent Americans to deal with now see an Iran that has turned the tables and will not talk to us.

A present condemnation of a government guilty of cruelties is insufficient unless it is balanced with some consideration of futurity. Simply encouraging a turnover in tyrannies is not a human rights policy.

While the American beacon of liberty has sometimes been dimmed by error and stupidity, there are ethical differences between our coalition and the communist world which reasonable people may discern. Let the new neutralists of West Germany compare the national origins of this generation's innumerable refugees and exiles with their destinations and be enlightened thereby. There is a choice and our human rights policies must be informed by it.

While the human rights program which Mr. Abrams must form and execute cannot be other than one to further the national advantage, a caveat to an absolute policy of Metternichean calculation must be expressed. First and last and always , tell the truth. It was unnecessary, damaging, and abysmally stupid for the State Department to let Vice-President Bush go 6,000 miles to Manila in order to hail the mini-dictator of the Philippine archipelago as, of all things, an exemplar of liberty. There are many reasons for us to be joined in policy and interest with the islands. It may be necessary to compliment President Marcos as chief executive of a friendly country, but I hope that Mr. Abrams will be able to prevent us from again apotheosizing him as a democrat.

Elliott Abrams brings to his new post an intimate knowledge of our capital city. If he has yet to acquire power himself, he knows who has done so. To those of us who have long wished to see human rights factors taken into consideration by officials as regularly and instinctively as they weigh, for instance, military and economic issues, the nomination of the acutely intelligent Abrams is a hopeful sign. It suggests that the human rights job is important enough to be worth a few years of a serious careerist's time.

The assignment is no sinecure. It is always easier, intellectually and politically, to adhere to absolutes. Less effort is required simply to support every anti-communist government or, at the other extreme, to condemn and cut relations with every inhumane autocracy. One hopes that while remembering always that his principal interest must be our interests, Abrams will urge policies demonstrating that we Americans have not forgotten nor abandoned the altruism and idealism of our forebears.

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