Eighteen months ago, top officials in the Reagan administration loudly proclaimed that human rights concerns were no longer the focus of United States foreign policy. They threw down the gauntlet before the public and the Congress with Ernest Lefever's nomination to the post of assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs. Lefever embodied the human rights community's worst fears - he ardently opposed human rights laws and excoriated the progressive church and human rights community at home and abroad. For the first few months of the Reagan administration, it appeared that human rights advocates were out of fashion, outmaneuvered, and outgunned.
At the end of the 97th Congress, things look mighty different. The American people and their representatives in Congress have tempered the worst inclinations of the Reagan administration's idealogues, and even scored several important human rights victories.
It all began with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's rejection of Ernest Lefever as the assistant secretary of state-designate for human rights in June 1981. His tumultuous confirmation hearings quickly became a referendum on the Reagan administration's human rights approach. Lefever's refusal to identify human rights violations in noncommunist countries even offended moderate and conservative Republican senators.
Shortly thereafter, the Congress dealt the administration its second stunning defeat by adopting a resolution which resoundingly denounced the US position at the United Nations World Health Organization on an international code of marketing for infant formula. The United States' lone negative vote (after the White House was lobbied intensely by infant formula manufacturers) outraged citizens groups and members of Congress. The ensuing uproar in the press and the Congress publicized the infant formula issue around the world and helped pressure the infant formula industry into complying with the terms of the code, in spite of the US vote against it.
The executive branch has also failed to repeal several key human rights laws, in spite of a concerted lobbying effort in Congress. In its foreign aid request of 1981, the Reagan administration asked that human rights prohibitions on military aid to Chile and Argentina be lifted. Instead, Congress adopted tough human rights standards before aid could go forward. Throughout the past year, these restrictions have prevented the sale or grant of military items to both Chile and Argentina.
The administration suffered another loss from progressives and human rights advocates when it failed to remove the ''Clark amendment'' from the Foreign Assistance Act. (The Clark amendment prohibited the executive branch from covertly providing assistance to rebels seeking to overthrow the government of Angola.) Human rights groups in Washington and their members across the country made the Clark amendment a top priority. The victory was another demonstration of grass-roots support for a humane and noninterventionist foreign policy.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee repeatedly took the administration to task on the issue of crime control sales to human rights violators. When the Commerce Department recently approved a license for the sale of 500 shock batons to the government of South Korea, angry human rights supporters, led by Representatives Bingham, Bonker, and Leach demanded a change of policy. The furor over the licenses was so intense that the government of South Korea itself quietly reneged on the sale, and a chastened Commerce Department promised to revise its policy.
In spite of human rights restrictions on US votes in the international financial institutions, the Reagan administration voted for loans to a number of countries with poor human rights records, including Chile, Argentina, and the Philippines. As a result of persistent congressional criticism, led by Banking Subcommittee on International Development chairman Jerry Patterson, however, loans to Guatemala from the Inter-American Development Bank have been stalled for nearly a year.
Military aid to Guatemala has also been stalled, in spite of persistent requests by the State Department. House Inter-American Affairs Subcommittee chairman Michael Barnes has closely monitored continuing abuses by the Guatemalan army and quietly but firmly vetoed security assistance to the Rios Montt government.
Congressional and public activism on human rights has also affected US immigration policy. Mounting criticism from congressional Black Caucus leaders forced the State Department to reverse its policy decision to deport exiled Ethiopians. As a result, Ethiopian nationals in the US have retained their ''extended voluntary departure status'' until human rights improvements in their own country allow for their safe return.
Even the rhetoric emanating from the White House and Foggy Bottom has softened in response to continued public and congressional human rights advocacy. The controversial ''authoritarian vs. totalitarian'' dichotomy touted by UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick has mercifully vanished from the official lexicon.
Another welcome change has been an increasing willingness by some State Department and US Embassy officials to meet with human rights advocates, dissidents, and opposition political figures around the world. On an August 1981 trip to Latin America, Jeane Kirkpatrick embraced Southern Cone dictators but refused to meet with human rights leaders. After a drubbing in the press and Congress, the administration quietly adopted a different approach. In South Korea, for example, Vice-President Bush met with Korean church and human rights leaders to hear their concerns about rising torture and political repression.
Progressives in the Congress and a conservative President naturally disagree on human rights policies and approaches. There are some things, however, that we can agree on. Human rights restrictions on US foreign assistance are the law of the land. Unless those laws are repealed, the administration is bound to implement them. The Congress and the executive branch can also agree to support human rights advocates and institutions around the world. The only protection human rights monitors have - be they in El Salvador or the Soviet Union - is the world's willingness to listen and respond to the abuses they report. The administration must stop discrediting church and human rights groups in this country and abroad. It should meet with dissidents and human rights advocates at US embassies around the world.
At the end of the 97th Congress, human rights concerns are very much alive. Human rights advocates in Congress have prodded, hounded, and even shamed the executive branch into some important policy decisions. In the process, Americans have sent a message of hope and concern to the disappeared, the suffering, and the silenced around the world.