Human Rights: Crucial To US Foreign Policy

Has the issue of human rights become the neglected stepchild of American foreign policy? This question typically is raised during debates, especially where American economic interests are involved, and the answer often is unsatisfactory.

Consider America's policy toward Nigeria, which is currently under review by the Clinton administration. By virtue of its size and geographic location, Nigeria, which has suffered under military rule for most of its 40 years as an independent nation, is important in regional and international politics and critical to American interests. But Nigeria's future is being squandered by the current ruling junta, led by Gen. Sani Abacha. Rampant corruption, economic mismanagement, and brutal subjugation of Nigeria's people are the norm. The just-released 1997 State Department human rights report on Nigeria summed up the situation there as "dismal."

Nigeria has the potential to be an economic powerhouse on the African continent, a key regional political leader, and an important American trading partner. But presently, oil revenues are the only reliable source of economic growth, with the US purchasing an estimated 41 percent of the output. Corruption and criminal activity are common, including reports of drug trafficking and consumer fraud schemes.

After the military annulled the 1993 election of Moshood Abiola as Nigeria's president - through what was considered by many to be a free and fair election - Chief Abiola was jailed, and there he remains, as far as we know, supposedly awaiting trial. Reliable information about his situation and condition is difficult to obtain. Abiola's wife was detained by authorities last year and later found murdered under circumstances suggesting the military may have been responsible.

In October 1995, General Abacha announced a so-called "transition" program with the goal of returning an elected civilian government to Nigeria by October 1998. But even this flawed transition process moves at a snail's pace. A draft constitution has not been completed, and the registration process for political parties has been extremely restrictive. Any criticism of the transition process is punishable by five years in prison.

Reports from international human rights organizations and the State Department document years of such brutality. Nigerian human rights activists and government critics are commonly whisked away to secret trials before military courts and imprisoned; independent media outlets are silenced; workers' rights to organize are restricted; and the State Security Detention of Persons Decree No. 2, giving the military sweeping powers of arrest and detention, remains in force.

Perhaps the most horrific example of repression by the Abacha government was the execution of human rights and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others in November 1995 on trumped-up charges. Since then, it appears the Abacha government has been working even harder to tighten its grip on the country.

Late last year, retired Major Gen. Musa Yar'Adua, a former Nigerian vice president and prominent opponent of Abacha, died in state custody under circumstances that remain a mystery. General Yar'Adua was one of 40 people arrested in 1995 in a government sweep and sentenced to 25 years in prison for an alleged coup plot widely believed to have been a pretext to silence government critics. The past few weeks have seen more accusations of coup-plotting and more arrests (without the benefit of due process) under the ensuing government crackdown.

It is unclear whether America's future Nigeria policy will lead to increased efforts to cooperate with Nigeria's government or if we will see increased pressure to further isolate the recalcitrant Abacha regime.

During Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's trip to Africa in December, there were disturbing news reports of statements by senior US officials that it would be unfair to hold the governments of certain African nations to "Western" standards of personal and political freedom.

These reports contradicted the administration's insistence that human rights remains an integral part of US African policy. Moreover, if accurately reported, those statements are a profound insult to the hundreds, if not thousands, of courageous pro-democracy and human-rights activists in African nations who put their lives on the line to win the basic rights enshrined in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 50th anniversary of which we celebrate this year.

On a moral level, the US has a clear obligation to show determined, consistent leadership in the struggle for human rights. On a practical level, the degree to which a government respects human rights can be an accurate barometer of how far we can trust that government to respect its neighbors, its trading partners, and the world community at large. A government that does not respect the fundamental rights of its people cannot be trusted to respect the obligations of a treaty or a trade agreement, much less the rule of law in general.

This is not a call for disengagement, but a demand that fundamental human rights be part of the rules of engagement in our foreign policy. Governments, like individuals, are rarely selectively trustworthy. It is not too much to insist that our partners in the international community demonstrate their trustworthiness, their respect for others, and their adherence to the rule of law.

* Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is the ranking member of the African Affairs subcommittee.

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