Is proliferation of 'rights' weakening basic protections?

Last week the State Department sent Congress its 1998 report on human rights practices. It runs 5,000 pages, covers 194 countries, and includes as human rights such things as democratic political institutions, an independent judiciary, nondiscrimination in employment, and the right of labor to organize.

This is a long way from protection against physical abuse, which is what Congress intended when it passed the first human rights legislation a generation ago. Has the human rights tail come to wag the foreign policy dog?

Congress itself bears a large share of the responsibility for this expansion. It was Congress that created the position of assistant secretary of state for human rights - mainly because it did not trust the State Department to bring sufficient enthusiasm to the policy. This locked human rights into the bureaucracy and spurred the growth of the human rights lobby.

The lobby consists of a broad cross-section of Americans - church groups of all kinds, organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and the civil rights lobby. The last is primarily interested in promoting the rights of minority groups in the US, but it makes common cause with those promoting human rights abroad. Ethnic groups are yet another potent influence stoking human rights concerns. Their interest tends to be limited to their country of origin, but that narrow focus increases their power.

Congress has responded to the special interests of these groups to write various human rights goals into law, and the State Department has added others. None of these goals is unworthy; all are desirable. But not all are equally congruent with broader US objectives in a given country. Some may even be counterproductive.

It is almost standard practice for dictatorial governments to release a few political prisoners when they want something from the United States, but they don't follow up with fundamental change. This leads to the suspicion that one motive for arresting dissidents is to stockpile bargaining chips against the day when they might need another cheap concession to the US.

Most foreign policy decisions involve sacrificing one objective for another. Increasingly these trade-offs encompass human rights. We want to suppress the drug trade nowhere more than in Colombia. So we are giving training and equipment to the Colombian Army - despite that army's long record of mistreating prisoners and abusing suspects.

We want to encourage economic liberalization in China, not to mention our own exports to that huge market. Should this take precedence over attempts to protect political dissidents?

Which human rights should we try to advance? How should we rank, say, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom from physical abuse? What is a human right? Are they only rights when they can be enforced in court? Or do rights include those listed in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights - which many Americans regard not as rights but desirable social goals, such as a job, education, and medical care?

Where should the US draw the line, if at all, in the pursuit of those who have committed crimes against humanity? Are the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders after World War II a useful precedent for dealing with those who directed more recent barbarism in Cambodia, Zaire/Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, and elsewhere? Is it in our national interest to inject ourselves so far into the judicial and political processes of such diverse countries?

Reliance on international courts provides something of a buffer, but somebody has to capture and deliver the criminals.

Interest in improving human rights is likely to vary with the importance assigned to a given country. Congress's own predilections have generated some of these distinctions. Thus, human rights violations are more deplored in China than in Indonesia, more in Libya and Iraq than in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, more in Cuba than almost anywhere.

The whole human rights component of foreign policy needs a critical review. The original objective was to improve the US image abroad by dissociating ourselves from governments that tolerate police brutality. In some cases, that was achieved. The objectives now are much broader. In some cases they are more an irritant than a positive influence.

To argue for a reconsideration of this jumble is not to be callous toward human freedom. It is only to plead for a broader view of the national interest.

*Pat M. Holt is a Washington writer on foreign affairs. He is the co-author of 'Invitation to Struggle: Congress, the President and Foreign Policy' (Congressional Quarterly Press, 1992).

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