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How to make dictators look good.

For all its imperfections, The Carter Administration pursued human rights policies that gave hope to people living under vicious rulers. Juntas and military and civilian dictators feared that the United States might implement President Carter's human rights doctrine and refuse to do business with them. Under Ronald Reagan, all that is changed. Someone in the Administration may say something unpleasant about human rights conditions in a given country, but no despot trembles. Soon another official will say or do something to comfort the offended government.

My harsh view of this Administration's record stems from my experience as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights under Jimmy Carter. This county can make a difference if it makes even modest attempts to improve human rights practices and conditions. In spite of the Reagan enmity to the concept, concern for such matters is not limited to Democrats; my bias is pro-human-rights, not anti-Republican. It is political in the sense that I believe U.S. foreign policy interests have been severely damaged by the record of the last four years, as have the people who have suffered deprivation of their rights at the hands of their governments.

A comprehensive and succinct review of Reagan's record can be found in two reports prepared by Americas Watch, Helsinki Watch and the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights: "Failure," which came out in January 1984, and "In the Face of Cruelty," issued last month. Cooly, the bungled performance is revealed country by country, and the flouting of law and treaty obligations is recorded. From the evidence, one salient fact emerges. This government has no policy for the advancement of human rights. What it has is a ragbag of various, often illogical precepts that are chaotically applied.

"In the Face of Cruelty" takes its title from a comment about the Soviet Union's human rights record, made last year on Human Rights Day, December 10, by Max Kampelman, recently appointed a member of the U.S. negotiating team for arms control talks to be held in Geneva next month. "Silence in the face of cruelty may be complicity, inadvertent as that may be," he said. That is a good description of Reagan's first-term performance, which has featured complicity with a host of human rights violators. The tub-thumping excuses and distortions of the truth on behalf of U.S. cient states stand in sharp contrast to the more or less consistent castigation of the Soviet Union. The result is predictable. Human rights has become a counter in a geopolitical struggle, like a hotel in a game of Monopoly.

The basic assumption of the Reagan policy is that the Russians are strong and we are weak. Therefore, anything we do that makes us stronger, or appear stronger, is good. The world is divided between the countries that are for us and those that are for them. The people who run "our" countries preside over legitimate governments and do what they must. Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire and Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile fall into that category.

Fortunately for the Reaganites, Jeane Kirkpatrick was a fountation of supporting notions that gave this policy a veneer of respectability. For the political scientists, there is the famed conceit that totalitarians' human rights violations, though they may be exactly the same, are worse than authoritarians' violations. For the democratically inclined, there was a taste of "realism." As one of Reagan's apologists told me recently, some people are genetically and culturally unprepared for democracy. Last October the President applied that dictum to the people of the Philippines:

I know there are things ... that do not look good to us from the standpoint right now of democratic rights. But what is the alternative? It is a large communist movement to take over the Philippines.

Back in 1981, Kirkpatrick had said the same thing about Central Americans, who, regrettably, are "used to" tough governments.

According to another Administration nostrum, the United States must not interfere in the internal affairs of another nation. That rationale is always propounded with great seriousness. But it has lost its punch. The Reaganites have consistently attacked the Russians' awful human rights policies and practices. Yet on the grounds of noninterference, they either refuse to criticize their friends' trangressions, as in the case of Turkey and Haiti, or simply ignore them altogether, as in the cases of China and Yugoslavia. The Russians have formulated their own hypocritical human rights policy, which is a sort of parody of ours. They chastice the United States for its policy toward South Africa and send telegrams protesting the treatment of alleged U.S. political prisoners, often on the anniversary of some notable event in the history of human rights.

Former Secretary of State Alexander Haig launched the Reagan era by declaring that terrorism would replace human rights as a major foreign policy concern. "Human rights" was relegated to propaganda duty against the Soviet Union and its allies, and a handful of rightist countries of no geopolitical significance, such as Uganda and Paraguay, were thrown in for balance. Balance is a highly praised concept in foreign policy.

Four years ago the incoming Administration planned to abolish the State Department's Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, but Congress, which had created the agency, protested. Since then, it has limped along, serving as a public relations office for dictators and a front for "quiet diplomacy" (or, in the case of South Africa, "constructive engagement"). By and large it will certify that an anticommunist government with a bad record on human rights but a strong desire for U.S. military and economic aid is "making progress" toward democracy, though there may be some "problems" remaining. El Salvador, South Korea and Guatemala are examples.

Occasionally, the bureau is allowed to take a tough line. It made a worthy effort with Rumania, which has a grim record. At a bilateral round-table meeting in Washington, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Elliott Abrams made a forceful presentation of violations to the Rumanians. However, because Rumania does not follow Moscow's script in its foreign policy, courtship is the order of the day (as it was during the Carter years). Abram's efforts were ignored by the rest of the Washington bureaucracy.

When Abrams spoke out on Uganda's record, the government there complained, and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker rushed to mollify Kampala's leaders. He told them he had come so that "the air can be cleared and the relationship be put on a sound footing." Military and economic aid flowed without interruption.

For the most part, though, Abram's record is as dismal as the rest of Administration's. He once explained his kid-glove treatment of Pakistan by saying, "We have to recognize that it takes a hell of a knowledge of Pakistan to be willing to insist in each and every case that we are right and that [Gen. Zia ul-Haq] iw wrong." On September 13 he announced that the Chun Doo Hwan regime in South Korea has shown a "pattern of improvement" in human rights. He also asserted that the United States was "absolutely neutral" about the planned return of exiled opposition leader Kim Dau Jung and stupidly endangered Kim's safety by adding, "I told Kim that there would be a possible threat to his security not from his government but from the government of North Korea." That is the kind of clear message an authoritarian government understands: Do what you like, we don't care. And so, it does.

South Africa gets new equipment for its police, increased trade and tourism and a tap on the hand from President Reagan for its mistreatment of the black majority. In the Philippines the Administration tries to distance itself from the tottering government of Ferdinand MArcos but puts its money on the military and remains silent about summary executions and torture by the regime. There and in South Korea the citizens see the United States as a partner of the dictators who oppress them. Many believe that if it weren't for such an arrangement, their governments wuld have changed for the better long ago.

When Uruguay and Argentina were making the transition to civilian rule, the United States stuck with the military leaders until the day they left office, just in case the elected officials didn't make it. Now America clings with odd desperation to a set of foreign leaders who maintain precarious control over their populations by dint of U.S. material and moral support. Yet in countries that need assistance to maintain democratic government, like Columbia and Peru, no help is forthcoming except aid for the military.

Support for dictatorial regimes works against U.S. national interests in the long run. Administration officials should take to heart the lesson of Greece. The Greek government and people harbor a bitter animus toward the United States because of the warm backing (which included a public embrace by Vice President Spiro Agnew) we gave the Greek colonels during their brief but dreadful dictatorship. Someday, Turkey, South Korea, Zaire, Pakistan, Morocco, the Philippines, Chile and a host of other allies might decide that dependence on, and good relations with, the United States costs more than they are willing to pay.

There is still time for the Reagan Administration to adopt a credible human rights policy and begin to undo some of the damage it has caused in the past four years. It could start by abolishing its double standard. Instead of covering for its friends and castigating only its enemies, it might simply report objectively on the human rights situation in every country. An end to hypocrisy would remove some of the stigma of complicity. Adherence to U.S. laws with human rights prosisos would entail a sweeping revision of our foreign commitments, particularly in Central America and South Africa. If the Administration would take such actions, it might gain the benefit of extracting itself from the Central American quagmire with some dignity.

Unfortunately there is not one straw in the wind that indicates that it has contemplated such actions.
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Title Annotation:Ronald Reagan's lack of a human rights policy
Author:Derian, Patt
Publication:The Nation
Date:Feb 9, 1985
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