Human Rights: Legislative Balance Sheet

September 25, 2007

Efforts by human rights lobbyists to cut back U.S. military aid and tighten controls over multilateral bank loans for repressive Third World regimes were only partially successful during the past session of Congress. A significant cut in military aid for the Videla regime in Argentina was pushed through, as was a small but politically important reduction in aid to the Marcos regime in the Philippines. However, a combination of a manipulative strategy by the Carter administration, a counterattack from the right-wing, and the lack of a mass base prevented further gains from being made and point to a difficult future for such lobbying work. Recent years have seen the issue of human rights violations in U.S. client states - torture, disappearance, the suspension of political and trade union rights - become a potentially explosive issue within the U.S. itself. The tactics of intervention in Vietnam and Chile laid bare the existence of U.S. support for a network of Sources include: AIM brochure and Report; AIM Tax Exemption Application to IRS, August 17, 1971; Hilaire Du Berrier, Background to Betrayal, Western Islands Publishers, Boston, 1975; House Banking Committee, "Audit of the Federal Reserve Bank," March 1975; William Buckley column in Daily Times Mamaroneck, NY, April 9, 1977; and interviews with Reed Irvine and Bernard Yoh. dictatorships in the third world, whose repressive forces were armed and trained directly by the U.S. and whose economic policies widened rather than narrowed the gap between rich and poor. By the time Jimmy Carter took office, public opinion was already mobilized in response to the outrages of the past decade. This pressure had resulted in congressional legislation barring direct aid to "consistent" human rights violators and requiring U.S. opposition to loans from the big multilateral banks. By late 1976 military aid to Chile and Uruguay was cut off, and pressure was mounting for further cuts. Faced with growing anger and cynicism about U.S. foreign policy, the Carter Administration determined to pre-empt the human rights issue, seize control of its definition, and make use of it as a foreign policy as well as domestic policy weapon. This strategy was also part of a broader effort to regain public confidence in the government in general and foreign policy in particular. The first step in this strategy was to open a full scale attack on the Soviet Union and other socialist countries for their treatment of dissidents. The administration's intentions were clearly political, aimed at inflicting a tactical blow against the Soviet Union in the ongoing strategic conflict, at diverting attention from the role of the U.S. in creating repressive regimes in the third world, and at fanning anticommunism within the U.S. itself. "The second step was to make some concessions to public opinion in the form of mild criticisms and token aid reductions to client regimes, but at the same time to demand that Congress not take any further steps. The Carter Administration's much-publicized reductions in military aid for Uruguay, Ethiopia, and Argentina, while calculated to appear as a major human rights offensive, were actually political moves masked with a moral veneer. Aid to Uruguay had already been stopped by Congress. In the case of Ethiopia, a calculation had already been made that the country had moved into the Soviet camp, and Argentina was the one country where a hard fight with Congressional opponents was certain. Within Congress, a third component of the strategy was to neutralize the leading activists by convincing them that Carter's commitment to human rights was real and by incorporating some of their key staff members into the new administration. This strategy worked particularly well in the case of Rep. Donald Fraser of Minnesota, who has lately kept a conspicuously low profile. However, these initial moves 48 NACLA Report HUMAN RIGHTS LEGISLATIVE BALANCE SHEET NACLA Report 48update * update . update . update did not prevent several strong campaigns from being mounted against the regimes of several countries and on the issue of the multilateral banks. Pressure from outside Congress increased, and new individuals within Congress moved into a position of confrontation - among them Reps. Gerry Studds of Massachusetts, Edward Roybal and Yvonne Burke of Los Angeles, and Herman Badillo of New York. Human rights pressure on foreign aid legislation was co-ordinated in Washington by the Human Rights Working Group of the Coalition for a New Foreign and Military Policy, representing a broad spectrum of churches, so- cial and political action organizations, a few trade unionists, and several country-specific groups. The Working Group proposed a 13-point legislative program but only had the strength to fight on a few of its points. On the military aid bill, strong campaigns succeeded in cutting off most forms of military aid to Argentina for the next two years and in making a 6 percent cut in total military assistance to the Philippines in the coming fiscal year. By linking across-the-board lobbying with pinpointed grass- roots pressure on key targets, these campaigns were able to overcome or neutralize strong counter-lobbying by the State and Defense Departments, and, in the case of the Philippines, to counter the frequent assertion that an aid cut there would jeopardize U.S. security in the Pacific. On the other hand, an effort to eliminate military and economic aid to the Somoza regime in Nicaragua was badly defeated on the House floor after an earlier subcommittee victory, primarily because it relied heavily on public hearings and the initiative of a single Congressman, rather than on real political pressure. The supporters of the Nicaragua cut-off had no base of support to withstand the steam- roller which came from the Nicaraguan Embassy, the State Department, and the conservative Republicans. The effort to restrict international lending institutions such as the World Bank and Inter- American Development Bank ran into other problems. An extended and complex argument arose over whether the U.S. should be required to vote against loans to repressive regimes, or merely be allowed to argue against them for political and diplomatic reasons. In the end, Congress appropriated $5 billion for the banks and gave the Administration the free and unrestricted hand it wanted. Although mobilization by the Human Rights Working Group made the fight a difficult one, the opposition was too formidable to overcome. Just prior to the August recess, the right wing in Congress launched a powerful effort to undermine both the progressive human rights lobbying and Carter's foreign policy strategy. Bolstered by their victory in Nicaragua, conservative Republicans sought to prevent any aid from going to progressive African nations like Mozambique and to the nations of Indochina on grounds of human rights violations in these countries. Although this effort was defeated, it demonstrated clearly that the right will try to exploit the human rights issue, and can play effectively on the prejudices in the middle sector of Congress. The same right- wing forces are now mobilizing to stop ratification of the Panama Canal treaties. In sum, human rights activists have developed a model combining lobbying and grassroots constituency pressure which can exert significant pressure on Congress and have limited success in cutting back aid to repressive regimes. However, the initiative still lies with Carter and his strategists. The relative confusion on the human rights issue that exists among the U.S. public and the lack of the constant mass pressure felt in Washington by the end of the Vietnam War are serious weaknesses for future work. Extensive organizing will have to be done at the grassroots level to mobilize, give direction to, and magnify the discontent which the American people now feel over the role their government plays in the world.

Tags: US Congress, Jimmy Carter, human rights, US military aid

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