Human Rights..."In the Soul of Our Foreign Policy

September 25, 2007

When Jimmy Carter took office in 1977 U.S. foreign policy clearly bore the stamp of the Nixon-Kissinger years. Its cornerstone in the Third World was U.S. support of reactionary client regimes - most of them military dictatorships-committed to containing popular movements and otherwise defending U.S. interests. In Iran there was the Shah, in Nicaragua there was Somoza, in Chile Pinochet, in the Philippines Marcos- the list went on and on. To carry out the very aims that won them U.S. backing, these regimes resorted to extreme brutality and repression. In an all too familiar pattern, tens of thousands were imprisoned, tortured or murdered, and civil, political and democratic freedoms denied. The excesses of the dictatorships, and the U.S. role as their main prop, further discredited an already tarnished image of American policy both at home and abroad. At the same time there were signs that the dictatorships as constituted could become dangerously counterproductive to U.S. interests. Their heavy-handed repression and narrow social base alienated not only popular sectors, but elements of the middle classes and bourgeoisies as well. In the Philippines, Argentina, Brazil, Iran-to name only a few countries- broad based opposition to the dictatorships had grown up. The Carter team quickly recognized that U.S. foreign policy needed some substantial refurbishing in light of these political realities. Human rights was seen as a vehicle which could carry forward both the ideological and the strategic demands of the new administration's foreign policy. "Our commitment to human rights must be absolute," Carter declared in his inaugural address. And when he spoke to the United Nations General Assembly in March 1977, he tried to allay skepticism toward the new U.S. human rights stance by proclaiming: "Ours is a commitment and not just a political posture." Carter's appointee to the post of Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, reiterated this approach in his Congressional confirmation hearings. Vance, an old Kennedy-Johnson hand, told the Senate, "We must have policies based on fundamental values. In particular, we must stand for human rights." Although the Administration's early pronouncements were laced with heavy moral overtones, the self-serving goals of the human rights policy were soon to become evident. As Vance himself told a Georgia audience in April 1977, "We seek these goals because they are right, and because we too will benefit."(1) And what exactly were the benefits the Carter Administration sought? At the ideological level, it was hoped that the human rights issue would build a new domestic consensus on foreign policy and overcome widespread cynicism. Watergate, the Vietnam debacle, and the bribery scandals of the transnational corporations were only some of the factors contributing to this disillusionment. To rebuild consensus, the Carter team was prepared to pay the price of antagonizing some client regimes by attacking-sometimes only rhetorically--their human rights violations. The new policy was also aimed at refurbishing the U.S. image in some of the nonaligned Third World countries, where the United States was increasingly perceived as the main sponsor of repression, and in Western Europe, where Social Democratic and some Christian Democratic parties had questioned the inflexibility of U.S. support for dictators. And finally, the human rights issue enabled the United States to launch a propaganda offensive against the Soviet Union and the Socialist camp. Among the very first "positive actions" cited by the Senate Department was Carter's letter of support for Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.(2) The main purpose of the human rights policy, however, was not ideological. Even more important was the new Administration's intention to use the issue to selectively pressure some of the dictatorships to broaden their social base and end some of their more blatant human rights violations. As we will see in the last article in this Report (examining current U.S. policy in the Southern Cone of Latin America), the goal has not been to remove the dictatorships, but to make them more effective and stable guardians of the interests of imperialism. The Carter team has calculated that some liberalization (controlled elections, for example) would not only enable the United States to improve its image, but also make the internal contradictions of these regimes less explosive. In some countries with undeniably dismal human rights records, strategic concerns precluded the Administration pushing the human rights issue even this far. In the Southern Cone some concrete steps were taken, but in other countries, like South Korea and Thailand, "national security" interests limited human rights pressures to verbal expressions of "concern." HUMAN RIGHTS MOVEMENT Although Jimmy Carter sometimes acted as though he had invented the issue, human rights was already very much on the agenda when he took office. By seizing upon the issue as the cornerstone of foreign policy, Carter hoped to take control of the human rights groundswell and channel it for the Administration's own interests. The movements of the 60s and early 70s-civil rights, anti-war, minority rights and women's and gay liberation-had implanted the issue of human rights deep in American consciousness. By the time of Carter's election, there were also scores of groups (representing church, community, veteran, labor and other constituencies) lobbying for changes in U.S. foreign policy. In response to peoples' struggles in Third World countries, solidarity movements had begun organizing against U.S. military and economic intervention abroad, and in support of resistance struggles. In the early 70s many of these groups and organizations began to target Congress as the most accessible arm of government and the most likely to restrict U.S. complicity in human rights violations around the world. The specific event that galvanized Congress to take action was the shockingly brutal military coup in Chile in 1973 and evidence of U.S. involvement. Congress held hearings on the U.S. role in the Chile coup, and subsequently passed a series of legislative acts requiring the government, in effect, to have a human rights policy, and to implement it. Congressional moves focused on the foreign aid programs, traditionally the major channel of support for client governments. First the Foreign Assistance Acts of 1973 and 1974 "urged" the President to reduce or terminate assistance to governments consistently violating internationally recognized human rights. This proposal was strengthened through tougher language by the International Development Act of 1975.(3) In that same year the International Security Assistance Act established a Coordinator of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs in the State Department, and required reports on the status of human rights in all countries for which aid was proposed. Then came the Harkin Amendment to the Foreign Aid Bill, giving Congress the power to limit U.S. economic assistance to "any country which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights"; in 1976 this was expanded to include military aid. The Kissinger State Department resisted each step in this process, pleading the need for a "free hand" in foreign policy. The inadequacy of its human rights status reports and compliance with Congressional guidelines is legendary. Nevertheless, in 1974, Congress managed to cut back military and economic aid to Chile and Korea, and by 1976 all military aid to Chile was ended. By the time Jimmy Carter took office, the legislative groundwork and the skeleton of an administrative structure for a U.S. human rights policy was established. CARTER'S EARLY MOVES The new administration moved fast to make political capital of the human rights issue, stealing a march on more liberal Congressional advocates by attempting to define the parameters of debate and to implement policy on its own terms. In early 1977, Carter upgraded the post of Coordinator for Human Rights to an "Office for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs," headed by Assistant Secretary of State Patricia Derian. The Carter Administration also took the initiative in curtailing military assistance to Argentina and Uruguay, thereby preempting Congress, which was preparing to do the same through new legislation. But as the policy unfolded through the various bureaucratic skirmishes in Washington, it became clear that the new Administration was just as determined as the old to retain maximum flexibility. The last thing the White House wanted was to have its hands tied by human rights legislation. In spite of Carter's protestations to the contrary, the commitment to human rights was anything but absolute. Vance, in public statements in 1977, revealed how the Administration might drag its feet in implementing the human rights policy. He posed 16 problematical questions the United States would have to consider before taking any action. Included was the old Catch-22: If . . . we reduce aid to a government which violated the political rights of its citizens, do we not risk penalizing the hungry or poor who bear no responsibility for the abuses of their governments? And if the answers should indicate action against abusive governments? Vance recommended the utmost caution and restraint. "The means available range from quiet diplomacy in its many forms through public pronouncements to withholding of assistance. Whenever possible, we will use positive steps of encouragement and inducements" (emphasis added). Finally, "We must be realistic ... it is not our purpose to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries."(4) The echoes of Kissinger's pleas for flexibility in the face of the human rights measures of past years were inescapable. CARTER VERSUS CONGRESS The Administration's determination to control the application of the human rights policy soon brought the White House into conflict with liberals in Congress. During the spring and summer of 1977, Senators Kennedy and Church, Representative Fraser and others launched an effort to renew and strengthen existing laws, and to reduce or eliminate aid to specific repressive regimes. A major battle was fought over the proposed Harkin-Badillo Amendment to the foreign aid bill which required U.S. representatives in international lending agencies (such as the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank) to vote against all proposed loans to countries whose regimes violate human rights. The Carter Administration was adamantly opposed to the amendment, since the multilateral banks were the one avenue of foreign aid still immune from Congressional scrutiny. Since the early 70s, the Executive had succeeded in circumventing Congressional cuts in bilateral aid by channeling massive amounts of assistance to client regimes through the multilateral banks.(5) Carter, not wanting this channel lost to him, actively lobbied against Harkin-Badillo on the now familiar grounds of the need for executive "flexibility" to pursue its foreign policy goals. State Department aides scurried through the corridors of the Capitol preaching caution and "realism," while cloakroom whispers from such senior statesmen as Senator Hubert Humphrey carried the message of "party loyalty." Preceding key votes, some members of Congress were even cajoled by the President himself. The Harkin-Badillo Amendment passed, but as a result of the intense Administration lobbying some important loopholes were written into the law. Most important was the provision allowing considerable executive discretion in areas where overriding "national security" interests were involved. This catch would enable the Administration to insure the dictatorships their accustomed largess. Of course, even when U.S. representatives do vote against a given loan, there is no way to stop the White House from quietly urging other members of the multilateral lending agencies to approve the loan. THE BUREAUCRATIC SHUFFLE The Administration has had to contend with different approaches to human rights not only in Congress but also from within its own ranks. In one camp where those who argued for a tougher stand against the dictators. The Carter-created Office of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs (OHR) became a stronghold for this position. Members of this office, such as Patricia Derian and Mark Schneider, were inclined to public outbursts of indignation at the official terrorism of dictators like Argentina's Videla and Chile's Pinochet. To undercut this, responsibility for basic policy decisions on human rights was moved to the Interagency Group on Human Rights and Foreign Assistance, a high-level bureaucratic body under the direct supervision of Under-Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Here OHR representatives were outweighed by representatives of other State Department offices, Treasury, the National Security Council, the Department of Defense, White House representatives and others. Whenever the OHR and the State Department regional bureaus agreed to recommend against a particular loan on human rights grounds, final action had to be approved by the Christopher Group, where traditional views on "flexibility" and "looking at the issue in the context of other interests" prevailed.(6) On the administration's other flank were those like Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs, Terence Todman, who argued for very limited applications of human rights policy. Todman, a career officer in the State Department, had become notorious for his sympathetic treatment of Southern Cone dictators (he was quoted as stating, "We must avoid believing that only the opposition speaks the truth"), and for his great capacity to see "improvement" in human rights where others, including the Office for Human Rights, could see none.(7) Although the Administration was determined to resist the influence of Congressional liberals and human rights activists on the direction and scope of foreign policy, it still did not wish to drive these sectors into full opposition. Concessions were periodically offered to human rights advocates, and Todman's removal was one of them. He was replaced by Viron Vaky- also a career State Department officer, and among those implicated in the ITT efforts to undermine the Allende government in Chile.(8) It was hoped he would be more astute at using the human rights issue in pursuit of U.S. objectives abroad. BUSINESS AS USUAL A clear test of how the Administration would apply its human rights policy occurred in the fight around the ExImBank loan for over $300 million for the Yacireta power project in Argentina. Of this amount, $270 million was destined specifically for purchasing heavy equipment from the Allis-Chalmers Corporation. The ExlmBank is a U.S. government chartered institution which aids U.S. business with special credits and guarantees for exports. It is subject to Congressional oversight including a human rights "watch-dog" clause. The bank decided to deny Allis-Chalmers' request for the loan to the Argentine power project in the summer of 1978 on the grounds of Argentina's abysmal human rights record.(9) Allis-Chalmers went to work. The Administration was reminded that the U.S. could illafford to forfeit more than a quarter billion dollars in exports in the midst of the crisis of the U.S. dollar and the serious balance of payments deficit. Allis-Chalmers employees were persuaded to join a company media campaign which claimed that without the ExImBank guarantee a number of jobs would be lost. In Argentina, U.S. multinationals, along with Argentine business and government officials, streamed to the U.S. embassy and called the White House, claiming that Argentina's economic development (and their business interests as well) would be jeopardized if the project were not approved. Finally in September 1978 the Administration bowed to these pressures and instructed the ExlmBank to approve the loan. BALANCE SHEET How then, can we assess the significance of the human rights policy? As we have suggested, Carter's human rights policy has been characterized by a limited purpose, a narrow definition of the issue, cautious application, and preoccupation with what are seen as vital U.S. interests. The Administration has only reluctantly used economic sanctions, and has by and large restricted its efforts to diplomatic maneuverings. The significance of the human rights policy lies not just in what Carter has or has not done, but in the political opening the Administration has inadvertently provided by placing the issue of human rights at the center of national debate and public consciousness. In proclaiming that U.S. commitment to human rights was "absolute," Carter raised the expectations of liberals and progressives and fueled a movement he could not control. This opening has enabled human rights and solidarity groups to push Congressional liberals to eliminate or reduce military and economic aid to dictators around the world-in countries such as the Philippines, Nicaragua, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. By restricting in this way imperialism's material support for the dictatorships, these victories, however small, are a real political contribution to the popular opposition movements in those countries. The composition and scope of the human rights movement has also broadened, although it is still far from the mass movement that is needed. Some more progressive U.S. trade unions have consistently supported efforts to put real teeth into a human rights. policy. The International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU) called for a boycott of Chile shortly after the coup, and rank-and-file members last year refused to load military parts destined for Chile's Air Force. In contrast to the generally pro-imperialist stance of the AFL-CIO leadership, progressive trade union officials like Douglas Fraser of the UAW and William Winpisinger of the Machinists Union have taken an active role in the human rights lobby. Both men serve on the Board of Directors of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), a progressive Washington DC-based organization that provides information on Latin America to the Administration and Congress. Groups active in the anti-corporate movement have also taken up the human rights issue, targeting the complicity of U.S. corporations in propping up dictatorships. Stockholder challenges and publicity campaigns against the corporate role in countries like Chile, the Philippines and South Africa have publicly exposed the transnationals and put them on the defensive. In addition to trying to discredit its critics, U.S. business has in some cases come to the defense of the dictatorships.(*) David Rockefeller of the Chase Manhattan Bank helped finance a million dollar movie trumpeting the "achievements" of the Videla regime and urging new investors to come to Argentina. 1 o And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently put out a special publication on Chile marking the "fifth anniversary of a successful return to private enterprise in Chile." Titled Businessmen Dialogue with Chile, it argues strongly for "business as usual" in that country. ________________________________________ (*) A recent issue of Barron's magazine (February 19, 1979) features a speech by a Castle & Cooke executive attacking the anti-corporate movement in general and NACLA in particular. For NACLA's comments on that article, see the upcoming May- June issue of the Report. ________________________________________ CONSTRAINTS FOR THE MOVEMENT In assessing the advances of the human rights movement, the limitations of what can be accomplished within the present U.S. system must also be taken into account. One factor is the weakness of support within Congress. The majorities needed for congressional victories draw on a number of politically unreliable elements, including some died-in-the-wool conservatives who vote against any foreign aid on the principle of fiscal responsibility. For more moderate Congressional representatives, a position against human rights violators is a "safe" issue only so long as it is linked with an anti-communist stance and there is no strong opposition from home constituencies. Victories within a Democratic Congress were also easier won when jumping on the bandwagon meant undermining a Republican administration. And finally, the human rights coalition in Congress has suffered the loss of some key liberals in the 1978 elections, when the right wing strengthened its position in Congress. Moreover, the legislative approach has made only a small dent in imperialism's ability to support the dictatorships. Congress may have one finger in the dike, but major leaks are springing up in other spots. The loopholes in existing human rights legislation are numerous, allowing continued Administration support of dictators through bilateral channels such as "pipeline" aid (authorized in the past but not spent), "Food for Peace" programs, military training funds and government-licensed private military sales (which supply the dictators with most of their "internal security" weapons)." With the bulk of the foreign aid now channeled through the multilateral banks, this important source of support for the dictators is beyond effective Congressional control. Even more difficult to control are the private banks, which have more than compensated for bilateral aid cutbacks with generous financial support to the dictators. A recent report by Michael Moffittt and Isabel Letelier has pointed out the crucial role of private banks in Chile: An enormous influx of private bank loans since 1976 has enabled the Junta to thumb its nose at the international human rights campaign. For example in 1976 when the U.S. Congress banned future military assistance to Chile, private bank loans to Chile increased more than 500% over the previous year. By the end of 1978, Chile's loans from private multinational banks will total one billion dollars with U.S. banks providing $927 million.(12) And the transfusion from the private sector continues. For 1979, Citibank and Morgan Guaranty of New York have put together a $210 million loan package for Pinochet. Nonetheless a grass roots movement has become a real irritant to many banks (through divestiture and boycott campaigns, stockholders' actions, etc.). In response, some banks have condescended to issue statements justifying their dealing with the dictatorships. Among the most remarkable was a statement by Citibank in December 1978 that it would be totally inappropriate for the U.S. government to regulate the banks' activities, arguing that in the conjunction of political policy and private economic policy lies fascism's.(13) * * * * * In the final analysis, the decisive battle for the human rights of those living under the dictatorships will not, of course, be fought in Washington. Regardless of what policies are legislated by Congress, or how far the Administration can be pushed to pressure for restoration of some semblance of bourgeois freedoms, the bottom line is upholding a system that protects U.S. economic and political interests. This can be clearly seen in the case of the Southern Cone of Latin America. __________________________________ REFERENCES Human Rights: "In the Soul of Our Foreign Policy" 1. Secretary Cyrus Vance, "Speech before the University of Georgia Law School," April 30, 1977, Athens, GA., Bureau of Public Affairs, Office of Media Services, Department of State. 2. Warren Christopher, Deputy Secretary of State, "Statement before the Senate Subcommittee on Foreign Assistance," March 7, 1977, Bureau of Public Affairs, Office of Media Services, Department of State. 3. For a comprehensive listing of all Congressional human rights activities through 1977, see Human Rights and US Policy, Issue No. IB 77056, Hearings before the Subcommittee on International Organizations, House Committee on International Relations. 4. Vance, Op. Cit. 5. For a statement on the importance of the multilateral banks see C. Fred Bergsten, Asst. Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs, Statement before the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, October 5, 1978. 6. Interviews in Washington, D.C. 7. Terence Todman, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, "The Carter Administration's Latin American Policy, Purposes and Prospects," Address before the Center for Inter-American Relations, New York, February 14, 1978. 8. Documentos secretos de la ITT y la Republica de Chile, Empresa Editora Nacional Quimantu Ltda.(Chile,April 1972),p.8. 9. Karen DeYoung and Charles A. Krause, "Our Mixed Signals on Human Rights in Argentina," Washington Post, October 29, 1978. 10. Argentina Outreach, No. 6, Berkeley, CA, January-February, 1977. 11. For additional information on aid channels see especially "U.S. Grain Arsenal," NACLA's Latin America & Empire Report, Vol. IX, No. 7 (October 1975); Michael T. Klare, Supplying Repression, (New York: the Field Foundation, 1977). 12. Michael Moffitt and Isabel Letelier, "Private International Banks Support Chilean Junta," Multinational Monitor, I, (Winter, 1978-79) Washington, D.C. 13. ABC News Closeup: the Politics of Torture, televised December 27, 1978.

Tags: Jimmy Carter, human rights, dictatorships, US politics,

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