231. Briefing Memorandum From the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs (Popper) to Secretary of State Kissinger1 2

Soviet and American Action on UN human Rights Agreements


Significance of the Soviet Action

The USSR has undoubtedly scored a propaganda success through its ratification of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It will capitalize on this success in the UN, in the CSCE, in the third world, and among Soviet sympathizers in Western countries.

In fact, the rights supposedly affirmed in the Covenants are in many respects so hedged about with qualifying language that ratification will not materially inhibit the Soviet Union in its current approach to human rights matters. Thus, as the press has reported, the right of emigration as guaranteed in the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is in effect vitiated by exceptions designed to protect national security, public order, public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others.

Nevertheless, Soviet ratification of the Covenants should not be written off as entirely meaningless. When the Covenants actually come into force, the USSR will from a legal standpoint be internationally bound to certain human rights standards. It will have to explain as best it can the lapses it permits from these standards. While this will not be a major inhibiting consideration, it should not be overlooked.

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Some time will elapse before the Covenants are in force. Thirty-five ratifications are required; the USSR’s is the twentieth. When the Covenants become effective, the USSR will be under an obligation to submit periodic reports on compliance to a special committee to be set up under the Covenants.

It is interesting to note that, of the NATO countries, only Denmark and Norway have ratified the Covenants. In the Soviet bloc, all states have signed the Covenants; Bulgaria ratified them in 1970. Among the CSCE non-aligned, Cyprus, Sweden and Yugoslavia have ratified. The British have signed, but the French, like ourselves, have not. Assuming that the remaining Soviet bloc states quickly ratify, the Soviets may attempt to draw invidious comparisons between the bloc record and that of the United States and other CSCE participants who have not done so.


U.S. Attitude toward the Covenants

We have reexamined the Covenants and have concluded that, whatever the political liabilities, it would be fruitless for the Executive Branch to send them to the Senate for approval. In fact, the Covenants so debase many of the human rights standards we now exercise, and impinge so heavily on our existing Federal-state relationships, that there would be virtually no sentiment for U.S. ratification. Despite the drawbacks, the U.S. voted for them in the General Assembly in 1966, for political reasons. But at that time we made it clear that approval in the Assembly carried with it no implication of further steps looking toward ratification.


The American Record on International Human Rights Instruments

In a broader sense, the new Soviet action highlights our own poor performance with respect to approval of UN human rights treaties. We have ratified only two of some twenty conventions in the human rights field which have been drafted by the UN and affiliated [Page 3] agencies: a convention on the abolition of slavery and a protocol on the status of refugees. In terms of numbers, we are on the same general plane with Bolivia, Togo, Saudi Arabia and South Africa —and are frequently criticized in the UN for our sins of omission. On the other hand, the Soviets are a party to most of the principal human rights treaties.

You will recall that a lively debate raged in the U.S. during the fifties on this subject. At that time, the feeling with regard to the impact of the various UN human rights agreements on States’ Rights was so strong (vide the Bricker Amendment) that it proved impossible to move affirmatively on any of them. In the intervening years, however, Federal jurisdiction has been extended in many of the areas concerned; the legislative record with respect to civil rights, both in the States and in the Federal Government, has been vastly improved; and to this extent obstacles which existed twenty years ago have materially diminished.

This suggests the desirability of a new look at the problem, to determine whether we can improve our international standing in this area.

Previous Administrations have submitted seven human rights conventions to the Senate, including the two we have ratified. The others are the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the Convention on the Political Rights of Women, the Convention on the Abolition of Forced Labor, the Convention on Freedom of Association, and the Convention on Employment Policy.


Importance of Ratification of the Genocide Convention

On February 19, 1970, President Nixon sent a special message to the Senate requesting consent to ratification of the Genocide Convention, which had first been submitted to the Senate by President Truman in 1949. Since 1970 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has three times [Page 4] favorably reported the Genocide Convention, but it has not yet been acted upon by the full Senate. Consideration may be imminent on the Senate floor. The Administration has furnished implementing legislation to be used if the Convention should be ratified.

Action on the Genocide Convention would be widely hailed as a useful step by many groups interested in human rights. We could improve our image still further if the Executive Branch could submit to the Senate the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination which, next to the Genocide Convention, is the most widely ratified of all UN human rights conventions. We have signed this convention but have never submitted it to the Senate.

In addition, we might at an appropriate time urge the Senate to reexamine conventions previously submitted to it, particularly those on the Political Rights of Women and the Abolition of Forced Labor. These were sent up by President Kennedy; they entail no serious problems for the U.S. Government; and we believe they could easily be revived.

We shall be working with the Department officers concerned and with the Department of Justice to determine whether we can submit action proposals to you on these matters.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, L/OA Files, Lot 99 D 369, Human Rights, General, 1972–73. Confidential.
  2. Popper informed Kissinger about the current status of Soviet and U.S. adherence to international human rights conventions.