243. Summary of Paper on Policies on Human Rights and Authoritarian Regimes1 2



I. The Problem

What if anything should the U.S. Government be doing and saying about violations of human rights in foreign countries?

How should the United States deal with authoritarian regimes?

These related questions are posing a growing dilemma for the U.S. Government generally and for the State Department in particular. The problem, which is not new, has become more acute recently for several reasons:

Recent events in four countries—the abrogation of parliamentary institutions and restrictions of civil liberties in Chile and the Philippines, the tightening of authoritarian rule in Korea and the course of events in the last seven years in Greece—have brought these questions to the fore as policy issues, because the U.S. Government has been popularly identified with all governments.
The debate on the Jackson Amendment to the Foreign Trade Bill has simultaneously brought to a head domestic disagreements on the most effective means to promote progress on human rights within the USSR during a period of detente.
The charge that the U.S. Government is insensitive to human rights issues in its overall conduct of foreign policy almost surely hinders development of a domestic “consensus” on some aspects of foreign policy because it has tended to alienate significant elements in the Congress, the media, the universities [Page 2] and the natural foreign affairs constituency. American publications are giving increasing attention to repressive measures by regimes with which the United States is identified and are editorializing against our policies toward them.
In Congress, these developments have led to support for a stronger US official posture on human rights. Dissatisfaction with the Government’s present policies on human rights issues abroad has been a factor in the increase of legislative restrictions on aid programs for countries with authoritarian regimes and has provided additional arguments for opposing foreign aid programs generally. Earlier limiting amendments were focused on aid to Greece. Currently, legislative restrictions are being aimed at Chile and Korea.

These developments have posed dilemmas for US policy-makers and spokesmen and raised questions about the adequacy of our machinery for dealing with them. Policies for specific cases have been worked out at various levels and by various Bureaus in the Department. Public statements stressing particular aspects of our policy have been made from time to time at the highest level and by Departmental officials appearing before Congressional committees. A clear official line on human rights has not emerged from these statements.

In recent years at least, there has been no Department-wide study of the subject and no central effort to develop a coherent approach to it. An effort to fill this gap and to suggest a more systematic way of thinking, planning and speaking about human rights issues than is presently in use would seem to be in order.

II. Objectives of the Study

This Department-wide study of the problem attempts to do five things:

Analyze the apparent conflict between our traditional and declared support for human rights and the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries on the basis of a legal opinion from L [Page 3] and a study from the PA Historical section.
Identify factors that have to be taken into account in establishing the appropriate policy and a defensible public posture for specific situations (on the basis of material provided by the five Regional Bureaus and by IO).
Develop a variety of options for the US Government to consider in handling human rights questions under various conditions.
Suggest a set of guidelines for the public exposition of the US posture on these issues to help eliminate confusion and self-contradiction in our official statements and to be more sensitively responsive to the widespread public and Congressional concern on these questions.
Recommend procedural and organizational arrangements to improve policy coordination within the Department on human rights issues and statements.

III. Analysis and conclusions

The following conclusions are drawn from this study:

Our national posture on human rights issues in various parts of the world has contributed to the appearance of confusion. Our official statements, which have combined expressions of concern for human rights everywhere with assertions of adherence to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of foreign countries, have implied that the two concepts are in mutual contradiction and vaguely irreconcilable. There is an obvious need for clarification of the concepts involved and of the policies and posture to be adopted.
The unequivocal view of the Office of the Legal Adviser is that the principle of non-interference is not in itself a legal bar to official US cognizance of human rights problems in a foreign country. The US Government formally and publicly acknowledged that [Page 4] human rights violations are matters of international concern when it ratified the U.N. Charter in 1945 and approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. According to the Office of the Legal Advisor of the Department, “there is now ample legal justification for diplomatic representations to a state concerning its treatment of its own nationals where such treatment violates minimum standards of international law.”
This international legal basis for expressions of US concern over human rights violations does not alter the fact that most countries continue to regard external approaches on such matters as interference in their domestic affairs. As a consequence, external pressure in some cases may do more harm than good, even with respect to the human rights issues involved, not to mention other US interests. This is one of the many factors that needs to be taken into account in deciding on the US policy to be adopted in any particular case.
The political problems which human rights issues pose for the United States in different parts of the world vary enormously from region to region and even from country to country within each region.
In Africa, our policy toward governments exemplifying white minority rule is under constant scrutiny by the new Black African states, which are alert to issues of racial discrimination and colonialism but at the same time unitedly sensitive about their newly-gained sovereignty when “outside” attention is called to human rights violations within their own countries.
In Latin America, we are caught between demands in the United states for altered policies toward friendly governments accused of serious violations of human rights and a continent-wide suspicion in the Southern Hemisphere of any US pressure on a Latin American country which tends to recall our past history of “interventionism.”
In East Asia, the United States is identified to a greater or lesser degree with several repressive [Page 5] regimes in countries where we have important security interests, raising the question, especially in Korea, whether those interests are most likely to be preserved in the long run by our present policy or by some modification of it.
In Eastern Europe, our concern for human rights in the USSR and in the Warsaw Pact countries has to be placed in the context of the overarching requirements of detente, and the need for continuing US public support for our detente policies. In Western Europe, the recent defection of Portugal and Greece from the ranks of US-oriented authoritarian regimes focuses attention on our relations with the waning Franco order in Spain and with its potentially more liberal successor. In Europe, generally, the US position on the effort to extract improvements on human rights questions from the Soviet Bloc countries in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) is viewed with some concern by other members of NATO.

The extent to which human rights issues become problems depends, among other things, on the seriousness of the violations involved, the public attention they receive naturally or is deliberately focused on them, and the degree to which the US Government is identified with the regime involved.

Obviously genocide, torture, and physical mistreatment of individuals generally tend to arouse greater indignation abroad than do human rights violations which are less “personal”. Close association with a tough repressive dictatorship makes the United States more vulnerable politically than identification with a milder authoritarian regime. Whereas two decades ago, the focus of public and Congressional attention was on the transgressions of the communist states with which we were engaged in a cold war, today it is directed at the human rights violations of regimes with which the US Government is identified and for whose survival and behavior it is held responsible. When we have military bases in a country or its government is heavily dependent on US military or economic aid, its delinquencies are held against us much more than are the repressions of an adversary state.


The tension between the concern for the protection of human rights abroad and the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries can be approached in various ways. One approach is to describe it in terms of a conflict between absolute morality and pure pragmatism. The consequences of pursuing either extreme was clearly expressed in Secretary Kissinger’s address to the Pacem in Terris Conference last October when he said:

“...A purely pragmatic policy provides no criteria for other nations to assess our performance and no standards to which the American people can rally.

“But when policy becomes excessively moralistic it may turn quixotic or dangerous. A presumed monopoly on truth obstructs negotiation and accommodation.”

The Secretary concluded that “The policy-maker...must strike a balance between what is desirable and what is possible.”

The moral dimension of foreign policy is a vast and complicated subject which this paper does not attempt to deal with. For practical reasons, this study is confined to an analysis of our policies toward human rights and authoritarian regimes strictly in terms of short-term and long-term national interest considerations. This does not exclude the moral factor completely since it manages to come in by the back door in a number of guises: in the form of the U.S. image abroad and its putative value to US diplomacy, in the form of US public and Congressional pressures which are the product of American values and ideals as well as interests, and in the form of the impact of our action or inaction on foreign populations and leaders who are the objects of human rights violations and who may make moral as well as political judgments of our behavior. Yet, even though these pressures, impacts and images have moral components, they can and do have a direct bearing on the pragmatic success or failure of our [Page 7] foreign policies and are therefore as real as any other factors that are normally included in realpolitik calculations.

Even without considering the moral dimension, however, a tension remains between the general policy concept of “non-interference” and the notion that it is not only legal but is in some cases politically desirable for one state to concern itself with the human rights of the citizens of another state. In line with the Secretary’s assertion of the need to “strike a balance”, the inevitable conclusion is reached that in the human rights field, as in other areas of foreign policy, the extreme positions are unacceptable. Both “pure” simplistic approaches, that of total indifference to human rights violations anywhere and that of total commitment to their protection as the top objective of foreign policy everywhere, are not feasible. The problem therefore is to decide which human rights issues we should deal with and what policies we should adopt towards them.


In deciding the best policy to adopt on any human rights issue in pursuance of our short-term and long-term national interests, U.S. policy makers have to take into account a number of vital factors:

The nature and significance of total US interests in the country involved. National security considerations are bound to loom large in many cases. They are obviously of the highest importance in our dealings with the Soviet Bloc and with China, placing limitations on how far we can go on a human rights issue without serious harm to our detente policies. Our national security goals in other countries also have to be given due weight.

The influence or leverage which the U.S. Government may or may not have with the regime in question. We obviously have more leverage in Korea, where the regime is almost totally dependent on U.S. help and protection, than in Iran, for example, were we need the Shah’s oil as much as he needs our security assistance. In this connection, the rationality and sensitivity of the rulers may also be a significant factor.

The political context in which the violation occurs and the direction in which the treatment of human rights is moving in the country concerned. In the human area, it is impractical to think in terms of absolutes and it would be idle and fruitless to hope for liberty-loving governments everywhere. We must look therefore at the direction of political movement. Distinctions have to be made among and within authoritarian regimes. It may be desirable for US policy to respond in one way when a dictatorship turns the screws tighter and in quite another way when an authoritarian regime relaxes controls substantially or desists from an offensive practice. In the latter case the regime might be deserving of some applause even if it has not moved all the way to representative government. The historical context is also highly relevant. The destruction of popular government in a country which has had substantial experience with parliamentary institutions will obviously pose a more serious policy problem than the collapse of a fledgling democracy and certainly more of a problem than the replacement of one dictator by another.
The short-term and long-term consequences of action or of inaction. An important factor in determining whether the US Government should make a move in a human rights situation is our best estimate of the consequences of such a move, whether it be designed to ameliorate the human rights problem, to dissociate the United States from the violator or to accomplish both purposes. In an objective and realistic calculation, this estimate has to he weighed against an estimate of the probable consequences of our failure to act. It would be of particular importance to examine the impact of our action or inaction on alternative leadership elements in a country, especially in cases where the US Government may be associated with an unstable authoritarian regime whose survival is in doubt
Special regional sensitivities. In two regions of the world, we have to keep special regional factors in mind in fashioning our policies on human rights in relation to individual countries. In Africa, we have to be aware of the sensitivities of the members of the Organization of African Unity to the issue of white minority rule in South Africa and Rhodesia and to any lecturing from the outside world about their domestic practices. In Latin America, our relations with individual countries have to be set against the background of our historic dealings with the whole region. Whatever we do in regard to a human rights issue in a Latin American country therefore has to be done in a way which does not raise the specter of “interventionism”.

In view of all the above factors, a uniform US policy applicable without distinction to human rights issues around the world is clearly impossible. What is needed is a coherent definition of our world posture on human rights as part of our overall foreign policy along with a realistic flexibility in the application of that posture to a variety of situations and contexts. The application in particular cases would depend on the total US national interest in the countries concerned and the likely consequences of any policy adopted on the immediate bilateral relationship and also on the wider perspectives of US policy (including security, foreign aid, world image and other considerations). To minimize if not eliminate the appearance of inconsistency, this flexibility would have to be based on a set of criteria such as those listed above, which were capable of being understood by the American public and Congress.

IV. Policy Options

On the basis of the above analysis, four options are offered ranging from a passive policy to a major new initiative. Each option is described in terms of the world posture the United States would assume in regard to human rights generally, the steps we would or would not take in our bilateral relations with governments charged with human rights violations, and the behavior we would follow in U.N. forums dealing with these issues:

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Option I. Status Quo

World Posture. Continue to express publicly our traditional concern for human rights and our preferences for democratic systems. Cite the advantages of dealing with violations only through quiet diplomacy and informal channels. At the same time speak out against certain extreme situations, such as apartheid, and, on appropriate occasions, continue to make clear what we disapprove of in the Soviet system.

Bilateral Relations. Generally refrain from public criticism of the authoritarian regimes with which we have friendly relations. In cases which have become public issues in the United States or when we are under Congressional pressure, raise the matter privately with the foreign government concerned in some cases but not in others. Depending on our estimate of the sensitivity of the regime on the issue of its sovereignty, and on the degree of domestic pressure, we either do or do not admit publicly that we have quietly interceded. In certain instances where parliamentary institutions have been superseded by an authoritarian regime, express the hope that the government will move toward a restoration of those institutions within a reasonable time. When pressed in Congress to report in detail on human rights developments in an individual country or to express an official view of such developments, cite the policy of non-interference as the reason for not doing so, or offer a justifying rationale for the behavior of the government in question, or present an objective report of the human rights conditions prevailing.

Position at the U.N. Work to improve the U.N. mechanisms to deal with human rights violations on a multilateral basis. Support development in the United Nations of measures to lessen the practice of torture. In debates and votes on human rights issues, deal with cases on their merits if they do not involve violations by friendly regimes that might be sensitive to adverse votes or comments by the United States. If such regimes are the objects of the exercise, give greater weight to bilateral political considerations in determining voting positions. Continue to support the establishment of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

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Option II. Passive Approach

World Posture. Express general US support for the idea of the protection of human rights and indicate a general preference for democracy. Assert that in our foreign policies, however, we are concerned only with the foreign policies of other governments or with their actions affecting American interests and not with their treatment of their own citizens.

Bilateral Relations. Do not discuss with another government any matters relating to the human rights of that country’s own citizens. Cease expressing publicly any criticism of apartheid. Do not transmit to foreign governments any inquiries or protests on human rights violations from Congress or the American public.

Position at U.N. When votes are taken or debates are held at U.N. forums on human rights issues, the US delegations would abstain or vote in line with our bilateral political interests in the countries involved without regard to the merits of the cases themselves. Drop our current support for the establishment of the Office of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Option III. Selective Change

World Posture. Make a modest modification in our high-level expressions of concern for protection of human rights generally. Declare our general position, as President Nixon expressed it in his Annapolis speech on June 5, that “we can never, as Americans, acquiesce in the suppression of human liberties,” but that we have to decide what is the most practical and effective thing to do in each case. Point out our normal preference for dealing with violations through quiet diplomacy and informal channels as the best means of achieving human rights objectives without injuring other interests such as the maintenance of international peace and security. Indicate a willingness, however, on occasion to give public expression to our disapproval of human rights violations in countries besides those in the Soviet bloc whenever that is deemed the best way to achieve results without seriously compromising other important interests.

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Bilateral Relations. Take up human rights issues more frequently with individual governments and let it be known that this is being done. Keep foreign governments more fully informed about Congressional and private US pressures regarding human rights issues in their countries. Refrain from using US adherence to the principle of “non-interference” as a publicly stated reason for US inaction or silence in the face of human rights violations. Publicly express official disapproval of extreme violations of human rights in situations where we deem it to our overall interest to indicate some degree of distance between ourselves and a given regime. (Such statements could still be coupled with assertions that we continue to cooperate fully in other fields and that we have no intention to impose our views on other countries). In most cases where there has been a substantial democratic tradition which has been suspended by an authoritarian regime, express our official hope that the country will move toward restoration of democratic institutions within a reasonable time. Publicly express approval of moves toward genuine liberalization and democratization. Exercise certain restraints in public gestures of cordiality toward authoritarian leaders.

Position at the U.N. Establish a general rule that the United States will vote on cases before the U.N. Human Rights Commission on the merits of the cases and will consider bilateral political factors to be overriding only in delicate situations. As in Option I, continue to support the establishment of the Office of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Increase our efforts to obtain Senate approval of the U.N. Genocide Convention. Seek visible and vigorous high-level US representation at the U.N. Commission and other international bodies dealing with human rights. Improve our voting record on African racial issues at the U.N. and encourage African representatives to speak out against human rights violations by black African regimes. Encourage improvement of the ILO machinery dealing with human rights and show greater readiness to use the ILO to deal with human rights questions.

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Option IV. A Major Initiative

World Posture. Signal a decisive turn in US policy toward a stronger position generally on human rights. Consider interceding or speaking out regarding half a dozen or more of the major cases of civil rights violations. Deal more even-handedly with violations by adversaries, neutrals or friends.

Bilateral Relations. Discuss with the relevant governments those serious human rights violations that become public issues in the United States or on the international scene. Inform foreign governments of US public and Congressional concern over human rights violations. In countries where authoritarian regimes have replaced democratic governments, urge the speediest possible restoration of democracy. Publicly indicate greater sympathy for efforts of Soviet bloc citizens to achieve rights listed in the Universal Declaration and the USSR’s own Constitution but be careful not to go so far as to endanger detente policies. Behave correctly but coolly toward leaders of regimes guilty of flagrant human rights violations. Suspend military aid to countries which use our equipment against their own people unless there is a clear danger of the imposition of a foreign-supported regime hostile to US interests. In economic aid programs to countries with authoritarian governments, lean to projects that help populations directly and away from projects that seem to enhance the central authority.

Position at the U.N. Add to the items under Option III a willingness to introduce complaints regarding civil rights violations where we think multilateral attention may prove effective and where our initiative might contribute to greater political evenhandedness in U.N. human rights activities. Undertake a campaign to induce Congress to ratify the UN genocide convention and other UN human rights conventions. Pursue vigorously the establishment of the office of U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights.

The above four options are presented in terms of packages but the elements within each are detachable. Option I could be selected with the addition of some items from Option III or vice versa. For example, we could take a more vigorous position in U.N. forums without significantly altering our present posture in bilateral relations.

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Summarizing the pros and cons of the above options:

In terms of the US domestic consensus on this aspect of foreign affairs, Option II would have a strong negative effect on the critics of our present policy and might lead to tough resistance in Congress to some of the foreign affairs legislation desired by the Executive Branch. With a continuation of Option I, the domestic consensus would continue to erode and our foreign aid appropriations, military and economic, would be subject to increasing limitations and restrictions. Option III would go some way to ameliorate domestic criticism with an improved atmosphere for foreign aid legislation. Option IV would make present critics much more pleased with our policy, an advantage that might be partly offset by the reactions of other domestic elements uncomfortable with what they would consider too much “meddling” in other people’s affairs.

In regard to relations with presently existing authoritarian regimes, we would have no problems with any of them under Option II, a minimum of trouble under Option I, some difficulties with those we select to deal with on human rights issues under Option III and similar difficulties with more of them under Option IV. On the other hand, in terms of impact of our policies on alternative popularly oriented leadership elements in authoritarian countries, the effect would be totally negative under Option II, a shade less negative under Option I, much better in the countries affected under Option III, and obviously much better in more countries under Option IV. Consequently, risks to our national interests in authoritarian regimes would probably be lowest under Options I and II and highest under Option IV, at least in the short term. In the longer term, the reverse might well be the case. Option III occupies the middle ground in both respects.

The US image as perceived by the leaders, media and publics around the world interested in human rights issues would, of course, be lowest under Option II and highest under Option IV. On the other hand, a number of initiatives calling attention to foreign violations of human rights at the UN or bilaterally under Option IV could result in a rash of unwelcome charges against the United States.

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V. Recommendations

To strengthen a domestic consensus in support of U.S. foreign policy, to promote detente and to improve our ability to deal effectively with troublesome issues that obstruct our national objectives abroad, Option III, calling for selective changes in our position, is recommended. With minor reservations, this is the option that four regional bureaus,* IO and H have indicated would best serve our national interests in their particular spheres. There is unanimous support for a policy involving a modest strengthening of our expressions of concern for protection of human rights generally, a greater willingness to discuss human rights issues privately with foreign governments and a generally more vigorous posture on behalf of human rights at multilateral forums in the United Nations and the OAS. There is also broad though not unanimous support for an occasional public voicing of concern about human rights violations in cases where it is deemed desirable to dissociate the United States from the government or violation in question.
Regardless of which policy option is adopted, we would be well advised to improve and clarify our official rhetoric on human rights issues. What official Americans say in public about the U.S. position on human rights and authoritarian regimes, either in general terms or in regard to specific situations is not just a matter of public relations. It is an essential element of our policy in this field. What we say officially has a direct bearing not only on our world posture but also on our bilateral relations in specific cases. U.S. statements in Washington or at the U.N. may on occasion lead to the human rights improvements desired. The wording of official statements may make a difference to foreign governments or opposition elements, listening for signs of pressure, offense or hope. Domestically there is often as much pressure on the U.S. Government to “say something” as there is to “do something.” This would indicate a need to work out our official rhetoric on human rights with some care.
“Suggested Guide for Public Statements” on human rights issues under either Option I, III or IV is provided under Tab K of this paper. It contains cautions to official spokesmen and speech-makers about what not to say on this subject as well as positive formulations and models that would be helpful to government officials in maintaining [Page 16] a consistent and defensible posture. The most significant proposal in the “Guide” is that. U.S. officials desist from invoking the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries in any public statements dealing with human rights questions. In this respect adoption of this proposal would involve a slight modification of Option I. On the positive side, the “Guide” proposes that we build our rhetoric around the concept that the United States is always concerned about the protection of human rights but has to decide in each case what is the most useful and effective thing it can do in terms of the specific situation and in view of the whole complex of U.S. national and international responsibilities that may be involved.
To assure more careful attention and a greater degree of consistency in the Department’s handling of human rights issues, several organizational and procedural suggestions are offered, including appointment of a Special Assistant on Human Rights in the Office of the Deputy Secretary to consideration of issues in this field and the preparation of public statements and Congressional testimony on those issues. The Deputy Secretary has already notified members of Congress that he is planning such a move.
Four subjects are suggested warranting further study:
the specific measures which might be taken to improve the U.S. posture on human rights in the multilateral agencies of the U.N. including the ILO, and the OAS.
the roles of the various elements of U.S. Missions abroad in creating or countering impressions of U.S. identification with authoritarian regimes.
the need for strengthening the training and briefing of U.S. officials assigned abroad to include guidance on handling of human rights problems in line with the policies adopted.
ways to improve our domestic actions regarding human rights problems abroad in reference to our visa policies, our refugee and asylum procedures and our policies on export of police equipment and provision of public safety training to police states.
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, L/HR Files: Lot 80 D 275, Human Rights S/P Study—Policy Planning Vol. II. Confidential. Though undated, drafts of this document dating from September are ibid. Document 264 indicates the final version was produced in October.
  2. The summary highlighted the principal points and conclusions of a detailed study about options to promote human rights abroad.
  3. EUR is still reviewing its option preference.