69. Address by the Deputy Secretary of State (Christopher)1

Human Rights: The Diplomacy of the First Year

I am delighted to be here today among so many old friends. Last August, I had the good fortune of addressing the Gavel Awards luncheon at the American Bar Association convention.2 On that occasion I discussed the principles that guide one of the most important foreign policy initiatives of the Carter Administration—the human rights policy.

Today, after 1 year’s experience with that policy, I would like to talk about how those principles have been put into practice—to talk about the diplomacy of human rights.

Before doing so, let me remind you that our policy concerns three categories of rights:

• The right to be free from governmental violations of the integrity of the person;

• The right to fulfill one’s vital needs such as food, shelter, health care, and education; and

• Civil and political rights.

In his inaugural address, President Carter set the tone for a foreign policy based firmly on our values as a nation. “Because we are free,” he said, “we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere.”3 In [Page 329] this single sentence, from which so much has flowed, the President was expressing an old and sometimes ignored truth with new vigor.

Our strength as a nation and our magnetism to the world at large are predicated on our commitment to human rights. It is only proper that the human rights considerations so important to our national life be reflected in our international life as well. This means they must be fully integrated into our diplomacy.

The pursuit of this cause is not an ideological luxury cruise with no practical port of call. Our idealism and our self-interest coincide. Widening the circle of countries which share our human rights values is at the very core of our security interests. Such nations make strong allies. Their commitment to human rights gives them an inner strength and stability which causes them to stand steadfastly with us on the most difficult issues of our time.

In this first year, I have been impressed by what a subtle, creative, and flexible process diplomacy can be in advancing the cause of human rights. Diplomacy is not just words—though words can be highly effective. It is also an impressive variety of intangible symbols and gestures, as well as tangible measures.

Diplomacy can be a rich mix, indeed. In the case of our human rights objectives, we have evolved a mix that is proving effective.

Capsule View of the Diplomacy

Frank Discussion. The primary ingredient of human rights diplomacy has a seeming simplicity: We frankly discuss human rights in our consultations with foreign diplomats and leaders. An obvious technique, yes. Just words, yes. But I must tell you that many of us have been amazed at its effectiveness.

A career Foreign Service Officer told me recently that until last January it would have been unusual for our ambassador to raise with the leader of another country, in face-to-face conversation, the fate of political prisoners. Our diplomats tended to shy away from direct high-level dialogue on such sensitive human rights issues.

That has changed. Time after time in the past year we have had such conversations. And very often these very frank discussions have led to beneficial results. Sovereign governments have reexamined conditions in their capitals and provinces, and releases of prisoners and other positive actions have followed.

When we raise human rights with another government, we take an affirmative stance. We explain that our people, our Congress, and our government are deeply troubled by the human rights abuses we believe to be occurring. And we ask for the other government’s assessment of the situation and the prospects for improvement. Sometimes, it is true, the response is truculent and defensive. Sometimes, we are [Page 330] charged with “intervening” in the internal affairs of another sovereign state.

But much more often, the response is a real effort to join issue on the merits. Frequently, there is candid acknowledgment of the validity of our interest—an interest rooted in solemn international agreements that make the way a government treats its own citizens a matter of legitimate international concern.

Just as frequently there is disagreement over the degree and the causes of the problem. It is often asserted, for example, that terrorism justifies repression. But usually these differences in perspective are overtaken by a consideration of possible improvements. By consideration, for example, of whether:

• Those held without trial, often incommunicado and for lengthy periods, can soon be released or at least charged and tried;

• The return to civilian rule can proceed on schedule; or

• Those responsible for mistreating prisoners will be prosecuted.

Sometimes we achieve explicit understandings on such issues. More commonly there is an implicit recognition of the need for improvement and for further consultations as the situation evolves. Either way, the raising of the issue has profound significance. Rather than being conveniently ignored, human rights abuses are brought to the center of the diplomatic interchange. There, they must be addressed.

I believe the almost geometric increase in world awareness of human rights issues is perhaps the major accomplishment of our human rights diplomacy. This new consciousness not only helps curb existing human rights abuses, it also acts as a deterrent to new violations.

Symbolic Acts. The words of human rights diplomacy can effectively be joined with symbolic acts. For example, trips to other countries by our senior officials and official invitations to the leaders of other nations to visit the United States can be used to advance our human rights objectives. Such visits can mark our recognition that a country has an outstanding human rights record or provide the opportunity to discuss human rights problems with the leader of a country where improvements are urgently needed.

There are a host of other measures that can be used symbolically to send the desired signal, such as: cultural and educational exchanges; selection of the site of international conferences; the level of our representation at diplomatic events; port visits by our fleet. Carefully used, such symbols and gestures can help advance the cause of human rights.

There is also significance in our willingness to meet, on appropriate occasions, with opposition leaders from countries with serious human rights problems. My colleagues and I have met with a number of such leaders in Washington—including some who are living in exile [Page 331] from their homeland. And abroad, our ambassadors regularly meet with opposition leaders.

These meetings enable us to hear both sides of the story, to learn how a human rights problem is seen by those directly affected, and to demonstrate that we are concerned about all the people of the country involved, not just those in power.

Public Comment. Beyond private diplomatic discourse and important symbolic steps, the diplomacy of human rights must sometimes include criticism of regimes implicated in serious human rights violations.

Public comment by our government is an official act that directs the attention of the entire world to the objectionable practices of another government. We believe that such criticism can have some inhibiting effect on such governments. We do not generally prefer this approach but neither will we shrink from it.

Needless to say, public comment has been our first line of approach with respect to countries like Cambodia and Uganda, where we have little or no diplomatic contact but yet where unspeakable violations of human rights are occurring as a matter of deliberate state policy. We deplore these policies. We hope other governments which have the contact that we lack can make known the extent of international concern and bring about improvements.

We have also, of course, spoken openly and forthrightly at the Belgrade meeting that has been reviewing implementation of the Helsinki Final Act.4 That document contemplates a full and frank review of whether the signatories have lived up to their human rights commitments. It is clear that the Soviet Union and the East European countries, in varying degrees, have not done so. We have not hesitated to say so publicly, to request an explanation, and to seek compliance.

Our comments and those of West European governments have helped sustain the Helsinki accord as a living force in the cause of human rights, an engine for keeping constant pressure on governments to respect the rights of their people. Our silence would have effectively permitted that force to fade away.

In speaking of our public efforts, I should note that we are actively using our public diplomacy tools such as the U.S. Information Agency to convey our human rights concerns to various nongovernmental audiences abroad. The Voice of America has increased its attention to these issues. Our embassies and offices abroad have organized sem[Page 332]inars in which thoughtful Americans can directly express their human rights concerns to people from similar walks of life in foreign countries.

Our human rights initiative has given recognition and a new stimulus to the longstanding efforts of private nongovernmental organizations in this field. We applaud these endeavors and recognize that over time they may well outdistance any governmental effort.

Appropriate Action. When our relationship with another government includes economic and military assistance, we are prepared to take tangible steps to recognize good human rights performance or to manifest our concern over human rights violations. When appropriate or necessary, in other words, we will support our words with actions. In taking such steps, we are guided and strengthened by important legislative provisions enacted by a Congress overwhelmingly committed to the cause of human rights.

Taking due account of the needs of the poorest, we have made a fundamental decision gradually to channel a growing share of our economic assistance to countries that respect the human rights of their people.

On the other hand, when countries we assist consistently curtail human rights, and where our preferred diplomatic efforts have been unavailing, we must consider restrictions on the flow of our aid, both overall levels and individual loans or grants. Thus, over the course of the past year we have, for example:

• Deferred bilateral economic assistance to certain countries;

• Opposed loans by the World Bank and the other international financial institutions to countries that engage in flagrant violations of human rights; and

• Taken steps to insure that food aid provided to countries with serious human rights problems will reach the needy.

We have also advised other departments of the government on human rights conditions abroad that may affect their activities. For example, a recently enacted statute calls for the Export-Import Bank to take human rights considerations into account, and the Bank regularly seeks advice on this issue.5

Human rights performance is also an important factor in our decisions on military assistance and commercial arms sales subject to government licensing. We have reduced or declined to increase our mili[Page 333]tary aid to a number of countries and refused to issue licenses in a variety of instances.

The diversity of cultures and the different stages of economic and political maturity tend to produce agonizing, almost incredibly complex, choices in granting or withholding aid. Moreover, human rights, while a fundamental factor in our foreign policy, cannot always be the decisive factor. But the difficulty of the decisions will not deter us from supporting our words with action.

International Support. It is important to note that we are not alone in pursuing the diplomacy of human rights. Increasingly, other governments are standing with us. In the United Nations, in the Organization of American States, and in other contexts we have strong partners in the cause of human rights. Recently, we initiated consultations with our West European allies and others on how to promote broader international cooperation in support of human rights. In general, we are finding strong support for giving human rights a higher priority in international relations.

Human Rights Data Base. As I reflect on the first year of human rights diplomacy, there is one area in which I would like to ask for the creative thinking and counsel of this great association. I refer to the need I perceive for an objective, authenticated data base on human rights conditions in all countries.

Let me put the problem in perspective. With the aid of our embassies around the world, we are constantly trying to gather reliable and extensive human rights data. Nevertheless, the validity of our information on human rights conditions in other countries is frequently challenged. Probably it is inevitable that the data collected by any one country would be suspect. Coverage is bound to be limited, and there may be the suspicion that the collecting country has an ax to grind.

What is needed is an objective, widely respected clearinghouse for human rights information on all countries of the world. This would be an important resource for us and others interested in taking human rights conditions in other countries into account in policymaking. It would thus both inform our decisions and authenticate the existence and severity of human rights problems.

Perhaps you will be able to suggest how such a clearinghouse might be created. It is clear that it must be international in scope. What is not so clear is whether it should be sponsored by a private organization or by a group of countries or an international organization. Once created, I could visualize that such an entity might also play an important educational role in improving human rights conditions around the world. We stand ready to help in creating such an organization.

U.S. Concerns

This then is a capsule view of the diplomacy of human rights. It is a diplomacy that refuses to “be indifferent to the fate of freedom else[Page 334]where.” It is a diplomacy that has permitted the United States to seize the initiative for human progress once again. Surveys conducted abroad have shown time and time again that the renewed interest in human values expressed by the President and implemented by our diplomatic efforts has had an enormously positive impact on the view people in foreign countries hold of America and our role in the world.

We are daily concerned with our government’s response to human rights conditions in other countries. But our credibility—and indeed the inner health of our society—depends upon facing up to our problems here at home and seeking to improve our own human rights situation.

Much of President Carter’s domestic program is directed toward the enhancement of the human rights of Americans. Proposals for welfare reform, efforts to cut the cost of health care, and the commitment to full employment are obvious examples. We should also note that, within the past year, travel restrictions for American citizens abroad have been eliminated,6 and visa requirements for foreigners coming to this country have been significantly eased.

It is well to remember that we are far from perfect. Our ample due process with all its guarantees does not afford perfect justice. But whatever our shortcomings, they are faced frankly and openly. The three constitutional branches of government have the responsibility to do so. And the “fourth branch” is there to insure that that responsibility is met.

Progress to Date

In making human rights a fundamental tenet of our foreign policy and greatly increasing sensitivity to human rights concerns, we have helped to create an atmosphere in which human rights progress is much more likely to occur. We do not take credit for particular improvements, but we note the tangible evidence from every continent that the condition of large numbers of people—of individual, identifiable human beings—is less oppressive now than it seemed one year ago.

Africa. There have been releases of substantial numbers of political detainees; for example, Sudan, Nigeria, Upper Volta, Mali, and Ghana are moving toward reestablishment of civilian governments. Most African leaders have intensified their efforts to promote agricultural development. Nigeria and other African nations are supporting creation of an African human rights commission under U.N. auspices.

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Near East. Morocco moved toward political liberalization after nearly a decade of rule by decree. Restrictions on freedom of the press were lifted and significant numbers of political prisoners were released. Tunisia authorized establishment of the Tunisian League for the Rights of Man which has been permitted to investigate allegations of human rights violations. Iran released a substantial number of political prisoners and agreed to a visit by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

South Asia. There was in India a magnificent resurrection of democracy. Nepal released political prisoners and lifted newspaper curbs. Sri Lanka changed its government for the sixth time since independence through the free choice of its people. Pakistan released over 11,000 political prisoners.

East Asia. The Indonesian Government released 10,000 political detainees, confirmed its intent to release 20,000 more in accordance with its previously announced release schedule, and agreed to resumption of ICRC visits. South Korea released all but one of the Myong Dong prisoners—opposition political and religious leaders who had opposed the government. The Philippine Government eased some of its martial law restrictions and released some detainees. The new Government of Thailand has eased press restrictions, improved trial procedures, and stated its intent to seek general elections early next year.

Latin America. Political prisoners were released in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Paraguay, Argentina, and Peru. The military governments of Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia announced that elections will be held in 1978. States of siege were lifted in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Most Latin American governments have allocated increased resources to improving the living standards and productivity of their poor farmers. Some restrictive laws have been repealed in Panama. And El Salvador, Haiti, and Paraguay agreed to visits by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Europe. For the first time in NATO’s history, every member of the alliance is a democracy. New churches have been constructed in Poland. Certain countries of Eastern Europe have eased their restrictions on emigration and family reunification. Some human rights activists in Poland and Romania have been released from prison. And live television programs in Hungary have allowed prominent Westerners to voice their views on political issues.


Despite these many improvements and others like them, the fact remains that the distance covered is dwarfed by the distance that remains to be traveled. I could recount in detail the retrograde human rights developments of the past year, as well as the horrendous human [Page 336] rights violations that persist across the globe—in many of the countries I have just mentioned as well as elsewhere.

• Suffice it to say that in all quarters of the world, too many people are still subject to torture and are suffering in squalid prisons, uncharged and untried.

• Too many people are hungry, have inadequate shelter, and lack medical care and educational opportunity.

• Too many people are living under martial law or are otherwise barred from political participation.

• Too many are denied the right to emigrate or even to travel freely within their own country.

These problems are the challenges of the future. They will not be solved easily. But our experience with 1 year of human rights diplomacy convinces us that while the journey is long it is not impossible.

Of course none of us can know for sure where the progress of human rights may lead. But every so often during the past year, as I have struggled to understand the deep meaning of human rights, I have felt a fleeting intimation of what untold spiritual and material riches may lie ahead—perhaps centuries ahead—in a world of true, universal human freedom. Justice Holmes perhaps had a similar feeling—and certainly expressed it much better than I ever could—when he said:

I think it not improbable that man, like the grub that prepares a chamber for the winged thing it never has seen but is to be—that man may have cosmic destinies that he does not understand. And so beyond the vision of battling races and an impoverished earth I catch a dreaming glimpse of peace.

I think that in the last analysis the cause of human rights has power and will succeed because, no matter what the obstacle, it tenaciously allows the world’s people to “catch a dreaming glimpse of peace.”

  1. Source: Department of State Bulletin, March 1978, pp. 30–33. Christopher delivered his address before the American Bar Association.
  2. For text of address, see BULLETIN of Aug. 29, 1977, p. 269. [Footnote in the original.]
  3. For full text, see BULLETIN of Feb. 14, 1977, p. 121. [Footnote in the original. See Document 15.]
  4. For an outline of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) Final Act, see BULLETIN of Sept. 26, 1977, p. 405; for full text of the CSCE Final Act, see BULLETIN of Sept. 1, 1975, p. 323. [Footnote in the original.]
  5. Presumable reference to P.L. 95–143 (91 Stat. 1210), signed into law by the President on October 26, 1977. The law amended the Export-Import Bank Act of 1945 to require the Bank’s Board of Directors to take under consideration the observance of human rights in determining the extension of loans and guarantees. It also amended the act in order to extend the Bank’s operating authority to September 30, 1978, from June 30, 1978. (Congress and the Nation, vol. V, 1977–1980, p. 48)
  6. See footnote 15, Document 29.