9. Address by Jimmy Carter1


On September 8, 1976, Mr. Carter addressed a convention in Washington, D.C., of B’nai B’rith, a national Jewish fraternal organization. He said:

It is a special pleasure to be here today, because I believe we share a common heritage, and a common commitment, that brings us together.

In 1843, B’nai B’rith was founded by a small group of immigrants who sought to preserve for themselves and others the religious and personal liberty they had been denied abroad.

So it was with those who founded my church in this country, to insure liberty of conscience.

I am proud to meet with a group of men and women with whom I share a total commitment to the preservation of human rights, individual liberty, and freedom of conscience.

I would like to talk to you about my view of how our nation should encourage and support those priceless qualities throughout the world.

This is, as you know, a difficult question. It requires a careful balancing of realism and idealism—of our understanding of the world as it is, and our vision of the world as it should be.

The question, I think, is whether in recent years our highest officials have not been too pragmatic, even cynical, and as a consequence have ignored those moral values that had often distinguished our country from the other great nations of the world.

We must move away from making policies in secret; without the knowledge and approval of the American people.

I have called for closer ties with our traditional allies, and stronger ties with the State of Israel. I have stressed the necessity for a strong defense—tough and muscular, and adequate to maintain our freedom under any conceivable circumstances.

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But military strength alone is not enough. Over the years, our greatest source of strength has come from those basic, priceless values which are embodied in our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, and our Bill of Rights: our belief in freedom of religion—our belief in freedom of expression—our belief in human dignity.

These principles have made us great and, unless our foreign policy reflects them, we make a mockery of all those values that we have celebrated in this bicentennial year.

We have not always lived up to our ideals, but I know of no great nation in history that has more often conducted itself in a moral, unselfish, generous manner abroad, and provided more freedom and opportunity to its own citizens at home.

Still, in recent years, we have had reason to be troubled. Often there has been a gap between the values we have proclaimed and the policies we have pursued. We have often been overextended, and deeply entangled in the internal affairs of distant nations. Our government has pursued dubious tactics, and “national security” has sometimes been a cover-up for unnecessary secrecy and national scandal.

We stumbled into the quagmires of Cambodia and Vietnam, and carried out heavy-handed efforts to destroy an elected government in Chile. In Cyprus, we let expediency triumph over fairness, and lost both ways.

We responded inadequately to human suffering in Bangladesh, Burundi, the Sahel, and other underdeveloped nations.

We lessened the prestige of our Foreign Service by sending abroad ambassadors who were distinguished only by the size of their political contributions.

We have allowed virtually unlimited sales of United States arms to countries around the world—a policy as cynical as it is dangerous.

I find it unacceptable that we have in effect condoned the effort of some Arab countries to tell American businesses that, in order to trade with one country or company, they must observe certain restrictions based on race or religion. These so-called “Arab boycotts” violate our standards of freedom and morality.2

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I regret that a senior official of the Ford Administration, an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, last week told Congress that efforts should not be made to address this basic issue of human rights.3

Moreover, according to a recent House subcommittee report, the Department of Commerce has shut its eyes to the boycott by failing to collect information on alleged offenses, and failing to carry out a firm policy against the boycott.4

Enforce Anti-Boycott Laws

If I become President, all laws concerning these boycotts will be vigorously enforced.

We also regret our government’s continuing failure to oppose the denial of human freedom in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

The Republican Administration with the Sonnenfeldt statement,5 has shown a lack of sensitivity to the craving of the Eastern European people for greater independence. That is unacceptable.

Only 13 months ago, President Ford and Henry Kissinger traveled to Helsinki to sign the treaty of comprehensive security and cooperation in Europe.6 It was supposed to lead to greater personal freedom for the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, including greater freedom to travel, to marry, and to emigrate. But since that elaborate [Page 45] signing ceremony in Finland, the Russians have all but ignored their pledge—and the Ford Administration has looked the other way.

Similarly, the American government has failed to make serious efforts to get the Russians to permit greater numbers of people to emigrate freely to the countries of their choice, and I commend those Members of Congress and others who have demonstrated a strong personal concern and commitment to that goal.

Despite our deep desire for successful negotiation on strategic arms and nuclear proliferation, we cannot pass over in silence the deprivation of human rights in the Soviet Union. The list of Soviet prisoners is long, and includes both Christians and Jews. I will speak only of two: Vladimir Bukovsky and Vladimir Slepak. Bukovsky, a young scientist, has been imprisoned most of the last 13 years for criticisms of the Soviet regime. Slepak, a radio engineer in Moscow, applied for an exit visa for Israel in April of 1970. The visa was denied and, since 1972, he has been denied the right to hold a job.

I ask why such people must be deprived of their basic rights, a year after Helsinki. And if I become President, the fate of men like Bukovsky and Slepak will be very much on my mind as I negotiate with the Soviet Union.

Liberty is curtailed in non-Communist countries, too, of course. There are many cases of political persecution in Chile and reports of brutal torture that are too well documented to be disbelieved.

There are those regimes, such as South Korea, which openly violate human rights, although they themselves are under threat from Communist regimes which represent an even greater level of repression.

Even in such cases, however, we should not condone repression or the denial of freedom. On the contrary, we should use our influence to increase freedom in those countries that depend on us for their very survival.

Denials of human rights occur in many places and many ways. In Ireland, for example, violence has bred more violence, and caused untold human suffering which brings sorrow to the entire civilized world.

I do not say to you that these are simple issues.

I do not say that we can remake the world in our own image. I recognize the limits on our power, and I do not wish to see us swing from one extreme of cynical manipulation to the other extreme of moralistic zeal, which can be just as dangerous.

But the present administration has been so obsessed with balance of power politics that it has often ignored basic American values and a proper concern for human rights. The leaders of this administration have rationalized that there is little room for morality in foreign affairs, and that we must put self-interest above principle.

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I disagree strongly.

Ours is a great and powerful nation, committed to certain enduring ideals and those ideals must be reflected in our foreign policy.

There are practical, effective ways in which our power can be used to alleviate human suffering around the world.

We should begin by having it understood that if any nation, whatever its political system, deprives its people of basic human rights, that fact will help shape our people’s attitude toward that nation’s government.

Respect for Human Rights

If other nations want our friendship and support, they must understand that we want to see basic human rights respected.

Our power is not unlimited, but neither is it insignificant, and I believe that if we are sensitive and if we are concerned, there can be many instances when our power can make a crucial difference to thousands of men and women who are the victims of oppression around the world.

We must be realistic. Although we believe deeply in our own system of government and our own ideals, we do not and should not insist on identical standards or an identical system in all other nations. We can live with diversity in governmental systems, but we cannot look away when a government tortures people, or jails them for their beliefs, or denies minorities fair treatment or the right to emigrate.

Let me suggest some actions our government should take in the area of human rights.

First, we can support the principle of self-determination by refraining from intervention in the domestic politics of other countries but, obviously, we are going to protect our interests and advance our beliefs in other nations.

We should not behave abroad in ways that violate our own laws or moral standards. You and I would not plot murder, but in recent years officials of our government have plotted murder, and that is wrong and unacceptable.

In giving trade advantages or economic assistance to other governments, we should make sure that such aid is used to benefit the people of that country. There will be times when we will want to help those who must live under a repressive government. We may refrain from giving general economic aid or military assistance to a government, yet wish to provide food, health care, or other humanitarian assistance directly to the people.

The United States should lend more vigorous support to the United Nations and other public and private international bodies in [Page 47] order to attract world attention to the denial of freedom. These bodies are limited in power, but they can serve as the conscience of the world community, and they deserve far more support than our government has given them in recent years.

Insofar as they comply with our own Constitution and laws, we should move toward Senate ratification of several important treaties drafted in the United Nations for the protection of human rights. These include the Genocide Convention that was prepared more than 25 years ago,7 the convention against racial discrimination that was signed during the Johnson Administration,8 and the covenants on political and civil rights, and on economic and social rights.9 Until we ratify these covenants we cannot participate with other nations in international discussions of specific cases involving freedom and human rights.

We should quit being timid and join Israel and other nations in moving to stamp out international terrorism!

These are some of the things our nation can do for a change to promote human rights in our imperfect world. The basic question is one of leadership. We have not had that kind of leadership in recent years. In foreign affairs, as in domestic affairs we need leaders who are not only concerned with the interests of the powerful, but who are especially concerned with the powerless, with the weak, with the disenfranchised, and with other victims of oppression. We have not had that kind of leadership in recent years.

If I am elected President, I intend to provide it.

Thank you.

  1. Source: The Presidential Campaign 1976, volume I, part II: Jimmy Carter, pp. 709–714. Carter delivered his address before the convention of B’nai B’rith in the ballroom of the Washington Hilton Hotel. (Don Oberdorfer, “Carter Speaks on Human Rights,” The Washington Post, September 9, 1976, p. A–8)
  2. In December 1945, the Arab League declared a boycott on trade between Arab countries and Israel. The boycott had evolved by 1948 to include three components: a continuation of the original boycott, a boycott against any companies operating in Israel, and a boycott against any companies that had relationships with companies operating in Israel.
  3. Presumable reference to Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Gerald Parsky. On August 31 Parsky appeared before a Senate-House conference committee negotiating the pending tax revision bill and expressed the administration’s opposition to a Senate provision to the bill that denied favorable tax benefits to American companies complying with the Arab boycott of Israel. (Edwin L. Dale Jr., “Boycott Penalty Opposed by Ford: Use of Tax Laws to Punish Concerns for Acts Against Israel Still Unresolved,” The New York Times, September 1, 1976, p. 17)
  4. Reference is to a Congressional report examining the impact of the Arab boycott. Representative Scheuer, a drafter of the report, asserted that investigations had revealed that for 10 years, the Department of Commerce had advised American businessmen that they “need not comply” with U.S. Government requests to file information about boycott demands. (David Binder, “Commerce Department Accused of Collusion in Arabs’ Boycott,” The New York Times, September 4, 1976, pp. 1, 5)
  5. Reference is to off-the-record remarks Sonnenfeldt made at the December 1975 European Chiefs of Mission conference, held in London. He had posited that the United States should pursue an evolution of the Soviet role in Eastern Europe. The Department transmitted a summary of his remarks in telegram 24976 to all European diplomatic posts, February 1, 1976; see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XXXVIII, Part 1, Foundations of Foreign Policy, 1973–1976, Document 68. Syndicated columnists Evans and Novak referenced Sonnenfeldt’s remarks in their March 22 column. (“A Soviet-East Europe ‘Organic Union’,” The Washington Post, March 22, 1976, p. A–19) Sonnenfeldt, addressing a Pentagon audience in late March, noted that the original and press reports of the Chiefs of Mission conference had distorted his remarks: “The press focused on the use of the word organic, and added the term union, which together, imply U.S. acceptance of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. This assertion is incorrect.” ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XXXVIII, Part 1, Foundations of Foreign Policy, 1973–1976, Document 73)
  6. See footnote 7, Document 4.
  7. Reference is to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 9, 1948, and entered into force on January 12, 1951. Truman submitted the Convention to the Senate in 1949. Although the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had favorably reported the treaty, the Senate had not approved it at the time of Carter’s address.
  8. Reference is to the International Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, adopted and opened for signature by the UN General Assembly on December 21, 1965. U.S. officials signed the Covenant on September 28, 1966. It entered into force on December 4, 1969.
  9. The United Nations adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which were both first presented to the General Assembly in 1954, on December 16, 1966, and opened both covenants for signature on December 19. The first covenant commits signatories to respecting the civil and political rights of individuals, including the right to life; freedoms of speech, religion, and assembly; and right to due process and fair trial. The second covenant upholds an individual’s economic, social, and cultural rights, including self-determination, participation in cultural life, and the right to work. Carter would later sign both covenants at the United Nations on October 5, 1977; for Carter’s remarks at the signing ceremony, see Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. II, Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, Document 79.