16. Memorandum From Jessica Tuchman of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Human Rights Proposal

As I reported in yesterday’s evening report2 the President has directed that we proceed on his initiative to sign and urge the ratification of: The International Covenant on Economic and Cultural Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the Genocide Convention; and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination.3 Lipshutz and I agreed to meet with Pat Derian who has been appointed Commissioner of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs at State, and Jim Fallows to discuss what should be done. I mentioned to him that I thought that the UN might be the best possible forum for such a speech.

In the course of the past few days I have been doing some reading and a lot of talking with different people on the subject of human rights, and have come up with a proposal which I think merits some consideration. In brief, it is that President Carter use this opportunity (announcement of the four treaty actions) to make a major speech at the United Nations.

Here are the reasons why, and some thoughts on what such a speech might include.

—One of the problems that comes up again and again is American hypocrisy in this area. Our protracted failure to ratify the Genocide and Racial Discrimination Conventions and even to sign the international covenants, has in large part prevented us from using the United Na[Page 47]tions as a forum to speak out on human rights because of our quite appropriate fear of being embarrassed by the charge of hypocrisy. Thus the President’s intention to take these actions is not only a major step in itself, but opens the door for many other U.S. actions on human rights.

—With his appointment of Andy Young, Carter has signaled that he intends to make the United Nations a more important force in U.S. foreign policy. No other national or international organ has the same potential as the UN to advance the cause of human rights. (I stress potential—how much depends on the changes proposed below.)

—There is a lot of debate about the value of words on this issue. On the one hand, we hear lots of comment about when is the President going to stop talking about human rights and actually do something. On the other hand, Intelligence reports from various countries show that Carter’s words—particularly in his Inaugural Address4—have already had a significant, positive effect on the policies of some other nations. However too many words (particularly when addressed to individual cases) carry the potential for all kinds of trouble: too many of them rob each one of its force; individuals abroad may be provoked into actions designed to elicit American response; damage to bilateral relations, etc. This speech would allow the President to enunciate strong U.S. principles on human rights, but in a manner completely divorced from any individual case or nation. It would set the context in which other American statements and actions could follow. A speech at the UN would demonstrate that the U.S. is willing to say these things on the record, and in a forum where we may take some heat as a result.

In his speech I would propose that the President—in addition to announcing the four treaty actions—make the following points and proposals:

—We reject the policy of remaining silent in the face of terrible abuses of human rights because of a fear of embarrasing our friends or ourselves because of our own lesser violations of human rights. All nations, including the U.S. have been guilty of this. We all sin but that need not silence us about the worst sinners.

—A gentle but moving call to try to create in the UN a political forum to respond to human sufferings.

—There are many in this country as there are in other nations who have become disillusioned with the United Nations. But it is still important—vital—to building and maintaining a peaceful world order. The way to disarm that disillusionment is to make the UN work better.

—Therefore I propose some major steps to strengthen the UN mechanisms on human rights. Specifically, urge the creation of an of[Page 48]fice of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (see note #1).5 Secondly, move the entire UN Human Rights Division from Geneva back to New York where the most active human rights non-governmental organizations are situated, and where the permanent press corps with its proddings and its disclosures can stimulate a more positive UN role. With good reason, a high UN official has acknowledged that the reason for the transfer from New York to Geneva was that the Human Rights Division “would be more asleep” in Geneva. Third, propose certain mechanisms to strengthen the workings of the UN Commission on Human Rights, its Sub-Commission on Discrimination and the recently created Human Rights Committee.

—The President might then make some attempt to define what are—in the view of the United States—the most basic human rights. I would suggest that they are those which concern the sanctity of the person: detainment and arrest without charge, torture, killing, etc. This would of course raise many problems, (e.g.—is the right to emigrate one of the most basic?) but it does seem possible to me that some agreement might be reached on this, and that these constitute a category that can be set apart.

—A rejection of the trade-off often advanced by the LDCs between human rights and human needs.6 The often aching need for economic development cannot be accepted as a reason for violating these other rights. The President could point out that the U.S. does nevertheless understand that “human rights begins at breakfast” and therefore [Page 49] might also choose to use this occasion to make a proposal or announce U.S. initiatives in the field of economic and social development. For example, he might announce the World Health Initiative (recently proposed by Peter Bourne and approved by the President),7 a call for action on and U.S. contribution to the creation of international food reserves, or some other proposal concerning general economic development, following up on the Kissinger proposals to the Special Session last year.8

—The President might then choose to make a few points on what U.S. policy will be. First, that the United States does not believe that human rights is a purely domestic matter, and accepts the opinion of the International Court of Justice (1971) which held that in ratifying the United Nations Charter, member states have undertaken legal obligations in the matter of human rights, and their actions are therefore a matter of appropriate concern to the entire global community. The President might reassert that the United States will carry over its concern with human rights into its bilateral relations, either using the positive language he employed in the Inaugural (societies which show “an abiding respect for individual human rights” will receive a “clearcut preference”) or a tougher posture concerning possible sticks we might use (security assistance, multilateral loans, etc.).

This is of course only a rough outline of such a speech and some of it is (and is intended to be) highly controversial. However, in my discussions with people about the PRM, I have discovered that there is wide confusion over what even the most basic elements of U.S. policy on human rights should be. I believe therefore that the exercise of writing such a speech as is proposed here—with the President’s close personal involvement—might provide the basis for proceeding to develop a coherent policy of how to implement the various incentives and sanctions at our disposal.

Note #1. This proposal was first made by Costa Rica in 1965.9 Writing about it Bill Korey notes that the Commissioner would have “access to the complaint communications and, with tact and ‘quiet persuasion,’ could attempt to remedy serious grievances. He would also assist and provide advice to various UN organs on human rights matters. As envisaged by the Costa Rican delegation and its supporters, the person chosen by the Assembly for the position of High Commis[Page 50]sioner would be one whose integrity and prestige is so great that his relative independence from the buffeting political winds at the UN would enable him to function effectively in a difficult job. But it was precisely such a potentially effective institutional device which aroused powerful resistance and endless postponement.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Global Issues—Bloomfield Subject File, Box 17, Human Rights: Policy Initiatives, 1/77–10/78. Confidential.
  2. The NSC Global Issues Cluster’s February 17 evening report is in the Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Global Issues—Oplinger/Bloomfield Subject File, Box 36, Evening Reports: 2–4/77.
  3. See footnotes 7 and 8, Document 4. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination committed signatories both to condemning racial segregation and apartheid and undertaking a policy designed to eliminate racial discrimination in all forms and promote understanding of all races. On December 21, 1965, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention and opened it for signature. For the U.S. position on the Convention at the time of its adoption, see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, volume XXXIII, Organization and Management of U.S. Foreign Policy; United Nations, Document 375.
  4. See footnote 3, Document 8.
  5. Note #1 is at the end of the memorandum. In a February 23 memorandum to Tuchman, Henze expressed agreement with Tuchman’s proposal but added that he was “more skeptical of the likelihood” that the United States could obtain consensus on the UN human rights measures: “This is not a reason for avoiding proposing some of the measures you outline but we should be careful not to get hung up on pushing them, because I fear that a majority of UN members will find various reasons to oppose the creation of an Office of UN Commissioner for Human Rights. The Soviets will see it as an American attempt to create a new platform for meddling in their affairs; the Chinese can hardly support it; most Africans will be fearful of it; many Latin Americans and Asians too.” (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Defense/Security, Huntington, Box 37, Human Rights: 2–3/77)
  6. Hansen, in a February 23 memorandum to Tuchman, indicated that he strongly disagreed with this statement as it dichotomized the two types of rights and prioritized one set of rights over the other. He continued, “The crucial issue for the President is whether or not he wishes to continue this stalemated debate with developing countries or reach out for some broader understanding; if you will, toward the creation of a ‘universal norm’ which both North and South could subscribe to in the area of human rights. If he doesn’t, his policies vis-à-vis most developing countries will get off to a bad start in a crucial area of North-South relations. So I plead with you not to advise a rejection of the trade off idea, but to suggest a reconceptualization of it that says quite straight-forwardly ‘We are prepared to recognize that the Universal Declaration contains two general types of human rights issues, and we are prepared to move forward on both of them with equal degrees of commitment.’ That would be a new note in the heretofore squalid North-South shouting match, and should capture the attention of all the countries of the world.” (Ibid.)
  7. Bourne’s response to Tuchman’s proposal is Document 21.
  8. See footnote 4, Document 207. The Seventh Special Session of the UN General Assembly took place in September 1975 rather than 1976.
  9. For additional information on the 1965 proposal, see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, volume XXXIV, Energy Diplomacy and Global Issues, Document 323 and volume XXXIII, Organization and Management of Foreign Policy; United Nations, Documents 344 and 347.