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81. Memorandum From Samuel Huntington of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Counsel (Lipshutz)1


  • Creating a Human Rights Agency

Attached is the paper I promised you when we talked a few weeks ago about the desirability of giving permanent form to the Administration’s human rights concerns by creating a human rights agency. The paper attempts to lay out the reasons—which are largely political—for creating such an agency and to identify the functions it could perform. It also describes, as you suggested, alternative organizational locations for such an agency.

The important thing, as I see it, is to enable the President to maintain his commitment to human rights, on the one hand, and yet not have him under the gun of having to produce every week a new “human rights victory” in order to demonstrate the strength of that commitment. Creation of a human rights agency would ease the pressure on him and at the same time create a body which could work effectively for human rights over the long haul.

I would welcome the chance to discuss with you your reactions to the arguments advanced in the paper.

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Paper Prepared by Samuel Huntington of the National Security Council Staff 2


I. Human Rights as an Issue

Human rights is, in many respects, the distinguishing hall-mark of Carter Administration foreign policy. It epitomizes a fresh approach to foreign policy, the effort to base foreign policy in morality, and the effort to restore pride and confidence of Americans in the goals of their foreign policy as well as in the government that conducts it. In other areas, such as SALT and the Middle East, the Administration has adopted new approaches to old issues. With human rights, the Administration has moved a new issue to center stage and focused attention on that issue as its issue.

In so doing, the Administration has created high expectations as to the role which moral considerations can play in foreign policy. It has also, of course, encouraged other political forces and groups which have their own interest in promoting human rights, at times in ways and to extremes which differ from those of the Administration.

The human rights issue has been a major asset of this Administration. It needs to be conserved, nurtured, developed, and, most importantly, prevented from turning sour or rotten. The identification of human rights with the Administration can, however, give rise to some problems.

1. Pressures—many of which are inevitable and some of which are desirable—have developed to “ease off” human rights so as not to complicate or discombobulate relations with key countries, such as Iran, Brazil, South Korea, and, most importantly, the Soviet Union. And some downgrading of the importance of human rights in various bilateral contexts undoubtedly is necessary and desirable.

2. Even without these pressures to “accommodate to reality”, human rights cannot indefinitely remain the distinctive focus of US foreign policy. Other issues will crowd it and demand attention. While the President has made clear to everyone the extent and depth of his commitment on this issue, it is, nonetheless, most unlikely that human [Page 267]rights will occupy as much of Presidential time in the first six months of 1979 (or even of 1978) as it did in the first six months of 1977.

3. As human rights appears to decline in centrality and as realities impose compromises, delays, and defeats in the achievement of human rights goals, a reaction of cynicism and disillusionment about Administration intentions is likely to set in. People will ask: “Whatever happened to the Administration’s great crusade on human rights?” There is a much greater potential for this type of disillusionment with an issue like human rights, which does involve morality and principles, than with bread-and-butter economic issues or balance-of-power military issues.

4. One of the great attractions of human rights as an issue has been its broad appeal: liberals espouse it, thinking of Iran, Chile, and South Korea; conservatives see it as a weapon for use against the Soviet Union. The problem is not only to maintain human rights as an issue, but also to maintain its equal appeal to both liberals and conservatives. There is thus a need to develop an approach to human rights which both liberals and conservatives can support.

More generally, the above considerations suggest the need to avoid in fact and in appearance an Administration abandonment of human rights as a central concern.

II. Human Rights Actions

A related set of problems concerns the ways in which this government can promote human rights. With some exceptions, the actions which the USG has so far taken and can take to promote human rights fall into two categories. First, the leaders and agencies of the USG can articulate and dramatize their interest in advancing human rights. This can be done either through “diplomatic actions, public statements, and various symbolic acts” or through the “use of overseas broadcast facilities and cultural and educational programs” (to use the language of PRM/NSC–28).3 Second, the US can act or threaten to act to deny economic assistance, loans, arms transfers, or other benefits to governments which violate human rights (“changes in levels of security and economic assistance and food aid” and “initiatives in international financial institutions” in the language of the PRM). While the US can also work through the UN and other multilateral institutions to promote human rights and can take measures on its own (such as admission of refugees), the two main methods of promoting human rights remain exhortation and penalties.

Each of these undoubtedly has its place. But each also has its limitations. Exhortation reaches only so far, and its effectiveness declines [Page 268]over time. Penalties—that is, denials to other countries of the means to promote other goals we support (e.g. economic development, collective security)—obviously conflict with our efforts to achieve these other goals. They also obviously have a particularly irritating impact on our relations with the particular countries concerned. In effect, the penalties approach requires us: to rate, publicly, other countries in terms of their human rights performance; to identify those countries which don’t measure up to some standard; (e.g., are manifesting “a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights”); and then to deny to these countries some benefit which we would otherwise extend to them in order to achieve some other goal of national policy. The promotion of human rights thus comes to involve the curtailment or cancellation of efforts to achieve some other goal.

Exhortation and penalties are at times necessary and even productive. But the sustained effective promotion of human rights requires something more. Neither exhortation nor penalties constitute a positive program of actions to promote human rights comparable, let us say, to the program which AID has to promote economic development. To supplement exhortation and penalties, a positive program of human rights actions is required.

III. A Human Rights Agency

The needs to maintain the broad support and appeal of human rights, to institutionalize the concern of the Carter Administration with respect to human rights, and to develop more effective action programs to promote human rights can be most effectively met by the creation of a distinct government agency which had the promotion of human rights as its principal objective. Such an agency would constitute the institutional embodiment of the Carter Administration’s concern and its permanent legacy to the future. It would be a human rights initiative which both liberals and conservatives would have reasons to support. It would also help ease the extent to which the promotion of human rights (particularly through the imposition of penalties) directly conflicts with the advancement of other policy goals. The creation of such an agency would underline the extent to which human rights are not simply a passing fancy but rather a long-term commitment.

The creation of such an agency would be a natural outgrowth of what the Administration has done to date in the human rights area and would parallel for the Carter Administration what other Administrations have done in other fields. The major foreign policy interests of the Kennedy Administration were embodied in the Peace Corps, AID, and ACDA, all of which were created in 1961–62. A Human Rights Agency would be the comparable institutional embodiment of a primary foreign policy concern of the Carter Administration. It would be the [Page 269]source and the stimulus for action programs in support of human rights which went beyond exhortation and penalties.

IV. Functions of a Human Rights Agency

The overall purpose of the agency would be to support overall US foreign policy objectives through the promotion of human rights on a global basis.4 It could, presumably, assume some human rights functions already being undertaken by other agencies, but it could also undertake additional programs and activities which could make new positive contributions to the furtherance of human rights. Among other things, the agency could be authorized to:

1. Plan, devise, develop, and execute programs which would further global human rights in accordance with US foreign policy objectives.

2. Work with other US government agencies, foreign governments, private organizations, and international organizations for the expansion of human rights.

3. Provide assistance to private individuals and organizations, public and private international organizations, and other governments for programs which promote human rights.

4. Periodically study the condition of human rights globally and in specific societies and assess trends affecting human rights (possibly assuming here responsibilities assigned to the State Department under existing legislation).

5. Undertake research on human rights issues and the ways of more effectively expanding human rights.

6. Monitor US government policies and actions which affect human rights, assess their effectiveness, and make recommendations to the appropriate executive and legislative bodies.

7. Prepare and disseminate information on human rights in order to promote public understanding of human rights issues and support for human rights in the US and abroad.

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8. Award, as appropriate, a human rights prize (comparable to the Nobel Prize) to an individual or group which has made an outstanding contribution to human rights.

The above is only a general outline of some of the functions which a human rights agency might perform, but it does give some idea of how the current concern with human rights could be institutionalized and made permanent and of the ways in which more positive programs might be developed to supplement existing activities.

V. Organization and Location of a Human Rights Agency

Such an agency could occupy several different locations and have a variety of different relations to other executive agencies. Three distinct possibilities stand out.

1. The agency could be created as an office in the Executive Office of the President. This would be in keeping with direct interest which President Carter has in this issue and would insure the agency of the clout which comes from a close relationship to the President. On the other hand, however, if the agency had the functions indicated above, it would also be an operational agency, and there are good general reasons for not locating operational agencies in the EOP. If a future President did not have the same personal interest in human rights that President Carter has, the influence which comes from an EOP location would be diminished in any event. In addition, even if the agency were located elsewhere, it would always be possible for the President, if he so desired, to give its director an additional “hat” in the White House as his Special Advisor on Human Rights.

2. The agency could be created as an autonomous entity but subject to the policy guidance and direction of the Secretary of State. In varying degrees, AID and ACDA occupy this type of position now. Such a position would insure a distinct identity and program but would also insure that the activities of the agency would be compatible with overall US foreign policy objectives. The disadvantages of this location are that it could lead to the subordination of human rights objectives to other goals and to the undue influence of traditional Foreign Service and bureaucratic concerns in the operation of the agency. Presumably, however, these could be guarded against by careful drafting of the legislation and by recruitment of the staff of the agency from appropriately diversified sources.

3. The agency could be created as an autonomous agency, part of the executive branch, but independent of direct control or guidance by any other executive branch agency. In this case, one form the agency might assume could be as a government corporation, with a board of private citizens and government officials, appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. The closest model here [Page 271]would be the Inter-American Foundation.5 Such an organization and location would insure the independence of the agency and would promote its sustained commitment to its original goals. It would also, however, tend to separate it from other executive branch agencies concerned with human rights and would probably reduce its ability to influence US policy more generally.

Each of these possible organizational locations thus has its advantages and disadvantages. Any one could provide an acceptable format for the performance of the new programmatic functions related to human rights. The alternatives do, however, have different implications for the extent to which existing offices and functions concerned with human rights would be absorbed in the new agency or would remain separate. At present, for instance, in the State Department human rights matters are handled by the Coordinator for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs in the Office of the Deputy Secretary, by the Counselor’s office, and by the Assistant Legal Advisor for Human Rights in the Office of the Legal Advisor. If the second alternative were adopted, presumably some of the positions and functions now in the State Department would be moved to the new agency in the Executive Office, but some would also probably remain in the Department. If the third alternative were adopted, the changes in the existing offices and functions in the Department would probably be relatively minor.6

VI. Creating a Human Rights Agency

A proposal for the creation of a human rights agency would be an appropriate part of the President’s legislative program for the 1978 session of Congress. Congressional interest in and support for such a proposal would probably be extensive. In addition, there is a growing and increasingly self-conscious and articulate human rights constituency, involving, in a variety of ways and degrees, groups which are both centrally concerned with the issue, such as Freedom House or Amnesty International, but also larger and more politically influential groups, including labor, church organizations, the press, Jewish groups, and others. As a result of the broad constituency for human rights, the Administration is now cross-pressured by liberals who want action against one set of countries and conservatives who want action against another. Creation of a human rights agency would be one cause which both liberals and conservatives could support.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Defense/Security—Huntington, Box 38, Human Rights: 10–12/77. Confidential. Huntington did not initial the memorandum. Huntington sent an earlier version this memorandum to Tuchman, prompting Tuchman to respond in a September 26 memorandum: “Basically my problem is that I don’t really see that this would fill a need that is not now being met. The argument that institutionalizing the issue in this way would preserve human rights under an Administration hostile to these concerns seems to me pretty unconvincing since the new entity would be ignored and its recommendations defeated in any case (c.f., ACDA under Nixon).” (Ibid.)
  2. Confidential. A handwritten note at the top of the paper reads: “Uncorrected.”
  3. See Document 46.
  4. Some might ask: Why should this agency only attempt to promote human rights abroad? Shouldn’t it also promote human rights in the US? The answer is that it should not. And the reason is twofold, but simple. First, fewer violations of human rights occur in the United States than in most other societies. Second, far more people and organizations—official and private, national and local—are concerned with the protection of human rights in the United States than in other societies. As a result, the ratio of organized concern to actual or potential violations of human rights is far higher in the US than anywhere else in the world. There is thus far greater need for the human rights agency to focus on the global condition of human rights than on their condition in the US. To become involved in the latter would also clearly distract it from the former. The agency should, consequently, become concerned with aspects of human rights in the US only insofar as these impinge directly on the condition of human rights abroad. [Footnote in the original.]
  5. The Foreign Assistance Act of 1969 (H.R. 14580; P.L. 91–175; 83 Stat. 805) established the IAF as an independent foreign assistance agency of the United States Government that provides grants for development programs.
  6. An unknown hand wrote “uncorrected” in the margin next to the end of this paragraph.