11. Action Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs (Burt) and the Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs (Abrams) to Secretary of State Shultz 1


  • Approaching the Soviets for Discussions on Human Rights


Whether to propose discreet, high-level talks with the Soviet Union on our mutual human rights concerns in your next meeting with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin.


During discussions with Vice President Bush in the aftermath of the Chernenko funeral, General Secretary Gorbachev proposed the appointment of “rapporteurs” and a “forum” to discuss human rights in the United States and elsewhere. In so doing, he was attempting to turn aside the Vice President’s expressions of concern over Soviet human rights abuses by suggesting our own record be examined. But he also may have been responding to the proposal we made last year to establish a special channel on human rights between Art Hartman and Gromyko’s First Deputy Korniyenko.

While at the end of the meeting Gorbachev said that human rights is not a proper subject for the bilateral relationship, we believe we should take advantage of his “rapporteurs” suggestion. We believe that Elliott Abrams is the logical rapporteur for the United States. He could be assisted by one of our Soviet hands—either Mark Palmer or Tom Simons. If the initial talks were in Moscow, we would want to avoid publicizing them to the extent possible, but Elliott’s position would require him to have quiet private meetings with some Soviet human rights activists along the lines that have become traditional with American visitors. We would also expect Art to attend the talks with Soviet officials. To suit the Soviet desire for equity we would make clear that we seek talks on our mutual human rights concerns. In keeping with our preference for quiet diplomacy we would make clear we are interested in discreet discussions designed to encourage [Page 38] progress and clear the air for advances across the board in our relations. Our idea would be to have you propose the talks during your next meeting with Ambassador Dobrynin, referencing Gorbachev’s proposal to Vice President Bush.

Recently, we have been receiving mixed signals from the Soviets on human rights. Internally, the crackdown on Jews and members of other religious groups continues apace. On the other hand, one of our dual nationals and several prominent Moscow refuseniks have been given permission to leave. Externally, the Soviets continue to turn aside our suggestions that Soviet movement on human rights would have a positive impact on relations overall. Ambassador Schifter’s specific attempt to horse trade in advance of the Ottawa Human Rights Experts Meeting set for May was brusquely turned aside.2 On the other hand, Gosbank head Alkhimov told Treasury [Commerce] Secretary Baldrige during the Shcherbitskiy visit that Jewish emigration would increase if relations improved, thus reinforcing a similar statement he made during the Olmer visit to Moscow.3 Meanwhile, a KGB agent assigned to the UN Secretariat has approached leaders of the American Jewish Congress with the hint that Jewish emigration levels would rise if there were public Jewish opposition to the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. These and other developments seem to suggest that the Soviets may be considering human rights concessions, but only in return for a prior improvement in relations.

The above assessment of the Soviet approach to human rights may seem to militate against their accepting our proposed gambit on the Gorbachev proposal. They will naturally assume we would use the talks to raise our human rights agenda once again. On the other hand, if they agree to talks in a quiet non-polemical atmosphere, we might be able to make some real progress on our human rights concerns. We would need to be prepared to defend our own record, but we believe it is worth the risk.


That you propose discreet, high-level talks with the Soviet Union on our mutual human rights concerns in your next meeting with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin.4

  1. Source: Reagan Library, George Shultz Papers, 1985 Sept. Mtg. w/ E. Shevardnadze. Secret; Sensitive. Drafted by Schmidt on March 18; cleared by Pascoe, Simons, Palmer, and Matthews. Schmidt initialed for the clearing officials. Burt wrote at the top of the page: “I’m sure the Soviets will say no, but it’s still worth a try. RB.”
  2. In telegram 105111 to Moscow, April 6, the Department reported: “Ambassador Schifter and DeptOffs have now made a number of attempts to engage the Soviets in substantive preliminary discussions on the Ottawa HREM. It is clear that as of now they are not prepared to engage in a comprehensive bilateral discussion on the HREM and related human rights concerns.” (Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D850239–0279)
  3. For information on the January 1985 Moscow experts meeting, see Foreign Relations, 1981–1988, vol. IV, Soviet Union, January 1983–March 1985, Document 351. For information of Shcherbitsky’s meetings in Washington see ibid., Documents 376378.
  4. Shultz initialed his approval and wrote in the margin: “add’l items for next meeting. GPS.” A typed transcription of the marginal note added the date 3/26/85.