Establishing a Viable
Human Rights Policy (1981)
In this paper I deal with three broad subjects:
* First, the content and consequences of the Carter administration's
human rights policy;
* Second, the prerequisites of a more adequate theory of human
* And third, some characteristics of a more successful human
The Carter Human Rights Policy
How the Carter administration came to be outspokenly committed
to the cause of human rights is far from clear. As Daniel Patrick
Moynihan has observed, "Human rights as an issue in foreign
policy was by no means central to Jimmy Carter's campaign for
the presidency. It was raised in the Democratic platform drafting
committee, and at the Democratic Convention, but in each instance
the Carter representatives were at best neutral, giving the impression
of not having heard very much of the matter before and not having
any particular views." Indeed, some of candidate Carter's
remarks suggested that he was far from wedded to an activist human
rights policy. "Our people have now learned," he told
the Foreign Policy Association in June 1976, "the folly of
our trying to inject our power into the internal affairs of other
Nevertheless, by the time of his inaugural address, Jimmy
Carter had become adamant on the subject of human rights. "Our
commitment to human rights," the new president informed the
nation, "must be absolute." Within weeks of his inauguration,
President Carter replied to a letter from Andrei Sakharov, and
met with the noted
Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky in the White House. These
symbolic acts generated a great deal of excitement, yet they hardly
constituted a human rights policy. On April 30, ~977, however,
Secretary of State Vance delivered a major policy address in which
he set out to explain just what it was the Carter administration
meant by "human rights" and how it intended to promote
them. According to Vance, by "human rights" the administration
meant three things:
1. The right to be free from governmental violation of the
integrity of the person. Such violations include torture; cruel,
inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; and arbitrary arrest
or imprisonment. And they include denial of fair public trial
and invasion of the home.
2. The right to the fulfillment of such vital needs as food,
shelter, health care, and education. We recognize that the fulfillment
of this right will depend, in part, upon the stage of a nation's
economic development. But we also know that this right can be
violated by a government's action or inaction-for example, through
corrupt official processes which divert resources to an elite
at the expense of the needy or through indifference to the plight
of the poor.
3. The right to enjoy civil and political liberties: freedom
of thought of religion, of assembly; freedom of speech; freedom
of the press, freedom of movement both within and outside one's
own country; freedom to take part in government.
U.S. policy, Vance stated, "is to promote all these rights."
"If we are determined to act," he continued, "the
means available range from quiet diplomacy in its many forms,
through public pronouncements, to withholding of assistance."
Significantly, nowhere in his speech did Vance indicate that human
rights rest on specific institutions and that where these institutions
do not exist, neither quiet diplomacy nor public pronouncements
nor the withholding of assistance can conjure human rights into
In accepting the notion that economic and social "rights"
are just as important as civil and political rights, Secretary
Vance went well beyond any previous U.S. understanding of human
rights. Another prominent administration spokesman on human rights,
U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, went further still. "For most
of the world," Young declared, "civil and political
rights . . . come as luxuries that are far away in the future."
Young called on the U.S. to recognize that there are various equally
valid concepts of human rights in the world. The Soviets, for
example, "have . . . developed a completely different concept
of human rights. For them, human rights are essentially not civil
and political but economic...."
President Carter, meanwhile, was busy trying to erase the
impression, resulting from his letter to Sakharov and his meeting
with Bukovsky, that his advocacy of human rights implied an anti-Soviet
bias. "I have never had an inclination to single out the
Soviet Union as the only place where human rights are being abridged,"
he told a press conference on February 13, 1977. "I've tried
to make sure that the world knows that we're not singling out
the Soviet Union for criticism," he again told a press conference
on March 24. "I've never made the first comment that personally
criticized General Secretary Brezhnev," he told a press conference
on June ~ 3. In fact, so eager was the Carter administration not
to single out the Soviet Union for criticism that, within a year
of its coming into office, Secretary Vance privately instructed
the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission that under
no circumstances was he even to mention the name of the recently
arrested Soviet dissident Yuri Orlov.
President Carter's disinclination to single out the Soviet
Union for criticism extended to a number of other communist regimes,
as well. On April 12, 1978, for example, President Carter informed
President Ceausescu of Rumania that "our goals are also the
same, to have a just system of economics and politics, to let
the people of the world share in growth, in peace, in personal
freedom." And on March 4, 1978, in greeting President Tito
of Yugoslavia, Carter said, "Perhaps as much as any other
person, he exemplifies in Yugoslavia the eagerness for freedom,
independence, and liberty that exists throughout Eastern Europe
and indeed throughout the world."
But while the Carter administration was notably unwilling
to criticize communist states for their human rights violations-not
until April 21, 1978, did the administration denounce Cambodia
for its massive human rights violations, despite the fact that
it had known of these violations for quite some time-it showed
no similar reticence when it came to criticizing authoritarian
recipients of U.S. aid. In 1976, before the Carter administration
came into office, Congress had passed an amendment to the Foreign
Assistance Act which, inter alia, required the State Department
to submit annual reports to Congress describing the human rights
performance of states receiving U.S. aid, and which prohibited
the U.S. from assisting states which consistently violated the
human rights of their citizens unless the president "certifies
in writing that extraordinary circumstances exist." On the
basis of the annual reports required by the 1976 law, the Carter
administration withheld economic credits and military assistance
to Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.
South Korea and the Philippines continued to receive U.S. aid,
on the president's recommendation that such aid served the security
interests of the U.S. Nonetheless, the public criticism of those
governments helped delegitimize them, at the same time it rendered
them less susceptible to our views.
These tendencies were exacerbated by the nearly exclusive
focus of Carter doctrine and policymakers on violations of human
rights by governments. By definition, activities of terrorists
and guerrillas could not qualify as violations of human rights,
whereas a government's efforts to repress terrorism would quickly
run afoul of Carter human rights standards.
This focus not only permitted Carter policymakers to focus
on government "repression" while ignoring guerrilla
violence, it encouraged consideration of human rights violations
independently of context
Various major actions undertaken by the Carter administration
appear to have been derived, either in whole or in part, from
its "absolute" commitment to human rights: President
Carter's decision in 1977, to press for ratification of the U.N.
Covenants on Economic Social and Cultural Rights and on Civil
and Political Rights; the 1977 decision to support the mandatory
U.N. arms embargo against South Africa; the decision, during President
Carter's official visit to South Korea in mid-1979, to present
the South Korean foreign minister with a privately compiled list
of the names of over 100 alleged South Korean political prisoners;
Secretary Vance's call, before a meeting of the Organization of
American States in June 1979, for the departure of Nicaragua's
President Somoza; the decision, in 1979, to withhold U.S. support
for the Shah of Iran; and President Carter's decision, in June
1979, not to lift economic sanctions against the Muzorewa government
in Zimbabwe Rhodesia.
Viewing the Carter administration's human rights policy in
retrospect, it seems fair to conclude that its principal aims
were to infuse U.S. foreign policy with "moral content,"
to create a broad domestic consensus behind the administration's
foreign policy goals, and, generally speaking, to make Americans
feel good about themselves. Whether the policy succeeded in achieving
any of these objectives is debatable. One thing, however, is clear:
the thrust of U.S. human rights policy as it evolved under the
Carter administration, was directed against U.S. allies. Instead
of using the human rights issue to place the totalitarian states
on the defensive, the U.S. frequently joined the totalitarians
in attacking pro-Western authoritarian states, and actually helped
to destabilize pro-Western regimes in Nicaragua and Iran.
TOWARD A MORE ADEQUATE CONCEPTION OF HUMAN RIGHTS
It is always necessary to know what one is talking about.
Although debate about the existential and cognitive status of
human rights has occupied philosophical giants in past centuries,
recent discussions could profit from renewed and systematic attention
to some fundamental distinctions. Four of these seem to me crucial.
* first distinction: between ideas and institutions;
* second distinction: between rights and goals;
* third distinction: between intentions and consequences;
* fourth distinction: between morals and politics.
IDEAS AND INSTITUTIONS
There are several important reasons that, in thinking about
"rights" (as about all other plans for social systems),
it is important to bear in mind the differences between ideas
and institutions. Ideas are the product of the mind. They are
abstractions which may have no empirical referents. Anything is
possible in the domain of abstract reason that does not violate
analytical canons which are themselves the products of mind. Robert
Owen, for example, proposed "a world convention to emancipate
the human race from ignorance, poverty, division, sin, and misery."
In our times we propose declarations and laws to attempt to hold
other nations responsible for the disappearance of some of these
evils to which Owen referred.
Since the world has not arrived at Hegel's promised end where
the rational becomes the real and the real rational, there exists
no experience with the realization of abstract ideas in society.
Many ideas can probably never be realized. Not everything that
can be conceived can be created. One can, for example, conceive
a unicorn, describe it, destroy whole forests in a determined
effort to find one, and still fail. Ideas are readily brought
into being and are readily manipulable by their creators. They
are susceptible to being changed merely because a decision is
made to change them. Their relationship to context is therefore
also manipulable-subject to being held constant or altered depending
on the decision of their creators.
but institutions have very different characteristics. Institutions
are stabilized patterns of human behavior. They involve millions,
they rest on expectations shaped by experience-or they rest on
habit and internalized values and beliefs-or on coercion.
These internalized expectations become inextricably bound
up with identity. They are extremely resistant to change. Since
institutions exist not in the minds of philosophers but in the
habits and beliefs of actual people, they can be brought into
existence only as people are persuaded or coerced into conforming
their thoughts, preferences, and behavior to the necessary patterns.
History and recent experience indicate that some kinds of goals
and plans cannot finally be implemented, no matter how much persuasion
or coercion is employed. Moreover, in the absence of experience
there is no way to estimate accurately the feasibility, the costs,
even the concrete desirability of an idea or ideal.
Therefore, though rights are easy to claim, they are extremely
difficult to translate into reality. In actual societies, unlike
in definitions, political principles do not exist in isolation;
they interact and the effort at maximization begins at some point
to undermine some other value. Frequently the relations among
values are themselves embedded in tradition and habit, and profoundly
resistant to alteration.
Burke focused on the distinction between ideas and institutions.
He said, therefore, of the French Revolution:
I should therefore suspend my congratulations on the liberty
of France until I was informed as to how it had been combined
with government, with public force, with discipline, with obedience
of armies, with the collection and effectiveness of a well-distributed
revenue, with morality and religion, with solidity and property,
with peace and order, with civil and social manners. All these
are good things, too. Without them liberty is of no benefit whilst
it lasts and is not likely long to continue.
The failure to distinguish between the domains of rhetoric
and politics is the essence of rationalism-which encourages us
to believe anything that can be conceived can be realized. Rationalism
not only encourages utopianism, utopianism is a form of rationalism.
It shares the characteristic features, including a disregard of
the experience, the concrete probability, in favor of the affirmation
of rationality, abstraction, and possibility.
Applied to human rights and foreign policy, disregard of the
distinction between ideas and institutions leads to an expectation
that declarations of rights have existential status-and constitute
valid, practical programs of action.
RIGHTS AND GOALS
The second distinction I want to emphasize is that between
rights and goals. In our times, "rights" proliferate
at the rhetorical level, with extraordinary speed. To the rights
to life, liberty, and security of person have been added the rights
to nationality, to privacy, to equal rights in marriage, to education,
to culture, to the full development of personality, to self-determination,
to self-government, to adequate standards of living.
The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights claims
as a universal every political, economic, social right yet conceived.
The Declaration consists of a Preamble and thirty articles,
setting forth the human rights and fundamental freedoms to which
all men and women, everywhere in the world, are entitled, without
any discrimination. Article ', which lays down the philosophy
upon which the Declaration is based, reads: "All human beings
are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed
with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in
a spirit of brotherhood." Article 2, which sets out the basic
principle of equality and nondiscrimination as regards the enjoyment
of human rights and fundamental freedoms, forbids "distinction
of any kind, such as race, color, sect, language, religion, political
or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth,
or other status."
Article 3, a cornerstone of the Declaration, proclaims the
right to life, liberty, and security of person: rights which are
essential to the enjoyment of all other rights. It introduces
the series of articles (4 to 21) in which the human rights of
every individual are elaborated further.
The civil and political rights recognized in Articles 4 to
21 of the Declaration include: the right to life, liberty, and
security of person; freedom from slavery and servitude; freedom
from torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment;
the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law;
the right to an effective judicial remedy; freedom from arbitrary
arrest, detention, or exile; the right to a fair and public hearing
by an independent and impartial tribunal; the right to be presumed
innocent until proved guilty; freedom from arbitrary interference
with privacy, family, home, or correspondence; freedom of movement
and residence; the right of asylum; the right to a nationality;
the right to marry and found a family; the right to own property;
freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; freedom of opinion
and expression; the right to peaceful assembly and association;
the right of everyone to take part in the government of his country;
and the right of everyone to equal access to public service in
Article 22, the second cornerstone of the Declaration, introduces
Articles 23 to 27, in which economic, social, and cultural rights-the
rights to which everyone is entitled "as a member of society"-are
set out. Article 22 reads: "Everyone, as a member of society,
has the right to social security and is entitled to realization,
through national effort and international cooperation and in accordance
with the organization and resources of each state, of the economic,
social, and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and
the full development of his personality."
The economic, social, and cultural rights recognized in Articles
23 to 27 include the right to social security, the right to work,
the right to equal pay for equal work, the right to leisure, the
right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being,
the right to education, and the right to participate in the cultural
life of the community
The concluding articles, Articles 18 to 30, stress that everyone
"is entitled to a social and international order in which
the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully
realized" (Article 18); that "everyone has duties to
the community in which alone the free and full development of
his personality is possible" (Article 29.1); and that "nothing
in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State,
group or person any right to engage in any activity aimed at the
destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein."
Recently, in Geneva, the United Nations Commission on Human
Rights affirmed a "right to development" which carries
its own comitant list of "rights" including the right
to a new economic order, peace, and an end to the arms race.
Such declarations of human "rights" take on the
character of "a letter to Santa Claus"-as Orwin and
Prangle noted. They can multiply indefinitely because "no
clear standard informs them, and no great reflection produced
them. " For every goal toward which human beings have worked,
there is in our time a "right." Neither nature, experience,
nor probability informs these lists of "entitlements,"
which are subject to no constraints except those of the mind and
appetite of their authors. The fact that such "entitlements"
may be without possibility of realization does not mean they are
The consequence of treating goals as rights is grossly misleading
about how goals are achieved in real life. "Rights"
are vested in persons; "goals" are achieved by the efforts
of persons. The language of rights subtly vests the responsibility
in some other. When the belief that one has a right to development
coincides with facts of primitive technology, hierarchy, and dictatorship,
the tendency to blame someone is almost overwhelming. If the people
of the world do not fully enjoy their economic rights, it must
be because some one - some monopoly capitalist, some Zionist,
some man-is depriving them of their rightful due.
Utopian expectations concerning the human condition are compounded
then by a vague sense that Utopia is one's due; that citizenship
in a perfect society is a reasonable expectation for real persons
in real societies.
INTENTIONS AND CONSEQUENCES
The third distinction with special relevance to human rights
and foreign policy is the distinction between intentions and consequences.
In political philosophy as in ethics there are theories that
emphasize motives and those that emphasize consequences.
Preoccupation with motives is a well-known characteristic
of a breed of political purist that has multiplied in our times.
The distinguishing characteristic of this breed is emphasis on
internal criteria, on what one believes and feels is right. Doing
what one "knows" is right then becomes more important
than producing desired results.
In human rights and foreign policy this position leads to
an overweening concern with purity of intentions. When the morality
of the motive is more important than the consequences, we are
less concerned about creating new traditionalist tyranny than
by the morality of our own intentions, and the principal function
of a purist policy of human rights is to make us feel good about
PERSONAL AND POLITICAL MORALITY
The fourth distinction important to thinking about human rights
and foreign policy is that between personal and political morality.
Where personal morality derives from the characteristics of single
individuals and depends on the cultivation of personal virtues
such as faith, hope, charity, and discipline, political morality
depends on the structured interactions of persons-depends, that
is, on institutions.
Justice, democracy, liberty are all the products of arrangements
of offices and distributions of power. These arrangements and
distributions embodied in constitutions produce political goods
by respecting and harmonizing the diverse parts of a political
community. The political goods-democracy, due process, protection
of "rights" to free speech, assembly-are, as Plato,
Aristotle, and the American founding fathers understood, the consequences
of wisely structured constitutions.
Rights, then, are embodied in institutions-not rhetoric. They
are the consequences of prudential judgments, not good motives.
They are always complex and rest on patterns of social life, not
on individual virtues.
The consequences of trying to base a human rights policy on
private virtue is failure. Where institutions are not constructed
on the basis of human proclivities and habits, failure is the
inevitable result. Human rights can be, should be, must be, will
be, taken into account by U.S. foreign policy, but we have had
enough of rationalism and purism, of private virtues and public
Note: This paper was prepared by Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick,
United States permanent representative to the United Nations,
for Kenyon College's Human Rights Conference, April 4, 1981.