Amnesty International

Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy:

A Mandate for Leadership (1988)



Amnesty International USA urges U.S. Government officials to accept the challenge of leadership in the promotion and protection of human rights. Amnesty International USA's 200,000 members work with Amnesty International members in over 150 other countries. We encourage the U.S. Government and elected officials to contribute to safeguarding the fundamental rights of all people. U.S. political leaders who support the standards in international human rights agreements will find that their position resonates throughout the United States and the world.

Responding to the human rights abuses of World War 11, the international community, with strong U.S. leadership, adopted in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Forty years later, one-third of the world's governments condone or permit torture. More than 100 governments jail real or perceived political opponents. Dozens of governments still punish offenders by killing them, all in contravention of international human rights norms. It is past time to end these abuses.

Amnesty International USA calls on U.S. Government officials to reaffirm U.S. leadership in protecting human rights, to stand firm in opposition to these abuses and to state clearly what actions they will take in this endeavor.

U.S. interests are best served when our domestic and foreign policies support the values embodied in the founding documents of our nation; the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These values of individual liberty, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and security of the person, rightfully stand enshrined in the heritage of this country. We identify ourselves and our government as instruments to protect these rights. U.S. policies, therefore, must clearly show our commitment to end political imprisonment, torture, and killing wherever they occur.

I. Human Rights Protection Supports National Interests

Human rights interests cannot be separated from national security interests. Respect for human rights guarantees every nation's security and a peaceful and stable world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world."

Amnesty International USA encourages all U.S. Government officials to state clearly their awareness of the fundamental relationship between national security and the protection of human rights.

In the short term, U.S. Government actions in pursuit of perceived national security interests often tend too override human rights concerns when applied to specific countries.

Amnesty International USA urges all U.S. Government officials to pledge to resolve any seeming conflict of interest in ways that protect human rights as well as national security interests.

II. The Human Rights Policy of the United States Must be Universal in its Conception, Effective in its Implementation, and Cooperative in its Method


The fundamental human rights recognized by the Universal Declaration and other international instruments are, by definition, universal. Universal rights have no place in ideological arsenals, to be invoked or ignored according to the dictates of shifting partisan politics. Selective attention weakens human rights protection worldwide, thereby undermining a secure and just world order consonant with U.S. national interests.

Elected officials must develop a foreign policy that serves this country's national interests by giving priority to universal human rights concerns. U. S. support for the rights of citizens living under a repressive government, whatever that government's ideology, gains the friendship of that country's people. A people's perception that the U.S. Government supports their oppression engenders their long-term enmity.

Amnesty International USA calls upon U.S. Government officials to endorse the universal application of human rights standards.


The basic criterion for choosing human rights strategies and programs must be effectiveness. Particular methods of protecting human rights may be successful in some circumstances and ineffective in others. The debate on quiet diplomacy versus public denunciation, like any argument which separates methodology from goals, is essentially sterile. Yet it is clear that a policy of private communication with friendly governments and open denunciation of hostile governments is counterproductive. When the U. S. Government publicly ignores violations committed by its friends, while condemning its adversaries for the same violations! it reduces human rights to a propaganda tool and generates cynicism rather than hope.

A government committed to human rights develops a corps of foreign service professionals trained and experienced in human rights work. A strong and active bureau of human rights is central to a strong and active human rights policy. Systematic briefings of all policymakers and clear instructions on human rights promotion are important aspects of an effective human rights program.

Successive Administrations and Congresses have enacted during recent years laws linking a country's human rights performance to U.S. policy and actions toward that country. The effective implementation of this legislation is critical to an effective human rights policy. The integrity of the information that is used in implementing the legislation is crucial. Attempts to circumvent the law by ignoring or distorting information on particular countries signal offending governments that the United states is not serious in its human rights advocacy.

Amnesty International USA calls upon U.S. Government officials to define an effective U.S. human rights policy and support implementation of existing human rights legislation.


The United States must promote human rights in both the bilateral and multilateral foreign policy channels. Its efforts, however, are undercut by the inexplicable failure to ratify basic human rights treaties, such as the International Human Rights Covenants. These covenants, as well as the Convention Against Torture and the American Convention on Human Rights, must be promptly ratified.

Amnesty International USA calls upon U.S. Government officials to express clear support for ratification of international human rights instruments without crippling reservations.

Support for international human rights laws and conventions, as well as United Nations procedures and mechanisms for protecting human rights, moves that protection from philosophical discussion to positive action. That support is best expressed when the United States itself abides by international norms and uses its considerable influence to ensure that partisan ideological currents do not override the spirit of universal protection and promotion of human rights.

Amnesty International USA calls on U.S. Government officials to signal their commitment to establishing effective and impartial enforcement mechanisms for protecting human rights within the international system.

III. Selected Actions Suggested to Eradicate Specific Human Rights Violations

Amnesty International works globally and impartially on specific concerns: release of prisoners of conscience (men, women, and children imprisoned solely for their ethnic origins or beliefs, provided they have neither used nor advocated violence), fair and prompt trials for all political prisoners, and abolition of torture and executions. Amnesty International USA's 200,000 members, who work with Amnesty members in over 15O other countries, urge the U.S. Government to safeguard the human rights of all people by monitoring events abroad, raising human rights concerns in public and private forums, and taking other actions enumerated below to protect basic human rights.

Amnesty International USA urges U.S. Government officials to endorse a human rights policy for this country that incorporates efforts to eradicate specific categories of violations, namely, political imprisonment, torture, and executions.


Amnesty International has documented thousands of prisoner of conscience cases. Governments in every region of the world have arrested and detained their citizens, sometimes jailing them for years without charge or trial.

Amnesty International USA call on U.S. Government officials to:

* Use their good offices to intervene for the release of individual prisoners of conscience.

* Promote attendance at political trials by U.S. embassy personnel.

* Gather information from human rights activists and others knowledgeable in human rights issues during official visits abroad to supplement that provided by government sources.


President Reagan signed into law in September 1984 a Congressional Resolution Against Torture (P.L. 98-447). The resolution specifies measures to be taken by U.S. Government officials against torture practiced by foreign governments.

Amnesty International USA calls on U.S. Government officials to commit themselves to achieve the goals of the resolution by:

* Publicly condemning torture wherever it occurs.

* Pressuring governments to abolish practices which facilitate torture, including incommunicado or secret detention.

* Pressuring governments to investigate reports of torture, prosecute torturers, and compensate victims or their dependents.

* Prohibiting transfer of military, police, or security equipment or expertise when it can be reasonably assumed that these transfers play a direct role in torture or related human rights abuses.


There is an adverse relationship between capital punishment and existing international human rights standards. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in Article 5: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punish meet." In addition, imposition of the death penalty in the United States and other countries which still permit capital punishment results in arbitrary and discriminatory executions. The United States has a responsibility to review the existence of discrimination in the administration and application of capital sentencing. The United States can promote human rights abroad by demonstrating its commitment to protecting human rights at home.

The United States is one of the member states of the United Nations. It shows little sign, however, of joining the world trend toward abolishing state-sanctioned killing. Therefore, the United States contravenes the United Nations declaration that "in order to guarantee fully the right to life, provided for in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," member states should progressively seek to restrict "the number of offenses for which capital punishment may be imposed with a view to the desirability of abolishing this punishment in all countries."

Amnesty International USA calls on U.S. Government officials to commit themselves to work toward abolition of the death penalty in the United States and specifically to:

* Prohibit the execution of juvenile offenders, a practice which contravenes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights.

* Prohibit execution of the mentally impaired, a practice which contravenes the guidelines of the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

* Eliminate discrimination in application of the death penalty.


The United States has condemned torture and political killing. This government should not send asylum seekers back to countries where there are reasonable grounds to believe that they may become victims of unjust imprisonment, torture, or political killing. People subjected to or threatened with human rights abuses often have no choice but flight, and this country has a tradition of receiving refugees.

Amnesty International USA calls on U.S. Government officials to:

* Support continuation of the U.S. humanitarian custom of granting asylum, seeking evenhanded treatment of refugees from countries of differing ideologies.

* Support guarantees that all asylum seekers will receive legal assistance and due process in pursuing their cases with U.S. immigration officials.

* Support a policy of providing safe haven to refugees from our own region fleeing from civil strife in their own countries.


Disregard for human rights exacerbates conflicts both within and between nations. U.S. Government policies and actions that give priority to human rights concerns contribute to the resolution of these conflicts. When U.S. officials and legislators publicly promote human rights, they demonstrate the political will necessary to create a just and peaceful environment both at home and abroad.

Amnesty International USA urges U.S. Government officials to state publicly their determination to place human rights at the core of U.S. foreign policy and take specific actions in pursuit of that goal.


Amnesty International USA. Human Rights Policy Paper (February, 1988)

Human Rights Documents