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Human Rights Quarterly 23.2 (2001) 402-430

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US Human Rights Policy under Carter and Reagan, 1977-1981

Hauke Hartmann

I. Introduction

It seemed to be an uncontroversial step when the Clinton administration renamed the Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs of the State Department into a Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The new name apparently emphasized that the violation of human rights was not an isolated phenomenon, but rather a symptom of hierarchical social structures and limited participatory means. In the spring of 1998, John Shattuck, then-Assistant Secretary of this bureau, declared accordingly that "political liberalization, economic development, and the protection of human rights are all tied together." 1

This point of view did not pass uncontested. Patricia Derian, Assistant Secretary for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs during the Carter [End Page 402] administration, suspected that the renaming of her former bureau was a deliberate effort by the Clinton administration to downplay the issue of human rights. 2 Likewise, the director of Amnesty International's office in Washington, James O'Dea, warned against treating democratization and human rights policy as interchangeable policy labels. 3 Holly Burkhalter, the Washington representative of Human Rights Watch, blamed past policies for the prevailing uneasiness about meddling the issues of democracy and human rights. Even though she regarded the debate between the "democracy side" and the "classic human rights side" as ever more sterile and superfluous, she added:

[T]he reason why the word "democracy" gives . . . me the hives, is because it has been so exploited in years past. . . . But the cold war is over and those days where we have . . . a Reagan administration trumpeting the virtues of a democracy like El Salvador in 1981, those days are over and I hope they never come back. 4

As her remarks illustrate, many human rights activists were traumatized to see a human rights policy, which was barely institutionalized by the late 1970s, being hijacked by the conservative camp of President Ronald Reagan under the label of "democratization." The debate is still unresolved over whether the Reagan administration was genuinely interested in pursuing an active human rights policy with a special emphasis on civil and political rights, or if the human rights rhetoric was just an instrument for the defense of geostrategic interests. 5 This debate on the credibility of the democracy crusade, though, is confined to very narrow boundaries, as it solely questions whether the Reagan administration was living up to its own--conservative--guidelines. [End Page 403]

Instead, this article focuses on the question as to why the concept of democratization was able to reach such a dominance that it could not only coopt almost the entire human rights agenda, but was also able to define the terms by which it was debated. By relying not only on public statements of the executive, but also on recently declassified documents on intra-administrative deliberations on human rights policies, the continuous narrowing of the discourse on human rights from Carter to Reagan shall be portrayed in this article to show how civil and political rights under the label of "democratization" finally became the predominant goalpost of US human rights policies as part of a strategic rather than a political concept. This process, initiated under Carter and consciously intensified under Reagan, led to the erosion of a holistic human rights concept.

II. The Call for a Moral Foreign Policy

When President Jimmy Carter took office, the advancement of individual human rights as a foreign policy goal was hardly institutionalized and only defined in broadest terms. The initiative for an active human rights policy originated in the early 1970s on Capitol Hill and was part of a reaction to the moral and military debacle in Vietnam. 6 As Congress called for global leadership of the United States in the field of human rights, this was deliberately intended to be a moral intervention in a foreign policy that, according to many representatives and senators, was driven too much by Machiavellian realpolitik. 7 Congressional action was directed against the foreign policy practices of Republican administrations...


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