Holly Burkhalter
Human Rights Watch

The Reagan Administration's
Human Rights Record (1988)


In some countries, such as Cuba and the U.S.S.R., the Reagan Administration vigorously promoted the cause of human rights and spoke out forthrightly when violations occurred. In other countries, such as El Salvador and Honduras, the Administration squandered its extensive opportunities to promote human rights by denying that violations occurred, and attacked human rights organizations that told a different story.

One theme which emerges from our analysis of human rights policies around the world is that the Reagan Administration has a too narrow view of democracy, and has missed opportunities to support and protect the rule of law and those civilian institutions which are required for real democracy to flourish: an independent judiciary, a free press, functioning trade unions, opposition political parties.

Haiti provides a striking illustration of this approach: since it took office in February ~986, the CNG (the interim military government) committed gross abuses of human rights, and failed to discipline the police or the armed forces. Even after June, when the military government attempted to take over the civilian-run electoral process in violation of the constitution, and in November, when the military passively tolerated machine-gun and firebomb attacks on the civilian electoral council, the Administration stuck faithfully by the military government in the stubborn belief that, despite its repeated actions to the contrary, it would somehow see elections through. The administration's failure to denounce the sham elections of January 17th, and its refusal to publicly call upon the Manigat Government to conduct proper elections in accordance with the Haitian constitution have been a great disservice to the future of democracy in that country.

Another regrettable feature of the Reagan Administration's policy has been its failure to denounce attacks on persons or institutions with which it disagrees, or with whom its allies disagree. For example, in January, 1988, two human rights advocates in Taiwan were sentenced to ten and eleven years imprisonment because the charter of their organization, the Formosan Political Prisoners Association, advocated the independence of Taiwan. The Draconian sentences for the peaceful expression of a political view-albeit one with which neither the U.S. nor the government on Taiwan agrees-is a tremendous setback for human rights in Taiwan, and deserved to be condemned. To our knowledge, the Administration has been silent. In the case of Tibet the executive branch played down the seriousness of the PRC's suppression of dissent in Lhasa and even voiced support for China's efforts to restore its authority in Tibet. For example, just a few days after the violent suppression of demonstrations in October, the Administration criticized the U.S. Senate for failing to acknowledge "significant changes" by China which had led to an improvement in human rights in Tibet. This was an inappropriate signal to send at a tense moment in Tibet. Not until Congress initiated several strong resolutions did the Administration modify its protective stance towards the PRC and speak more frankly about abuses in Tibet.

A particularly flagrant example of the Administration refusing to acknowledge abuses against those with whom it disagrees is the case of labor unionists in El Salvador. At last week's hearing before this Subcommittee, Secretary Schifter justified the Administration's failure to take up the Americas Watch petition on worker rights in El Salvador before the U.S. Trade Representative on the grounds that the victims were guerrilla sympathizers. This stance invites attacks against activist labor unions and peasant associations, and is a disservice to the cause of human rights and the development of independent institutions in El Salvador. Moreover, the Administration's refusal to accept the Americas Watch's well-documented labor rights petition on El Salvador is a clear violation of Section so:(b) (c) of the Trade Act. In fact, the Salvadoran government has harshly suppressed labor and peasant organizing activities by pro-government, antigovernment, and nonaligned unions....

The Administration's support for human rights monitors around the world has been similarly distorted by ideology. Human rights monitoring and reporting by local groups is essential to the cause of human rights and the development of civilian institutions. The protection of human rights monitors-whatever their political views-should be a high priority of our government, and should be the particular cause of the Human Rights Bureau. Yet the Administration has been quick to denounce certain human rights monitors who condemn abuses by governments allied to the U.S. One particularly vivid example of the Administration's selective support of human rights monitors is the case of Dr. Ramon Custodio, the president of the Committee for the


Defense of Human Rights in Honduras (CODEH). Dr. Custodio has responsibly documented abuses by the Honduran armed forces and by the Nicaraguan contras against Honduran civilians, at great personal risk. The U.S. Ambassador in Tegucigalpa and State Department officials in Washington have regularly denounced Dr. Custodio as a "communist" and brushed aside reports of threats against him and other CODEH members. Such an attitude deprives CODEH of the international protection it needs and deserves, and invites attacks upon the group. CODEH's vulnerability can be seen in the assassination of the its Vice President, Miguel Pavon, on January 14, 1988. Pavon was a leading witness before the Inter-American Court in a landmark case brought by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights against the Government of Honduras for gross violations of human rights.

On the positive side, the Administration has strongly supported human rights monitors in some countries and spoken out about abuses of human rights forthrightly. The executive branch is to be particularly commended for the high profile afforded human rights issues during the U.S.-U.S.S.R. summit. By giving praise where it is due but condemning persistent shortcomings, the Administration maintained a forceful advocacy of human rights throughout the year, even as it pursued an improvement in Soviet-American relations. A particular priority of Helsinki Watch is monitoring the development of independent organizations in the U.S.S.R., Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. "Clubs" dealing with numerous issues such as peace, disarmament, the environment, religion, and human rights, are springing up in the U.S.S.R. and in several Eastern European countries. While some controls on such independent activity have been lifted, others have been imposed. The Reagan Administration supports the development of civil society in the East Bloc. We would urge the executive branch to adopt this posture with respect to another Helsinki signatory-Turkey-and speak out frankly about continued repression of the Kurdish minority, continued restrictions on the press and labor unions, and continued political imprisonment and torture.

Another welcome human rights development was the Reagan Administration's resumption of normal immigration policy with Cuba, which will allow released political prisoners to emigrate to the U.S. in addition to some twenty thousand other Cubans yearly. It is very important that in administering the return of certain of the Mariel "excludables" the rights of the detainees be observed, and that all Cuban detainees be given a hearing in accordance with due process. Another important human rights initiative last year was the Reagan Administration's use of the United Nations as a forum in which to raise the issue of human rights in Cuba. Although the Administration's initiative at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in March 1987 was defeated, it succeeded in calling attention to the human rights situation in Cuba. We would welcome a similarly energetic effort at the United Nations on Chile: in March, the U.S. supported a resolution condemning General Pinochet's repressive practices, but in November and December at the U.N. General Assembly, the U.S. abstained on a similar resolution. Since the Administration has improved its human rights position on Chile in other respects, including the imposition of trade sanctions because of worker rights violations, this stance at the United Nations is an anomaly....

I would be remiss if I did not comment on the role of the Congress in promoting human rights. While the Administration possesses many more opportunities and has more diplomatic tools at its disposal, the Congress can and does have an important role to play. The activities of this particular Subcommittee in monitoring and reporting on human rights abuses are an important contribution to the promotion of human rights around the world. On a more critical note, however, the Congress appears to be taking less and less seriously its responsibilities towards monitoring military and police aid to governments engaged in gross abuses of human rights. Generic human rights laws, such as Section 502(B) and 116 of the Foreign Assistance Act have become virtually irrelevant, since countries engaged in systematic violations of human rights regularly receive U.S. assistance without debate. The Administration has become particularly adept at defending its requests for military and police aid on human rights grounds, and the majority in Congress appear to accept such justifications.

In one particular case last year, that of Guatemala, the Congress itself took the lead in earmarking significant military and police assistance to a country with one of the worst human rights records in the hemisphere. The Guatemalan president himself lobbied influential senators and representatives for increased military aid, and the Guatemalan Foreign Minister even went so far as to ask for military aid "with human rights conditions." Clearly, the Foreign Minister did not mean to suggest that money should be withheld if the Army committed abuses; he knows full well that Army abuses against civilians continue Rather, the request for military aid "with human rights conditions" was an explicit acknowledgment that human rights restrictions attached to foreign aid do not prevent aid from flowing, but do tend to diminish liberal opposition to military assistance to repressive military forces. Accordingly, the Congress earmarked $7 million in military aid (upping the Administration's $5 request by $2 million) and $2 million in police aid, which the Administration didn't request at all.

The Congress has played an important role in speaking out about human rights abuses around the world-in the past year, for example, Congressional activism on human rights in South Korea, South Africa, Tibet, Haiti, and Romania have been particularly helpful. Yet oversight of foreign aid appears to be less and less of a priority. Furthermore, labor rights conditions have been attached to certain U.S. trade benefits, but the Administration has resisted administering the statute evenhandedly.... I would urge this Subcommittee to maintain and expand your legislative oversight activities and insist that both the executive branch and your own colleagues apply human rights laws responsibly.


From a speech before the Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, One Hundredth Congress, Second Session (February 1988)

Human Rights Documents