Jeane Kirkpatrick

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 rights;

* And third, some characteristics of a more successful human rights policy.

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 nations."

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 being.

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.



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. They are:

* first distinction: between ideas and institutions;

* second distinction: between rights and goals;

* third distinction: between intentions and consequences;

* fourth distinction: between morals and politics.


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.


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 his country.

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 without consequences.

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.


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 ourselves.


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 vices.


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.

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