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The establishment of the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua following the overthrow of the US-friendly Somoza regime in 1979 caused considerable alarm in the United States. Chapter 6 analyzes the role of human rights concerns in the battle between the Reagan administration and members of Congress over US policy toward Nicaragua in the 1980s. Fearful of Nicaragua turning into a communist stronghold in Central America, the administration conducted covert operations against the Sandinistas and supported the anti-Sandinista guerillas know as the Contras. Once these activities were revealed, the administration found itself engulfed in a public diplomacy war for congressional and public support. The chapter examines congressional attempts, predominantly by liberal Democrats, to restrict US aid for the Contras through the imposition of the so-called Boland Amendments. Ultimately, restrictions led the administration to undertake illegal actions that resulted in the Iran-Contra Affair. The chapter demonstrates how both the administration and its congressional critics invoked human rights to claim moral authority for their positions on Nicaragua. It argues that the debate over Nicaragua both raised the salience of human rights concerns in the United States and highlighted their ambiguity as it underscored the selectiveness of the administration’s commitment to human rights.
Chapter 1 offers a survey of human rights concerns in American foreign relations in the 1980s. First, it traces the human rights breakthrough in US foreign policy during the 1970s, emphasizing the important role individual members of Congress played in this development. The chapter notes the varied motivations behind congressional human rights activism and the selective adoption of human rights concerns. The chapter then examines the role of human rights in the 1980 presidential election between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, noting the candidates’ different visions for human rights concerns in US foreign policy. Aside from putting Reagan in the White House, the 1980 election also altered the composition of Congress, with Republicans winning control of the Senate. The chapter explores the implications this new political landscape had for congressional attention to human rights and summarizes the measures members of Congress employed to address human rights issues. Surveying American attention to human rights in the 1980s, the chapter examines liberal and conservative visions of human rights. Finally, the chapter situates human rights concerns within the context of other expressions of morality in American foreign relations.
From the mid-1970s onward, the Soviet Union’s refusal to allow Jews to emigrate became a key human rights issues in East-West diplomacy. Chapter 4 investigates efforts by the Reagan administration, members of Congress, and NGOs to support Soviet Jewish emigration as a fundamental human right during the 1980s. The chapter traces the role of human rights and Jewish emigration in the administration’s foreign policy before summarizing the extensive actions both liberal and conservative members of Congress undertook in support of Soviet Jews. The chapter demonstrates how the administration and a large bipartisan coalition in Congress formed a generally cooperative relationship despite some strategic disagreements. Certain members of Congress urged stronger public criticism of the Soviet Union and a linkage between progress on Jewish emigration and economic and security issues. The chapter argues that members of Congress contributed to keeping Jewish emigration on the political agenda and increased the political costs for Reagan should he fail to deliver on the issue. It also demonstrates that Reagan used congressional concern for Jewish emigration as leverage in negotiations with the Soviets. The chapter concludes that the issue of Jewish emigration facilitated a continued institutionalization of human rights concerns in US foreign policy.
Commitment to human rights concerns as an important element in US foreign policy hung in the balance in the 1980s. Far from being the tacitly presumed self-evident truths of today, human rights, and the degree to which respect for these ought to inform American foreign relations, was a highly contested subject.1 The 1970s had witnessed a breakthrough for human rights concerns in US foreign policy, emerging in Congress during the Nixon administration and culminating with the presidency of Jimmy Carter, who made human rights the centerpiece of his foreign policy.2 At first, it seemed unlikely that the breakthrough would continue in a decade where President Ronald Reagan proclaimed he would undo the human rights-based foreign policy of his predecessor. At the new administration’s first National Security Council meeting on February 6, 1981, Reagan declared: “We must change the attitude of our diplomatic corps so that we don’t bring down governments in the name of human rights […] We don’t throw out our friends just because they can’t pass the ‘saliva test’ on human rights.”3 In the following months, the administration’s rhetoric, diplomacy, and bureaucratic appointments reinforced the intent to downgrade human rights.
In 1983, two junior members of Congress, John E. Porter (R-IL) and Tom Lantos (D-CA), established the Congressional Human Rights Caucus (CHRC) to mobilize bipartisan congressional action on human rights issues worldwide. Chapter 3 examines the origins, nature, and activities of the hitherto neglected CHRC, including its initiation of several spin-off initiatives and its collaboration with human rights NGOs. The chapter demonstrates how the CHRC systematized and significantly expanded congressional human rights activism during the 1980s. It successfully united a large and diverse group of members of Congress to shine the spotlight on a broad range of human rights issues. The chapter also assesses the limitations of the CHRC. Its goal of bipartisanship meant it often adopted a cautious approach and largely avoided controversial issues that could divide its members. Focusing predominantly on the civil and political rights of individuals and minorities, the CHRC paid only minimal attention to economic, social, and cultural rights. Its preferred tactic of naming and shaming human rights violators, while effective at times, sometimes proved impotent. Due to its cautious approach, the CHRC generated remarkably few critics, which helped secure its longevity and its elevation to the status of a permanent commission in 2008.
Chapter 2 investigates the Reagan administration’s approach to human rights within the context of its broader foreign policy. After introducing the key members of Reagan’s foreign policy team situated within two camps of hardliners and moderates, the chapter examines the development in the administration’s approach to human rights. The chapter demonstrates how the administration initially sought to downgrade the importance of human rights concerns in US foreign policy. However, pressure from Congress and the human rights community, culminating in the Senate’s rejection of Ernest Lefever to head the State Department’s Human Rights Bureau, led the administration to incorporate human rights into its overarching foreign policy agenda. The chapter argues that Congress was key to this turnaround, but it also demonstrates that the seeds for a more proactive human rights policy were present within the administration from early on. Highlighting the importance of Elliott Abrams as head of the Human Rights Bureau, the chapter traces how the administration proceeded to craft a conservative human rights policy centered on anti-communism and democracy promotion. An unintended consequence for the administration’s congressional critics, this new approach resulted in a continued contestation over the appropriate role of human rights in US foreign policy.
Chapter 5 analyzes how the Reagan administration and members of Congress contested US policy toward South Africa’s apartheid regime of institutionalized racial segregation. The chapter examines the administration’s policy of constructive engagement designed to encourage gradual South African reforms through quiet diplomacy while reaffirming US support for the anti-communist and US-friendly regime. Centered on the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), the chapter then traces congressional efforts to impose various economic measures against South Africa. It demonstrates how members of Congress collaborated with the wider anti-apartheid movement through participation in protests, staged arrests, and the creation of the Free South Africa Movement. Crucially, members of Congress sought to change US policy through the imposition of economic sanctions through legislation. Tracing the legislative battles over sanctions, the chapter shows how a growing congressional coalition, spearheaded by the CBC, framed apartheid as a human rights issue. Under increasing political pressure to distance themselves from apartheid and constructive engagement, moderate Republicans came to favor sanctions, leading to the imposition of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986 overriding a presidential veto. The chapter argues that framing of apartheid as a human rights issue contributed to the successful imposition of sanctions.
The contestation among members of Congress and the Reagan administration over the role of human rights concerns in US foreign policy was the defining factor shaping American attention to human rights in the 1980s. Having been at the forefront of the breakthrough of human rights concerns in the United States the 1970s, members of Congress played a vital role in the persistence of these during the Reagan era. Ronald Reagan came into office determined to break with Jimmy Carter’s human rights-based foreign policy, but within a year rejection had made way for reform. Members of Congress were essential to this turnaround in Reagan’s approach to human rights, as they pressured the administration to reconsider its initial intention to downgrade human rights concerns. The standout episode was the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s bipartisan rejection of the nomination of Ernest Lefever as head of the Human Rights Bureau in June 1981 on the grounds that he was viewed as unsupportive of human rights. The episode underscored the broad congressional support for human rights and made it clear to the administration that failing to address human rights issues could hurt support for the its foreign policy agenda.
This book traces the role of human rights concerns in US foreign policy during the 1980s, focusing on the struggle among the Reagan administration and members of Congress. It demonstrates how congressional pressure led the administration to reconsider its approach to human rights and craft a conservative human rights policy centered on democracy promotion and anti-communism - a decision which would have profound implications for American attention to human rights. Based on extensive archival research and interviews, Rasmus Sinding Søndergaard combines a comprehensive overview of human rights in American foreign relations with in-depth case studies of how human rights shaped US foreign policy toward Soviet Jewry, South African apartheid, and Nicaragua. Tracing the motivations behind human rights activism, this book demonstrates how liberals, moderates, and conservatives selectively invoked human rights to further their agendas, ultimately contributing to the establishment of human rights as a core moral language in US foreign policy.
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