There was a time when the United States did not promote human rights and did not consider it a primary objective, or even an objective at all in most cases, in U.S. foreign policy. There was not even a dedicated position in the U.S. State Department to champion human rights.

That changed when Jimmy Carter became president in 1977.

Human rights were not much of a consideration for U.S. foreign policymakers for most of the post-World War II era. Countries sought to protect their interests and, when convenient, their values. But the Vietnam War and subsequent events changed that calculus.

Carter’s vision to put human rights first was made possible, in part, by the reality that the Vietnam War had damaged the international reputation of the United States. What’s more, there had been a wave of human rights conflicts in different parts of the world just before Carter, who in late February this year entered hospice care at home, was elected in November 1976.

The 1973 military coup in Chile had caused an international uproar. With help from President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, General Augusto Pinochet seized power by overthrowing the democratically elected, leftist government of Salvador Allende. Pinochet would perpetrate great cruelties against Allende’s supporters.

A few years later, in 1976, uprisings in the sprawling black township of Soweto in South Africa over a requirement that their education be conducted in Afrikaans helped galvanize the world’s focus on apartheid.

That same year, in the Soviet Union, a small group of dissenters organized the Moscow Helsinki Group, which focused the world’s attention on Soviet abuses of human rights. The group’s members themselves immediately became the targets of persecution.

Public and Congressional Attention

With those developments in the 1970s, the public and Congress began to pay more attention to the concept and value of human rights.

Meanwhile, many U.S. lawmakers believed Congress had delegated too much power to the president. They sought to reclaim that power through legislative action, and in the mid-1970s approved and then strengthened Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act, which said that human rights would be “a principal goal” of American foreign policy.

It required that the United States publish “country reports” annually on human rights practices worldwide and stop providing security assistance to foreign militaries that engage in a consistent pattern of gross human rights abuses. The law also required the president to appoint an assistant secretary of state for human rights.

Section 502b, still in force a half century later, is America’s most significant human rights legislation.

One of Carter’s first acts was to nominate an assistant secretary of state for human rights. He selected Patricia Derian, a political ally of Carter’s who had been a housewife in Jackson, Miss., when the city closed its public schools to avoid complying with a court order requiring desegregation.

Derian’s efforts to reopen the schools propelled her into a leadership position in the Southern civil rights movement. As executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, I got to know her and helped her get elected to the ACLU Board and its National Executive Committee. She also became the Democratic Party’s National Committeewoman for Mississippi, after the party denied accreditation to a segregated slate, and worked closely with Carter in helping him secure the Democratic Party’s nomination for president and his election.

Though Derian had strong civil rights credentials, she had no foreign policy experience or expertise on security and trade issues. Many State Department professionals disparaged her and resented the newly created bureau. One of her antagonists, Richard Holbrooke, then the assistant secretary of state for Asia, strenuously resisted her efforts to address human rights abuses by the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines.

Torture and Disappearances in Argentina

But Derian was politically savvy and found allies to help her advance the cause of human rights. Early in her tenure at State, Derian asked whether I knew anyone who was knowledgeable about Argentina? Fortunately, I was able to help. A little later, she found a strong ally in a very tall, burly Foreign Service Officer, “Tex” Harris, who was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires from 1977 to 1979.

Harris and Derian collaborated to try to stop the country’s regime from torturing and disappearing its political opponents. Many Argentines who were targets and victims of abuses credit them with saving their lives. What became Derian’s passion for international human rights matched what had been the passion she brought to the civil rights cause in the United States, accompanied by bureaucratic dexterity and political skill that skeptics hadn’t expected in a housewife from Mississippi.

She made the post of assistant secretary of state for human rights an important position, so much so that when Ronald Reagan succeeded Carter as president, his first nominee to succeed her was denied confirmation by the Senate, a rare defeat for a popular new president whose party controlled the Senate.

The Reagan administration was intent on repudiating Carter’s human rights policy; a concern with terrorism would replace a concern with human rights. In both personnel and policy, it appeared that the brief era in which the United States had elevated human rights as a principal goal in American foreign policy, as required by law, was ending.

But, over time, Reagan’s approach evolved. He claimed to promote human rights but made it mainly an effort to advance electoral democracy. Yet, by the end of his second term, that had certain positive results, including withdrawing his administration’s support for authoritarian leaders in Haiti and the Philippines, and for Pinochet in Chile. Carter’s policies could not be easily discarded, even by a successor intent on pursuing an opposite course.

Human Rights in US Foreign Policy Today

Following his presidency, Carter continued to promote human rights. He traveled to many countries to speak to heads of government about abuses and to seek protection for victims. I served with Carter and Derian on a small committee that chose recipients of the Carter-Menil Prize, which from 1986 to 1994 awarded $100,000 to individuals or organizations for courage in promoting human rights in all parts of the world. (It was funded by Dominique DeMenil, a Houston heiress, philanthropist, and renowned art collector.) The fact that Carter himself presented the awards at ceremonies at the Rothko Chapel in Houston enhanced their value to the recipients.

Carter was not always easy to deal with, and he did not respond lightly to criticism. In 1995, I published an article in which I respectfully criticized one of his actions in Bosnia on a visit there in the late stages of the war. Though he had not previously played any discernible role in connection to that conflict, he went to Pale, the headquarters of the Bosnian Serbs, the aggressors in the conflict, to meet with their leader, Radovan Karadzic, on what was billed as a peace mission.

As on most of his travels, Carter was accompanied by his wife, Rosalynn. Though no one had previously seen Mrs. Karadzic, she turned up for the event and photos of the two smiling couples appeared in the press.  At the time, Karadzic was an indicted war criminal and a fugitive from justice. Carter’s visit did nothing to promote peace, and I objected to giving Karadzic favorable publicity in what looked like family photos. A few years passed before I next saw Carter and, as soon as he saw me, he launched into his grievance about my criticism.

Human rights never again became the dominant focus of American foreign policy that it was during Carter’s one-term presidency. But every president who followed Jimmy Carter in office — except for Trump — has felt obliged to make some efforts to promote human rights. That is an important part of Carter’s enduring legacy.

IMAGE: President Jimmy Carter participates in the swearing-in ceremony for Patricia Derian, Virginia McCarty and Eleanor Holmes Norton at the White House on June 17, 1977. (Photo by White House Staff Photographers, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)