Commentary Magazine


Human Rights

To the Editor:

In his article, “The Politics of Human Rights” [August], Daniel P. Moynihan attempts to distinguish “authoritarian regimes of the Right,” which violate human rights in the name of national security, from the Soviets, who “deride liberty as a ‘bourgeois’ illusion,” in principle as well as in practice. While I share Senator Moynihan’s moral outrage at the political and physical atrocities committed by the Soviet Union, I must point out that this Left regime is indeed committed, in principle, to the protection of the same political and social freedoms which Western governments espouse. Freedom of religious worship and equality of rights regardless of nationality or race are proclaimed by the Soviet Constitution, and the RSFSR Code of Criminal Procedure guarantees, among other things, the right to counsel and relief from serving punishment because of illness.

These principles are routinely trumpeted by Soviet officials, though obliterated in practice in the campaign against dissidents. And the Soviets, too, justify their actions in the name of national security, as in the recent case of Anatoly Shcharansky, who has been denied his Article 19 Right to Defense because he has been charged with Articles 64 and 72, Treason and Especially Dangerous Crimes Against the State.

Senator Moynihan singles out the Soviet Union for the consistency of its principle and practice. But those of us engaged in the struggle to free Shcharansky and other dissidents are aware that it is the Soviet Union’s hypocrisy rather than its consistency which distinguishes it from, say, Nazi Germany, where no profession of libertarian principles was made. Accordingly, an appeal by the West for Soviet avowal of its own constitutional principles and statutory guarantees may prove to be a viable weapon in the “human-rights initiative.”

Doncna Arzt
Watertown, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

Daniel P. Moynihan can expect no less than universal support for his central thesis, which is that human rights ought to figure prominently in determining United States foreign policy. There is no question where international law stands on the issue. To acquiesce in the “selective morality” of modern-day diplomacy is surely to compromise our values and hence, ultimately, our prestige. We have been at fault in ignoring egregious violations of human rights and in abetting the deceit and hypocrisy of governments the world over.

It is a pity, however, that Senator Moynihan does not draw us any closer to a coherent, potentially effective policy. Part of the difficulty here may be that the term “human rights” is not clearly defined. Certainly more is involved than Senator Jackson’s concern with emigration. Indirectly, it appears that Senator Moynihan means to include the whole political and legal heritage of the Western democracies; that is, free elections, an independent judiciary, the right to due process, etc. Now, the number of countries that fully respect this tradition and comply with the standards to which we in the West have grown accustomed is despairingly few. This is not, incidentally, a modern phenomenon.

The questions, therefore, are numerous and complex. To what extent should the nature of human-rights transgressions abroad affect our commercial and other relationships? How does one rate the transgressions? What levers, other than foreign aid, should be applied, and in which cases? When should concern for human rights take precedence over our interest in maintaining friendly ties with a secure government and a country deemed essential to our security? Should all foreign assistance be withdrawn from any country that violates our definition of human rights, even though such an approach might tend to drive additional countries into an ever-increasing dependency on the totalitarian states?

Unfortunately, Senator Moynihan does not tackle the tough questions, but instead launches into a discussion of UN resolutions that in the great scheme of things do not much matter. They are, pure and simple, propaganda vehicles. In the end, what seems to trouble him most are the equivocations of President Carter and Secretary Vance, now slipping into the grasp of the “permanent government.” Our objective, Senator Moynihan argues, should be to make the Third World cease supporting “the totalitarian attack on democracy.”

Despite the complexities, I am willing to grant that some kind of initiative is worthwhile and long overdue. But what is needed are practical steps and not the periodic emotional discharge that Senator Moynihan looks upon with such great favor and misreads as foreign policy. There are, for instance, international organizations where the U.S. could profitably move the human-rights issue onto center stage. Forums are available where our government could actively promote respect for basic human rights, including the establishment of investigative and enforcement machinery. In short, the campaign needs focus and an agenda that holds promise of ameliorating the desperate plight of those abroad who are and will continue to be victimized by oppression and by the absence of any legal safeguards. This is the purpose which a foreign policy ought to serve. There is a place for moral lectures and UN resolutions, but sooner or later this tactic loses force, and we ought to begin to weigh carefully the means by which some improvements can be effected in the long run.

It is only, I feel, through timely, patient, and determined negotiation that we can truly keep faith with our values and demonstrate to the world just where the dictatorships stand. . . .

W. H. van den Toorn
Washington, D.C.

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To the Editor:

In “The Politics of Human Rights” Daniel P. Moynihan twice refers to “Finlandization from within,” yet his article itself is a primary example of that phenomenon.

He says that “the central political struggle of our time [is] that between liberal democracy and totalitarian Communism” and quotes President Carter’s remarks at Notre Dame: “There’s an ideological struggle that has been in progress for decades between the Communist nations on the one hand and the democratic nations on the other.” The Senator then seconds this with “It is as simple as that.”

It is not only not “as simple as that,” but it is, rather, that both Senator Moynihan and the President are simply wrong. The central ideological struggle of our time is between capitalism and socialism/Communism. In the formulation of the President and Senator, “democracy” becomes an antonym of “Communism.” But the central tenet of Marxist ideology, with which the Western world has been struggling for decades, is that the antithesis of socialism/Communism is capitalism. It would be more accurate to say that the struggle is between democratic capitalism and totalitarian socialism, but recent history shows that not even this description is correct.

Consider Chile. When Chile was a democratic-socialist state, the totalitarian USSR was friendly and the democratic U.S. was hostile. When Chile became a totalitarian-capitalist state, the U.S. became friendly and the USSR hostile. . . .

What but “Finlandization” can be behind an article on the ideological struggle of our time that does not even once mention the word “capitalism”? This cannot be an error of omission. Whom does the Senator wish not to offend?

Ironically, it falls to someone “without,” a French socialist, Jean-François Revel, to posit the place of capitalism in the struggle. Reviewing Revel’s book, The Totalitarian Temptation [Books in Review, August], Stephen Haseler makes the following points: Revel believes that “capitalism is so attractive, that political democracy coexists with it as it coexists with no other economic system . . . [and] he asserts that political democracy ‘clings to its [capitalism's] back’ and that no other economic system has so far effectively carried democracy along with it.” (Chile notwithstanding.) And this view from a socialist!

If a United States Senator who was formerly ambassador to the United Nations is Finlandized to the point that he cannot utter the one word that is the basis of our side of the world ideological struggle, one wonders what is augured for that struggle.

Patrick C. Baker
Elmhurst, New York

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To the Editor:

Daniel P. Moynihan, who claims to be a leader of the Irish American community especially in dealing with Northern Ireland, makes no mention of the long record of British torture of Irish nationalists in “The Politics of Human Rights.” Nor does he mention the fact that Britain was recently “convicted” at the European Commission on Human Rights at Strasbourg of employing “torture” in Northern Ireland. . . .

Raymond Quinn
San Francisco, California

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Daniel P. Moynihan writes:

I thank Donna Arzt for a useful point. I believe a different case can be made, but clearly she is right with respect to the formal pronouncements of the Soviet Constitution and (taking her word for it) the Soviet criminal code. Hold them to it!

W.H. van den Toorn believes that “UN resolutions . . . do not much matter.” I should think it no great secret that I am of a different view. The September issue of COMMENTARY provided further, unwelcome, evidence. The sensitive and impressive article, “Quebec’s Jews: Caught in the Middle,” by Ruth R. Wisse and Irwin Cotler reports that the head of the Teachers’ Union of Quebec feels that the schools there should teach “the equation of Zionism with racism,” and his statement to that effect, “along with others of its kind by equally prominent spokesmen for labor and the media,” has remained on the record, “without repudiation or condemnation from the French Canadian elite within or outside the government.” Mr. van den Toorn suggests that by human rights I mean the specific political apparatus of Western democracy. I don’t. Peter L. Berger deals brilliantly with the question in his article, “Are Human Rights Universal?,” in the same September issue. Finally, Mr. van den Toorn feels I have not been specific enough. May I simply say that my object was to set forth certain principles. I have gone overseas on foreign-policy assignments for four American Presidents. I like to think I know a little bit about getting down to specifics.

To Patrick C. Baker: would you agree that a question such as you raise should be addressed to a person’s writings generally, and not simply to one essay? I have frequently in the past used the word C-A-P-I-T-A-L-I-S-M. Perhaps he would be kind enough to read my article, “An Address to the Entering Class at Harvard College, 1972” (COMMENTARY, December 1972).

Raymond Quinn is quite right that the European Commission on Human Rights has found that the British have used torture in Northern Ireland. This report was adopted on January 1, 1976; I have referred to it frequently in various statements.

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