The Cold War was very hot and on several fronts, most notably Vietnam. Henry Kissinger was designing the sinuous diplomatic path that came to be known as detente, which involved bit by bit the withdrawal from Vietnam, accelerated relations with China, a hard line on Russia but with cultural exchange and diplomatic patience. Within the United Nations, the line to the U.S. staff was: Be cautious of any direct attacks on human rights within the Soviet Union, but feel free (with some moderation) to attack human rights in Soviet satellite countries, in particular Cuba.
On the human-rights agenda of caring nations in the U.N. that year was the appointment of a high commissioner, who by the high rank of his station might bring special worldwide attention to the deprivation of human rights. Ah, but where? My task was to focus on those nations that engaged in delaying tactics. In my book ("United Nations Journal," 1974) is recorded the little speech I gave on the floor targeting East Germany:
"Among those who spoke yesterday in opposition to a high commissioner for human rights were states who would have you believe that such is the congestion of human rights within their frontiers that it is necessary to surround themselves with great walls and oceans to prevent these human rights from emigrating."
To no avail. The U.N. is a showcase for the "sticks and stones may break my bones" rule.
Now in successive years, we (my wife and I) had as weekend guests in Gstaad, Switzerland, U.S. human-rights warriors in the U.N. ongoing commission from which the United States has just now been excluded. Allard Lowenstein, the most idealistic political creature in modern times, was there in Geneva, and gave breathless accounts of efforts to impale the Soviet Union on its continuing persecution of such Russians who sought freedom as Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
But in Washington, the Carter administration counseled verbal caution. Leonard Garment, former counsel to President Nixon, was our ambassador one year, and the august political scientist Walter Berns, another. All three, in the course of the sessions of the Human Rights Commission, were aflame with the prospect of advancing human rights but were always knocked pretty well senseless by the bureaucratic walls of realpolitik.
That is what happened to us last week. To exclude the United States from membership in the U.N. Human Rights Commission can only be compared with the Council on Foreign Relations' discovery on counting the ballots one morning 10 years ago that Henry Kissinger hadn't been renominated as a trustee. Such votes are one part inadvertence (sometimes people, and nations, have to be reminded to do the obviously right thing), but also one part malevolence.
A lot of countries are sore at the United States for all kinds of reasons, including the headstrong lure of sticking it to the Man. Some don't like it that we have rejected Kyoto, that we declined to submit our citizens to international criminal courts, that we are considering an advance over the 1972 ABM Treaty, and that we have dragged our feet paying U.N. dues. So there was the lure of humiliating the United States, and this has been done.
The principal victim of the U.N. high will of course be those human rights that the United States is best equipped to champion. As also whatever it is you call a human-rights commission that has just elected as members Algeria and Sudan.
Human rights in the United Nations, whether in the General Assembly or in Geneva, are an aspect of routine political interests. It should be more than that because human rights are the great evolving insight of world history. It is a revolutionary development that China should care to be thought concerned about human rights. When in 1973 the Soviet Union ratified the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human rights, which was then 25 years old, the big news wasn't that human rights in Russia would get better -- they didn't -- but that the leadership thought it correct to approve human rights. Some time later, perestroika and glasnost were born; and not too long after, the Berlin Wall fell.
We are at liberty to wonder at parliamentary fumbling by our State Department, and we can let off a little steam by some worldly toasts at diplomatic conferences concerned with, or intended to be concerned with, human rights. But no action by the government is merited that takes us beyond our periodic and melancholy reminders that, in our world, different priorities assert themselves, and sometimes King Spite prevails over human rights.