If the first two years of the Carter administration were years of hope for persons concerned with human rights, the past year has been one of disappointment and frustration. The president himself has spoken out less frequently on human rights situations abroad or at home. Congress, after a flurry of legislation during 1973-1978, has shown marked reluctance to push human rights considerations where U.S. economic interests are at stake.
Given this somewhat bleak picture, the books under review arrive at a particularly appropriate time. First, they remind as chauvinistic Americans in Milton Meltzer's words, that "although human rights have become front-page news only in the last few years, the struggle for them has been an enduring part of human history." The concern for protecting human rights internationally, he underscores correctly in "The Human Rights Book," is not a radically new policy initiated by President Carter," and therefore, one hopes, it will remain a significant factor in U.S. and international politics long after he leaves office. Secondly, they show us what an important role individuals, by themselves or organized in national or even international groups, can play in relieving human suffering throughout the world. This latter point is the underlying message of Egon Larsen's (A Flame in Barbed Wire," an unofficial history of Amnesty International.
Larsen traces the history of Amnesty International from its founding in 1961 by a British barrister through its receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 to its recent controversial report condemning the death penalty. Starting with the campaign to obtain the release of political prisoners -- still its major concern -- this worldwide organization of volunteers has expanded its objectives to include not only the abolition of torture and the death penalty, but also the ratification (by the United States and other countries) of the various human rights treaties that establish the international norms governing a country's treatment of its citizens. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released as a result of its activities, indicating that the efforts of individual men and women are vital in defending fellow human beings' rights, liberties and lives.
Larsen's book shows in graphic and exhaustive (some readers may think unnecessary) detail how both rights, wing and left-wing governments throughout the world have engaged in the most vile acts of torture and repression to stifle dissent and remain in power. Governments, in short, are the main enemies of human rights. Meltzer's volume covers much of the same ground -- focusing on Argentina, Indonesia, South Africa and the Soviet Union -- and indeed relies heavily upon many Amnesty reports. It goes beyond Larsen's, however, in examining in cursory fashion the Carter administration's commitment to achieving human rights abroad and at home. Although various government agencies and non-governmental watchdog committees have been monitoring U.S. compliance with international human rights law in the context of the Helsinki Final Act, concern with the U.S. performance record in general has not been overwhelming, to say the least. Meltzer rightly points to various violations of basic human rights in this country during the Nixon administration and, to a lesser extent, thereafter.
Both books carry the message that much needs to be done in the human rights area. Larsen's book, focusing on one non-governmental agency, shows how individuals can contribute to this effort. Meltzer's book, with final chapters on "Who Is Doing What?" and, even more specifically, "What You Can Do," contains many nuts and bolts suggestions -- from urging its readers to join Amnesty to suggesting that individual citizens let their elected representatives know that there is a grass-roots concern about human rights. If the message in these books gets across. President Carter's significant contributions to the revival of the human rights movement in the United States will be a lasting one. For, in the last analysis, it is individuals working to protect other individuals here and abroad that will convince some governments to take up the cause of human rights and compel other governments to begin respecting them.