Has President Carter's human-right crusade up to now been productive or counterproductive? That question will be front and center Wednesday when the 35 signatories to the Helsinki Pact meet in Belgrade to review the accords that were signed Aug. 1, 1975.
Had not Carter suddenly and unexpectedly focused international attention on human rights only a few days after taking office, it is doubtful that the world would be paying much attention to the Belgrade conference. It was originally intended to be a cut-and-dried technical review of adherence to what is officially known as the Helsinki Agreements on European Security and Cooperation, which largely concerned itself with ratifying post-World War II borders in Eastern and Central Europe.
Almost as an afterthough, the final act of the agreement included what was then regarded as a rather Pro forma accord that pledged all signers - including the Soviet bloc - to respect "human rights . . . fundamental freedoms . . . and the freer movement" of both people and ideas.
The Belgrade meeting could last for weeks, even months, without settling anything. Nevertheless, on the eve of the meeting, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance assured Congress that the United States "will not back down with respect to its position on human rights." Nobody, however, expects such a backdown - at least not an open one. The real question up for debate is what - if anything - the Carter crusade has achieved.
According to my files (kept on a day-by-day basis since late January) there have been human-rights developments in 38 countries sufficiently newsworthy to be reported. On balance, have they been for the better or for the worse? As of this writing, the score is: positive, 0; negative, 38. There may be been some minor improvements, but, if so, they weren't notable enough to be reported.
There is no great mystery about it, for out of 158 recognized nations, well over 100 are ruled by authoritarian, anti-democratic governments that maintain themselves only through repression. To call on them to protect human rights is tantamount to asking them to overthrow themselves.
The State Department itself has informed Congress that, with the exception of Western European nations and a few others, human rights are being violated in varying degrees by most of the 82 countries that receive U.S. aid. And lately, in the wake of Carter's condemnation, the violations appear to be even more blatant than before.
Unfortunately, that is particularly true of the Soviet Union, which, along with Czechoslovakia, was singled out by Carter in his first blasts on the subject. On the eve of the Belgrade meeting, the Russian reaction was summed up in a Post headline: "Repression by Soviets Viewed as Worst in Decade."
Before Carter's crusade, Russian dissidents suffered harassment, but now they are faced with criminal prosecution. The latest bulletin from Moscow is that "the Soviet Union will not tolerate interference in its internal affairs. . . . U.S. officials would do well to keep in mind that such hullabaloo, while it will not make socialism budge an inch, will have an adverse effect on Soviet-American relations and on detente as a whole."
Aside from Russia, the countries in which there have been newly reported human-rights violations are: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cambodia, Chad, Chile, Congo, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopla, Equitorial Guinea.
Also, Guatemala, Haiti, Indonesia, Iran, Libya, Malawi, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Paraguay, the Philipines, Rhodesia, Rumania, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, Uganda, Uruguay, Yugoslovia, Vietnam, Zaire.
Obviously, in a brief column, it is impossible to detail the violations charged against all these countries. It is worth noting, however, that eight on the list are in our own hemisphere and fewer than half a dozen are in the Soviet bloc. Moreover, since the Communist offenders get no American economic or military aid, they are largely immune to U.S. sanctions.
Donald Kendall, chairman of Pepsico, says, "You have to be against motherhood to be against human rights, but I don't think you can negotiate with the Soviet , or any other countries, by in effect laying the gauntlet down. You do this through quiet diplomacy."
Andrew Young, our outspoken ambassador to the United Nations, who knows the President intimately, is probably close to the mark when he says the Carter human-rights campaign "was ever really set down, thought out, and planned" in advancw.
If it had been, the administration would surely have discovered that almost three-fourths of the 32 United Nations member governments charged with trying to improve human rights in the world are themselves accused of violating the rights of their citizens.
Further, if the White House had studied a recent national poll, it would have leaned that two of three Americans want an arms-limitation agreement with Russia, while a majority are against lecturing Moscow on human rights.