The flow of U.S. food to foreign countries under the $800-million-a-year Food for Peace program has nearly stopped in the last seven weeks during a study by the Carter administration of "human rights" in the receiving nations, it was learned yesterday.
The logjam was broken Friday when State Department coordinators of the administration's human rights policy told the Department of Agriculture it could resume negotiations with 11 countries for new food aid shipments.
Officials said it was unlikely that the interruption caused any appreciable extra hunger or malnutrition abroad because food is plentiful this year in most countries, and because much of the U.S. food does not go to hungry people in any case.
However, the delay - described as one of the longest in the 23-year history of the world's largest food assistance program - underscored the political and diplomatic hazards involved in the administration's human rights policy.
Last Wednesday, 14 senators - many of them members of the powerful congressional farm bloc - expressed their "distress" over the delay in a letter to Chairman Herman E. Talmadge (D-Ga.) of the Senate Agriculture Committee. The letter was circulated by Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and signed by Democrats Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota and George McGovern of South Dakota, among others.
The letter demanded hearings "at the earliest possible date" and declared that a resumption of the food aid flow was necessary to "improve the farm export situation" as well as to "meet the food needs" of countries abroad. In a letter to Carter, Dole asked the President's "personal intervention."
U.S. officials identified three of the countries which are still on an administration "troublesome" list because of "serious" human rights problems as South Korea, Indonesia and Bangladesh - all major recipients of American food assistance.
The Carter administration is seeking assurances that Indonesia will release approximately 10,000 political prisoners by the end of December.
Bangladesh reportedly was placed on the "troublesome" list because of 37 summary executions of military officers following a coup attempt against the military government in Dacca in early October. Fifty-five others have been sentenced to death and "several thousand" others are in prison, officials here said.
The State Department declined yesterday to identify other food aid recipients deemed to have the human rights problems.
Under the plan being worked out, countries on the "troublesome" list can still get the financing for buying U.S. Food for Peace commodities - but only if the food aid helps the needy.
State Department officials said yesterday that the human rights review was required under the new foreign aid law signed Aug. 3 by President Carter.
That law for the first time attached human rights provisions to Food for Peace. It stated that countries grossly violating "internationally recognized human rights" were ineligible for U.S. food-buying loans - unless the food purchased with the credits benefited the needy.
The U.S. loans are repayable over periods as long as 30 years and carry interest rates as low as 2 per cent. The credits finance the bulk of U.S. food aid shipments.
No new loans have been approved since Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year.
The food aid question is a particularly delicate one for human rights enforcers in the Carter administration because Secretary of State Cyrus R.Vance said last April that food was a basic human need. The denial of food, he said, could be considered a violation of human rights.
Thus, early consideration of actually withholding food buying loans by establishing a "hit list" of countries was quickly elminated by a committee chaired by Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, officials said.
Instead, it was decided to continue aid but to make sure that the assistance benefited needy people in the countries where serious human rights violations were occuring - as permitted by the new foreign aid law. The plan for implementing this is now being worked out.
Agriculture Department officials were sharply critical of the human rights review process. One officials described it as "dynamite."
Officials at the agency charged that the review process had delayed the entire program. Although negotiations with recipients of the food-buying credits can now be resumed, it could be weeks before the food is purchased and begins to flow again out of American ports, they said.
There has been no interruption of the country's shipments of free food to dozens of countries. The food in this smaller giveaway program goes directly to children, nursing mothers and workers on public works projects.
The fiscal 1978 program of loans to foreign governments calls for them to buy $800 million worth of U.S. commodities, including 4.4 million tons of wheat, 600,000 tons of rice, 294,000 tons of corn, barley and sorghum and small amounts of vegetable oil, tobacco and cotton.
Twenty-nine countries are earmarked to receive the fiscal 1978 assistance, with Egypt getting the most.
State Department officials yesterday refuted suggestions of any foot-dragging on their part. They said that the agriculture agency asked for a delay of scheduled Sept. 28 meeting at which the list of countries was to be discussed by Christopher's human rights coordinating group. The list was sent to Congress on Oct. 19, 19 days after it was due.
As a result of this initial human rights review, the aid allocations assigned to two countries on the list of 28 beneficiaries were changed, officials said.
The human rights language in the 1977 foreign aid law marked another step by Congress to get the government to channel more food aid to hungry people.
Congress earlier had stipulated that three-quarters of the food-buying loans must go to nations where the per capita income is below the World Bank's poverty level. Congress also stipulated that the foreign governments getting the food should use the proceeds earned from selling it locally on development and agricultural projects to help the needy.