Already Ronald Reagan is being put down as an ogre on human rights, someone who will rush to embrace any tim-pot tyrant who claims to be manning the anti-communist ramparts. His disdain for the moralistic, up-front, sock-'em approach identified with Jimmy Carter is being portrayed as his last word on the subject. Especially is this said to be so in respect to Latin America, whose geographical and political proximity and whose tippiness on the democratic-authoritarian seesaw make it a region where American policy really counts.
I am not one, however, who feels that Reagan, as distinguished from some of his more smaller-bore advisers, needs to be lectured right off on human rights. This is not simply because I expect Reagan to drop his criticism of the Carter line now that he's won power. Reagan's anti-communism appears to me to be value-oriented as well as balance-of-power-oriented. He has already warned South Korea not to execute the particular opposition figure the regime has it in for. At this point he should be considered open to human rights approaches that work.
In that spirit, may I present, and salute, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an arm of the Organization of American States.
Argentina has been the litmus test. Its war against terrorism produced heinous abuses of personal rights by the junta that took power in 1976. Carter took out directly after the abuses, which included torture and thousands of disappearances. In the most important sense -- helping people who were being hurt -- his policy succeeded: it made a measurable difference in individual cases, and not just those of VIPs, and it helped move the internal Argentine debate. But it exacerbated other important aspects of American-Argentine relations, and it never gained the political or bureaucratric support it needed to be sustained.
Along with many Argentine citizens, the junta in Buenos Aires was angered and baffled to find in Jimmy Carter, and particularly in Patricia Erian, the point of his human rights lance, so little reflection of its own certainty that in the terrorism it was facing a threat to the very integrity of the nation. Thus the junta bristled at outside pressure and criticism until it came to believe, toward 1979, that it had crushed that threat.
It was at that point that, thanks largely to the United States, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights entered the picture. Carter pried it in by procuring an Eximbank loan for a big Allis-Chalmers deal and, I gather, by agreeing to deemphasize public bludgeoning in favor of asking quietly about individual cases in "non-papers," documents without letterhead or signature.Latins resent being leaned on by the United States: The multinational commission made it possible for Argentina to set aside its nationalistic revulsion to outside interference.
There was a subtler current running. Argentines, who themselves felt their government had gone too far and who could see how difficult it was for the junta to back off welcomed the commission's multinational knock on the door. It helped them argue internally for relaxing. The actual arrival of the commission in Buenos Aires prompted a housecleaning -- to reduce the scope of the abuses that the commission, which was allowed to go everywhere, was sure to find.
The commission's report is a thick clinical document, heavy on fine print and case histories. It left me gasping at the cruelties depicted. But I also felt a certain respect for the junta for allowing such a picture of its rule -- its past rule, the junta insists; Amnesty International is less sure -- to be publicly drawn.
The junta went further last week. It joined in a consensus OAS rights resolution that named (though it did not condemn) Argentina, which commits Argentina to "adopt new measures . . . that take into account [the abuse-ending] recommendations" contained in the commission report, and which explicitly upholds the authority of the commission to continue doing its work. Even while complaining about the report, moreover, Argentina wanted the OAS to know of the improvements it has made in police and judicial procedures in the year since the commission visited.
Some people would keep the heat on Argentina in order to end all abuses there and to deter a recurrence there or elsewhere. Other people, no less conscientious, would recognize changes so as to encourage the heavies in the local political process to let the country evolve back toward normality. It's a necessary and useful argument for Ronald Reagan to keep going, and an awfully good place to keep it going is the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.