The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressing the hope that a change of policy and personnel will invigorate Reagan administration efforts to advance human rights abroad, yesterday approved the nomination of Elliot Abrams to head the State Department's human rights bureau.
The amiable 90-minute hearing and 9-to-0 vote for Abrams were in sharp contrast to the passion and controversy surrounding the administration's first nominee for the post, Ernest Lefever, who withdrew from consideration after being rejected by the committee.
Chairman Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.) said the nomination of Abrams for the job "signals a real commitment by the administration to seek the high road" on human rights. Percy endorsed a recent State Department memorandum saying that U.S. opposition to human rights abuses can be credible only if it applies to friendly nations as well as foes.
Abrams, in a brief opening statement, set forth two guidelines for his efforts: to tell the truth about human rights conditions and to be effective by choosing tactics "with a practical goal in mind." In some cases, this will mean quiet diplomacy rather than public statements, he said.
Abrams, 33, a former aide to Sens. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), is a prominent figure in the "neoconservative" movement of anti-Soviet liberal Democrats. Since the beginning of the Reagan administration, he has been assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, concerned with the United Nations and other global bodies, a job he will give up when confirmed in the human rights post.
Under questioning by senators, Abrams had harsh words for the Soviet Union, which he described as "an enemy of the United States," but considerable sympathy for friendly nations.
Percy expressed great alarm at a memorandum written by a newly designated Voice of America official, Philip Nicolaides, and said a "hard-sell" propaganda effort at VOA could be adopted only "over our dead bodies." Abrams, however, approved the goal of placing "a sharper edge" on VOA broadcasts to confront "mind-boggling" Soviet attacks, though he did not explicitly approve the Nicolaides memo.
Responding to Percy on a sharp reduction in the emigration of Soviet Jews, Abrams said the Soviet "level of barbarism" regarding Jews has been "terrifying" in some instances. "The Soviets have been lying for years" about Jewish emigration, he added.
Regarding Argentina, Abrams said the "terrible and harrowing" situation depicted by former Argentine newspaper publisher Jacobo Timmerman in his recent book is "largely a matter of the past." Abrams said political prisoners have declined from about 8,000 to about 800 as part of a "significant improvement."
Abrams said in his view the United States should vote in international financial bodies to approve loans to Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay and South Korea because of favorable human rights trends in those countries. In the Carter administration, the United States voted against or abstained on loans to those countries at one time or another on human rights grounds.
While saying that the human rights situation in El Salvador is "very bad," Abrams advocated quiet diplomacy in this case.
On the other side of Capitol Hill, Assistant Secretary of State John H. Holdridge told the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia that the death on Taiwan July 3 of Chen Wen-cheng, a Carnegie-Mellon University professor, is "the most disturbing human rights-related incident this year" regarding Taiwan.
Holdridge said Chen's death, in which murder was "suggested very strongly," has sparked calls for reform of Taiwan's security police system but that "none appears imminent."