The Reagan administration, in an "excessively narrow conception of democracy," has repeatedly failed to couple its push for free elections abroad with any outrage over military abuses of power, two human-rights coalitions said yesterday.
In their sixth survey of administration human-rights policies worldwide, the New York-based Human Rights Watch and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights singled out U.S. actions in the Philippines and Haiti for "special concern."
The report, which covered 42 nations with serious human-rights problems this year, commended the administration for its efforts to address abuses in Israel, Paraguay, Chile and Soviet bloc countries. It added, however, that U.S. actions still "reflected an inadequate vision of the possibilities of change" and were applied much more heavily to U.S. adversaries than to allies.
"The most important single thing the administration can do with respect to human rights worldwide is speak up forcefully when it is appropriate to speak up," said Aryeh Neier, executive director of Human Rights Watch, a coalition of Asia Watch, Americas Watch and Helsinki Watch.
In that context, he said, recent State Department criticism of Israel's use of lethal force against rioters in Gaza and the West Bank was "a significant departure for the administration and one that we applaud greatly."
However, the administration has been silent on China's repression in Tibet, on abuses by contras in Nicaragua, and on human-rights violations by government forces of El Salvador, Indonesia, Kenya, South Africa, Turkey, Guatemala, Honduras and other U.S. friends, the report said.
"The administration has proceeded as if popular sovereignty could be achieved through no more than the simple, periodic act of voting," it said. "That narrow conception of democracy fails to address the root causes of many human-rights abuses."
Richard Schifter, assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, responded that the bulk of the criticisms were "absurd" and "based on an utterly unrealistic expectation of American ability to remake foreign societies." Some administration statements were ignored by the news media, he said, but will be evident in the department's annual report on human rights around the world, due Feb. 1.
Kenneth Roth, deputy director of Human Rights Watch, said Haiti provided a case study of the administration's approach. "Rather than making efforts to firm up and create the types of civilian institutions that are necessary to a truly functioning democracy -- such as a free press, an independent judiciary and so forth -- the administration cast its lot with the military and seemed to have undying faith in the military," Roth said.
U.S. policy "was one of complete equivocation" when the Haitian armed forces sought to take over the country's electoral processes last summer, Roth continued. Despite cries for help from the Civilian Electoral Council, the administration "never stepped in and firmly sided with" the council, and has done nothing to help support or reinstate the council since the army disbanded it last month, he said.
The report called the military regime "barbarous" and said it had "brazenly obstructed the elections in a rampage of arson and murder."
In the Philippines, "democracy is still alive but it's in serious trouble" as the armed forces assume more power, said Diane Orentlicher, deputy director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.
U.S. support for a democratic transition there was "one of the high points" of administration policy in 1986, she said, but the administration "failed to respond adequately" to rising military abuses this year, and "when it did speak, it often did more damage than good."
The Philippine armed forces have redefined the term "human rights" to refer only to violations by communist rebels, she said, while ignoring "shocking and grave" abuses against the communists by private vigilante groups that engage in "maiming, decapitation, hacking people to death and cannibalism."
She said the Reagan administration has "failed to develop any coherent policy toward the vigilantes" and assured Congress this month that the groups were under control. "The facts don't warrant those assurances," Orentlicher said.