The Magazine

Virtue Rewarded?

The origins of the ‘Human Rights Revolution’ are more complicated than this.

Feb 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 20 • By JEREMY RABKIN
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What is least persuasive in Keys’s version of events is her effort to attribute great explanatory power to the aftermath of the Vietnam war. “Human rights promotion was an antidote to shame and guilt,” she writes; it shifted “attention and blame away from the trauma of the Vietnam War.” There may be something to this. But it would be hard to disprove any claim about the dreams and fears coursing through American politics in the mid-1970s, after military defeat abroad and the resignation of a disgraced president at home.   

Still, quite a few big developments are missing in Keys’s account. Perhaps this was not deliberate, but it did not occur by happenstance. It is only by obscuring—or forgetting about—these developments that Keys can make her emphasis on the recoil from Vietnam sound like the central explanation for what happened in the 1970s.

The first thing that drops out of this account is the international setting. Keys does mention Henry Kissinger’s determination to improve relations with the Soviet Union through a policy of accommodation he called “détente.” She also mentions the sympathy for Soviet dissidents, championed by human rights activists on the left as well as the right by the mid-1970s. And she describes the efforts of American-Jewish groups to mobilize support for persecuted Jews in the Soviet Union, culminating in Henry Jackson’s legislation denying trade concessions to the Soviets unless they relaxed restrictions on Jewish emigration.

But all of these background trends required a prior relaxation of the Soviet government’s totalitarian grip at home and belligerent posture toward outsiders. No one talked about helping Soviet dissidents or Soviet Jews under Stalin. There were no open dissidents in the darkest era of Communist tyranny. Outside protests in that era would have brought swift retribution on the intended beneficiaries.   

Even in the Khrushchev era, it would have seemed pointless to talk about human rights in the Soviet Union. The priority was averting nuclear war. Instead of heralding universal rights, political leaders—Democrats and Republicans in America, Social Democrats and Christian Democrats in Europe—talked about “the Free World,” seeking to rally all governments opposed to communism. Universal rights would only look plausible as a serious program when the world was less fiercely divided between East and West.  

 But terrible things could still happen in that world. In 1975, shortly after the American withdrawal from Vietnam, Communist guerrillas seized power in neighboring Cambodia. Some two million people—a quarter of the population—were butchered by Khmer Rouge forces. Keys does not discuss this episode. Her book emphasizes that liberal human rights advocates were motivated by feelings of “shame and guilt” over American actions in Vietnam. She does not inquire into their reactions to the horrors that ensued after America’s departure from the region. Even Amnesty International failed to condemn Khmer Rouge butchery while it was ongoing. That also goes unmentioned in Keys’s book. It’s much easier to embrace international human rights guarantees if you don’t feel any commitment to enforcing them.  


So it is also revealing that Keys says almost nothing about the actual U.N. infrastructure that is supposed to provide international protection for human rights. The rights proclaimed in the Universal Declaration (1948) were understood at the time as “a standard of achievement”—that is, not immediately binding. To give them legal effect, the United Nations spent nearly two decades refining legal provisions in two treaties meant to be legally binding on signatory states: the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on Economic and Social Rights. They finally gained enough signatories to take effect in 1976.  

President Carter signed these treaties, but could not get the Senate to ratify them. It took nearly two decades more for President George H. W. Bush to win Senate confirmation for the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1992. But the Senate then added limiting reservations to prevent the treaty from having domestic legal effect. There is not much in the way of international enforcement in U.N. organs. Still, we have, in principle, agreed to explain and defend our compliance record before international forums, at least for the Covenant and a few later human rights treaties.