Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Congress and Human Rights in the Age of Reagan

Rasmus Sinding Søndergaard

In January 1983, two junior members of Congress, John E. Porter – a moderate Republican from Illinois – and Tom Lantos – a liberal Democrat from California – launched a new forum dedicated to “encourage broad bipartisan attention to human rights abuses” across the world. By the end of the decade, their Congressional Human Rights Caucus (CHRC) counted more than half of the House of Representatives among its members, spanning conservatives, liberals, moderates, and democratic socialists. Through its activities, it had helped to expand congressional activism on human rights to an unprecedented level.

On the initiative of Porter and Lantos, the CHRC produced a steady stream of briefings, newsletters, reports, letter-writing campaigns, art exhibits, and ‘adoption programs’ connecting Congresspersons with activists to draw attention to – and spur action on – human rights issues. All activities were cataloged in a computer-based tracking system used to systematize congressional actions on human rights. The CHRC also offered human rights NGOs a new access point on Capitol Hill and produced several specialized spin-off initiatives. As a congressional caucus, the CHRC operated outside the formalized structures of parties and committees, focusing more on setting the political agenda than passing legislation. Its unofficial status also allowed it to undertake actions the formal congressional structures either would or could not do, e.g. hosting the Dalai Lama in 1987.

Through all its activities, the CHRC strove for bipartisanship above all else. This meant it largely avoided controversial issues that could divide its members. Moreover, members were free to support specific issues on an ad hoc basis, making caucus membership politically safe. Although the CHRC addressed a broad range of human rights issues, the majority of its activities were aimed at helping persecuted individuals and minorities and it paid only minimal attention to economic, social, and cultural rights. Finally, it relied on the tactics of naming and shaming human rights violators, which while effective at times, often proved impotent. Thus for all its achievements, the CHRC’s approach, scope, and tactics also had its limitations.

Limitations aside, the CHRC’s bipartisan achievement was remarkable – not least in light of the broader developments on human rights during the decade. In 1981, Ronald Reagan entered the White House determined to downgrade the role of human rights in US foreign policy as he sought to distance himself from his predecessor, Jimmy Carter and his human rights-based foreign policy. Pressure from Congress and the human rights community, however, pushed the administration to revise its strategy and craft a conservative human rights policy guided by anti-communism and selective democracy promotion. This was an unintended consequence to some of Reagan’s liberal critics in Congress and it set the stage for battles to come.

Over the course of the 1980s, members of Congress and the administration clashed repeatedly over the role of human rights in US policy toward authoritarian allies like South Africa and anti-communist guerrillas such as the Nicaraguan Contras. Not surprisingly, there was more agreement on supporting dissidents and minorities in the Soviet Bloc such as Jews seeking to emigrate. Across different cases, relations between the legislative and executive branches of government profoundly shaped American attention to human rights, helping to bolster human rights as a core moral language in US foreign policy but also increasingly politicizing the concept. This legacy of congressional human rights activism in the age of Reagan continues to shape the role of human rights in US foreign policy today.

Reagan, Congress, and Human Rights by Rasmus Sinding Søndergaard
Reagan, Congress, and Human Rights by Rasmus Sinding Søndergaard

About The Author

Rasmus Sinding Søndergaard

Rasmus Sinding Søndergaard is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow in the Department of History, Lunds University, Sweden. He is a recipient of the Danish Ministry of Higher Education...

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