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Human Rights as a Revolutionary Movement : CRY OF THE OPPRESSED The History & Hope of the Human Rights Revolution by Robert F. Drinan (Harper & Row: $17.95; 201 pp.)

December 20, 1987|Sanford J. Ungar | Ungar, dean of the School of Communication at The American University in Washington, is author of " Africa: The People and Politics of an Emerging Continent" (Simon & Schuster)

American foreign policy in the postwar era has been full of anomalies and ironies, but perhaps none so great as this: Despite the fact that since 1776 the United States has claimed to set an international standard for the observance of human rights, it has never ratified the United Nations conventions and covenants on this subject.

Indeed, as the late Charles Yost, an American diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Nixon Administration, put it in eloquent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1979: "Our refusal to join in the international implementation of the principles we so loudly and frequently proclaim cannot help but give the impression that we do not practice what we preach, that we have something to hide, that we are afraid to allow outsiders even to inquire whether we practice racial discrimination or violate other basic human rights."

A puzzlement over this state of affairs--over America's odd-man-out status in international discussions of human rights--lies at the heart of the latest book by Robert F. Drinan, a Jesuit who has been a member of Congress and head of Americans for Democratic Action and is still, as a professor of law at Georgetown University, a tireless defender of the underdog at home and abroad. Simply, straightforwardly, and with the tone of a man who, despite his years, still finds it difficult to believe much of what he is seeing and hearing, Drinan explains the evolution of worldwide concern over political and economic rights in the period since World War II and the U.S. reluctance to join the crowd. His purpose, he is frank to admit, is to help create a small army of well-informed persons who will "work to define, enhance, and protect the rights of all human beings."

Drinan's prospects for success among his fellow Americans are not great, when you consider some current and recent circumstances:

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the most popular of all treaties passed by the United Nations, has now been ratified by 129 nations, but not by the United States.

The United States is an enthusiastic supporter of the World Court when it rules in support of American interests (as in the Iran hostage case), but attacks the court when it goes the other way (as in the case involving the Central Intelligence Agency's mining of Nicaraguan harbors).

American women and the U.S. government were instrumental in U.N. approval in 1979 of an international covenant banning discrimination against women, yet in the same period it was impossible to obtain the necessary support to add the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.

The United States, sometimes joined by other Western developed nations, has been adamant in its refusal to add the right to adequate food, clothing, and housing to the list of basic human rights to be protected.

In restrospect, Drinan observes, it "seems astonishing" that a few decades ago the U.S. Senate, with only a handful of dissenting votes, actually ratified the U.N. Charter, complete with all of its radical language on equality and self-determination. And it is clearly an aberration that the Senate, at the urging of the Reagan administration, approved the U.N.'s anti-genocide convention in 1986, a mere thirty-eight years after it was originally adopted.

To be sure, since the mid-1970s Congress has insisted upon the consideration of human rights factors in the development of American policy toward other countries; but, except during the Carter administration, this has been regarded by the Executive Branch as interference that is at best naive and at worst mischievous.

The same complaints could, I suppose, be lodged against Drinan's book. He does not always seem to recognize that many of the regimes that vote reflexively for all international human rights conventions are themselves among the worst offenders on earth. And he does have a few blind spots: It would be interesting to have his explanation, for example, of why the Vatican should be able to order a Catholic priest to give up his own civil rights and withdraw from secular politics (as Drinan himself was required to do after several terms in Congress).

Overall, however, this is a fine restatement of a most important theme--a call to action that is quite relevant to the foreign policy debate in the 1988 presidential election. Will the next administration, be it Republican or Democratic, take the bold step of recommending ratification by the Senate of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, both ready since 1966? If not, Drinan argues convincingly, the United States will continue to be "perceived in the international community as a loner, victim of its own xenophobia, and a nation that, though formed by fifty-two million immigrants fleeing from oppression in other lands, has turned its back on those who live under authoritarian or totalitarian tyrannies."

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