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The Papers of George Lister: "Mr Human Rights"

  The Papers of George Lister > The Human Rights Bureau

The Human Rights Bureau

and the Institutionalization of Human Rights in U.S. Foreign Policy

Although many associate President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) with the institutionalization of human rights in U.S. foreign policy, George Lister was fond of pointing out that the impetus for the institutionalization of human rights in U.S. foreign policy actually began in Congress in the early 1970s. Congressmen Donald Fraser (D-Minnesota) and (now Senator) Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) were at the forefront of this initiative in different ways.

Between August 1 and December 7, 1973, Congressman Fraser, then chair of the House Subcommittee on International Organizations and Movements, conducted 15 public hearings on U.S. foreign policy and human rights with more than 40 witnesses, including U.S. government officials, jurists, academics, and representatives of non-governmental organizations. The outcome of these hearings was a March 1974 subcommittee report that made 29 specific recommendations calling for the U.S. government to play a leadership role in international human rights protection. The first recommendation stated: ''The Department of State should treat human rights factors as a regular part of U.S. foreign policy decision-making.''

The Fraser subcommittee report argued that changes to the bureaucratic structure of the State Department were needed to focus U.S. attention on human rights issues. Among the report's recommendations were the ''creation of an Office for Human Rights within the Bureau of International Organization Affairs,'' the ''appointment of an Assistant Legal Adviser on Human Rights in the Legal Adviser's Office,'' and the ''assignment of an Officer for Human Rights Affairs in each regional bureau of the Department.'' George Lister became the first human rights officer in the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs.

In 1975, James Wilson became the first Coordinator for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, and in 1976 Congress made the coordinator position a presidential appointment and subject to Senate confirmation. On August 17, 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Patricia Derian to replace Wilson and changed the position to Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. On October 27 of the same year, the State Department established the Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs (HA). Human rights policy had gained a foothold in the U.S. government bureaucracy.

The New Bureau

The Bureau faced many challenges in its early years, including lack of experience and bureaucratic resistance inside the State Department. But, as Lister sometimes said, ''human rights work is like doing pushups-the more you do the more you can do.''

Under Derian's leadership (1977-1981), the human rights bureau rapidly developed. Its undertakings expanded and the size of its staff grew. One of its chief duties was the preparation of annual reports on human rights conditions in countries worldwide. These reports, required by Congress, became a factor in decisions about levels of U.S. military and economic aid. They were also an important, objective source of information for human rights activists. ''I do believe of all of the changes that we made, apart perhaps of setting up the Bureau of Human Rights in the State Department, that requiring the development and publication of these reports was probably the most useful result of our efforts,'' Fraser recently reflected.

When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, many human rights advocates worried that human rights would no longer be a priority. Their concerns were not unfounded. Reagan first nominated Ernest Lefever, who had stated he did not believe that human rights should have any place in U.S. foreign policy. Lefever's nomination was rejected, however, and the Bureau was left without a leader from January to November of 1981.

Although it seemed that the worst fears of the human rights advocates were coming true, it became evident that human rights had become a fixture in U.S. foreign policy. Human rights continued to receive bilateral support in Congress, and the Bureau continued to submit its annual country reports on human rights to Congress. As Lister observed, ''It soon became clear that the human rights policy had been institutionalized...The human rights cause had been injected into the State Department's bloodstream.''

In November 1981, Elliott Abrams was appointed Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs (1981-1985). Lister shared a good working relationship with Abrams, observing that ''[a]lthough many consider Abrams to be an ultraconservative I found him very easy to work with, and he was consistently supportive of my efforts.''The subsequent Assistant Secretaries during Lister's career included Richard Schifter (1985-1992), Patricia Dennis (1992-1993), John Shattuck (1993-1998), Harold Koh (1998-2001), and Lorne Craner (2001-2004).

The Clinton administration (1993-2001) marked another significant period of change for the institutionalization of human rights in the U.S. government, as it sought to reorganize and expand the Bureau to reflect its new human rights and foreign policy goals. In 1993, the administration changed the Bureau's name from the Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs to the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and expanded its size and responsibilities.

Lister's Contributions

Lister made significant contributions to the institutionalization of human rights in U.S. foreign policy. His biggest achievements may have been ensuring ties from the beginning between Congress and the State Department and making certain that activists and opposition leaders had a voice in the human rights bureau.

Another of Lister's contributions to the place of human rights in U.S. foreign policy was his work on the annual country reports on human rights. Lister invested significant time and energy in ensuring and raising the quality of the reports. Regarding Lister's work on the human rights reports for 1978, Derian wrote to Viron P. Vaky, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, that Lister ''performed a very difficult and sensitive task superlatively.'' The Latin American bureau ''led in timeliness throughout the process'' of drafting the reports and ''credit for this achievement...goes to George,'' she wrote.

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