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The Papers of George Lister: "Mr Human Rights"

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Lister's Legacy

Human Rights, Democracy and U.S. Foreign Policy

Former Assistant Secretary of State Harold Koh refers to George Lister as the ''institutional memory of the human rights bureau.'' Lister was there from before the beginning, and his life's work-documented in part by his papers-provides us the opportunity to enhance our understanding of the bureaucratic mechanisms through which the United States government has deployed its understanding of human rights and democracy in U.S. foreign policy.

Lister never rose beyond the middle level of the bureaucratic machinery, which is part of what makes his papers so useful. His work spanned six decades and multiple administrations. He worked closely with both Democrats and Republicans, inside and outside the State Department. Lister played an active role in developing and documenting a pre-human-rights foreign policy that promoted democracy, as well as a foreign policy deployed through the institutionalization of human rights past the end of the Cold War.

Lister believed that although democracy-promotion had been an element of U.S. foreign policy prior to the 1970s, the advent of human rights policy gave the U.S. ''a much better overall foreign policy'' by forcing the U.S. to consider its relationship with foreign people and not just foreign governments. Yet, Lister did not believe that the terms ''human rights'' and ''democracy'' were mutually exclusive. A 1993 memo from Lister to John Shattuck demonstrates that Lister saw human rights and democracy as two sides of the same coin: ''I do not think we have to choose between human rights and democracy. There is a huge overlap. The more human rights are protected the easier it will be to achieve democracy. The more democracy flourishes the better it will be for human rights.''

The proper application of human rights to U.S. foreign policy remains a controversial matter, but there is at least now consensus that human rights deserve consideration. In a recent interview, former Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Elliot Abrams, now Bush Administration Deputy National Security Advisor, stated that ''one of the things that's happened over this past 25 to 30 years is that [human rights] is not a partisan issue, if it ever was. If you look at the champions on the Hill, they are Republicans and Democrats, they are left and right.''

Is this George Lister's ''hopeless cause'' realized? Is it a victory to have all administrations say they believe in human rights and advance democracy, or did Lister have a more substantive vision he hoped to promote? Is there a difference between President Reagan's ''Project Democracy'' and President Clinton's understanding of the type of work that should be supported by a bureau of ''Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor?''

The documents and interviews contained in this section of the web site provide an opportunity to revisit Lister's vision and to consider it in the context of today's world.

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