The University of Texas at Austin   School of Law

The Papers of George Lister: "Mr Human Rights"

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Lister's Style

George Lister was an anomaly within the State Department. Although for much of Lister's career his day-to-day tasks were probably similar to those of his colleagues, his approach to his job was unique.

Former Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs William D. Rogers recently described Lister as ''an anti-bureaucrat.'' Lister was someone willing to challenge the State Department's policies and orthodoxy. His independence won him both admiration and criticism, and, at several points, nearly cost him his job. Lister's maverick qualities were less marked, however, when dealing with the outside world. As a diplomat, he worked hard to defend and explain U.S. policy and interests.

Lister was the consummate networker. He believed that institutional relationships were built through personal relationships, and that the two were equally important. He opened the State Department doors for representatives of non-governmental organizations and members of opposition movements, often bringing them into the building to put a human face on the Department. He also took the State Department outside the building. Human rights activists recall how Lister would ''just show up'' at all kinds of official and unofficial meetings, hearings, and events.

Lister was also remarkable for his ability to operate beyond partisan politics. Perhaps working best with Democratic members of Congress and Republican administrations, Lister gained respect and loyalty from individuals spanning a wide range of political beliefs in the United States and abroad. Lister carried his non-partisan approach into his human rights work, insisting that those on the right and the left of the political spectrum should be held to the same human rights standards.

Finally, Lister's style cannot be separated from his beliefs. Although Lister's career spanned many administrations, his message remained remarkably consistent. He was anti-Communist, but insisted on a sharp distinction between the democratic left and the Communist Party; in fact, he believed that support for the former could and should be an important element of the United States government's Cold War strategy.

Lister's most consistent message, of course, centered around a deeply held belief in human rights. Although Lister attempted to imbue human rights with substantive content, a commitment to the concept of human rights as an essential part of U.S. foreign policy was key for him. His long dedication to the cause, which he often referred to as ''our hopeless cause,'' was what by the end of the career made him the ''institutional memory'' of the human rights bureau.

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