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Ignoring Washington for the Sake of Argentina

While human rights in foreign policy has generally enjoyed broad bipartisan support for several

years now, it was not always so. As Secretary Clinton noted at the 35th anniversary celebration of the Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) in June 2012,  there were ” plenty of critics at post and in this building who said we have no business pestering people about human rights, that it would only get in the way of real diplomacy.” In these excerpts from his oral history, taken from the Subject Reader on Human Rights in Latin America, Robert S. Steven, who served as a political officer in Buenos Aires from 1976 to 1977, talks about how the embassy’s leaders at that time did the unthinkable and ignored high-ranking officials from Washington.

The Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, as it was then called, was created in 1977 in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate; its first reports on human rights were issued that year. President Carter nominated Patricia (Patt) Derian to be Coordinator for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs and then had the post elevated to that of Assistant Secretary. Robert Drinan was a Jesuit priest, lawyer, human rights activist, and Democratic Representative from Massachusetts, who originally won election as an anti-Vietnam War candidate in 1970.  Steven was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2001.


STEVEN:  Among the jobs I did was to receive people who wanted to come into the embassy to tell us about human rights abuses and to listen, and I found this was becoming sort of a routine stop for people. When you had human rights complaints, you went to the Red Cross or to the human rights organizations or to the Catholic Church, of course, but then you also went to the U.S. embassy and told them your story. The stories were depressingly similar, and we made notes and so on….

But you can’t take up individual cases with them. You can write the thing up, but you can’t publish it, you don’t send it to the newspapers…. Yes, it’s admirable, but it was not, I thought, a good idea for us to develop a reputation and a practice of routinely interviewing everybody who was abused. Some of them were genuine horror stories, torture and so on, or mothers coming in about their sons and so on. Others were people who clearly just had political axes to grind and wanted to talk to us….

Among other things it may have raised expectations among the human rights people that we seemed to be so interested in collecting this information and listening to these people, and then look at what we did about it. There was a disconnect there. It was nice to have the archives, but unless we were out there really working hard to change things… And, of course, we did change after the Carter administration came in, but I will show you how that worked. The two best examples I can recall were Father Drinan, the Catholic priest who was a Congressman.

He was very interested in human rights matters, and he came to Argentina. Well, when a congressman comes to your embassy, what do you normally do? The ambassador would normally have a reception for him, right? Or at least include him in some big reception, or you would have the DCM or the political counselor at least pay a lot of attention. But instead of that, I was assigned as his control officer.… I sat down to plan out his schedule and waited expectantly to be told when he would go to the ambassador’s or when something else would be done, which didn’t happen….

So I gave a reception for a visiting congressman, not any of the three senior levels above me, but I did it…. And we had a cookout in my backyard, which was a nice arrangement…. We had a good talk with him, but I was just very concerned and embarrassed that the senior people in the embassy in effect were keeping their distance.

This was reaffirmed in another instance…where Patt Derian, who was then the Assistant Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, HA, came down. She was an assistant secretary, and the same thing happened. I was assigned to be her escort, and the schedule was simply left for me to work up. She was not invited to the ambassador’s or the DCM’s or the political counselor’s, and it was suggested that perhaps I could arrange something for her. They made sure I had some representation money for it. So, again, I ran a party at my house for Patt Derian and her escorts.

To me it was fairly clear. They didn’t want to be associated with that element, with Drinan and Darian, who were human rights advocates. They wanted to keep their distance, even though the president’s policy was fairly clear. It should have been done. But these were people who were unhappy with that policy and were distancing themselves from it as much as they possibly could.

I was fortunate in not having to try to explain in detail to either Drinan or Derian why they weren’t being treated in a somewhat more elegant fashion. I suspect in retrospect they were wise enough to realize themselves and didn’t embarrass me. They were very delighted that I was honoring them with a reception. So the policy of the president and the administration at the time was exactly not disobeyed or foiled by the people running the embassy, but they certainly didn’t encourage it or do anything that they could to advance it. It was, again, left to the lower levels to handle.