Human Rights - Congressional activism

A backlash arose from the lies about the Vietnam War told to Congress by Presidents Johnson and Nixon, and from Nixon's blatant usurpations of power, leading to the rise of what became known as the imperial presidency. In the 1970s representatives and senators took matters into their own hands and asserted themselves more aggressively into the nation's diplomatic processes, including the area of human rights. One of the most prominent in this respect was a Democratic representative from Minnesota, Donald Fraser. Beginning with hearings in 1973 before his subcommittee of International Relations Committee, Fraser repeatedly raised the issue of human rights and made it a matter of legitimate diplomatic discussion. Human rights would no longer be an afterthought.

More than simply discussing the issue, moreover, Congress decided to act. In 1974, it strengthened law relating to trade and human rights when it passed the Trade Assistance Act; section 504 specifically dealt with human rights, indicating that aid should be linked to human rights considerations. In 1978 that language was changed to make mandatory the link between assistance and human rights considerations. Also in 1974, Congress passed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the Trade Act. Named after Democratic Senator Henry Jackson from Washington and Democratic Representative Charles Vanik from Ohio, the amendment insisted that for other nations to receive most-favored-nation status for trade purposes, they had to be certified as allowing their citizens the right to emigrate. The amendment targeted the Soviet Union for its refusal to allow Jews to leave for Israel. In 1976 Congress created the position of coordinator of human rights in the Department of State. As a result, the State Department reports on human rights conditions in countries receiving U.S. aid, totaling eighty-two in 1977. Twenty-three years later, and no longer focusing solely on aid recipients, the State Department published reports on 195 countries through its Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. In short, congressional action during the 1970s brought human rights into the nation's diplomatic considerations to an unprecedented degree.

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