Self-Determination - Human rights as a criterion for self-determination

With the election of President James E. Carter in 1976, the need to respect human rights became a focus of public attention and debate in the United States. This development reflected rising popular expectations around the world as individuals and groups expressed aspirations that included demands that government be more responsive to them. This trend appeared in many forms, from movements of national independence to devolution and demands for worker codetermination. In the United States, many saw the growing interest in the "human dimension" of world politics as a natural and healthy reaction to an overemphasis on great power diplomacy, elitist cynicism, and excessive secretiveness during the recent past.

The articulate and sympathetic stand adopted by the new administration on the question of human rights implied a distinct departure from the position of the Nixon and Ford administrations. The Carter administration's advocacy of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in the widest sense had an important implication for America's policy regarding national self-determination. First and foremost, it implied an insistence on effective guarantees to safeguard the position of individual citizens in the societies to which they belonged, and particularly to protect them against infringement of basic civil rights and liberties, such as freedom of expression, assembly, and movement—liberties inscribed in practically all modern constitutions, including those of the Soviet bloc. Second, to champion human rights involved supporting a long-established principle of international relations, reconfirmed in 1975 in the final act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE); this so-called Helsinki Agreement recognized the collective rights of peoples to self-determination and equal status in the international community.

In the ensuing months, the Carter administration demonstrated its commitment to human rights and self-determination by seeking to reestablish normal relations with both Cuba and Vietnam, and withdrawing its opposition to Vietnamese membership in the United Nations. In his inaugural address President Carter said, "Because we are free, we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere."

In the African nations of Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) and South Africa, Carter and his eloquent United Nations ambassador, Andrew Young, championed the oppressed black majorities. However, the president's most spectacular foreign policy achievement came in September 1978, when he invited President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel to the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, in an attempt to promote peace in the Middle East. Serving as a go-between, Carter persuaded them to sign an accord that month in which Israel agreed in principle to withdraw from Egyptian territory conquered in 1967, Egypt in return promised to respect Israeli borders, and both pledged to sign a formal peace treaty within three months. Carter also concluded two treaties designed to turn over complete ownership and control of the Panama Canal to Panamanians by the year 2000.

These dramatic accomplishments were overshadowed by the ominous reheating of the Cold War with the USSR. Détente fell into disrepute as thousands of Cuban troops, assisted by Soviet advisers, appeared in Angola, Ethiopia, and elsewhere in Africa to support revolutionary factions. The worst fears of the West, however, were not aroused until the Soviet army in December 1979 invaded Afghanistan, next door to Iran, and appeared to be poised for a thrust at the oil jugular of the Persian Gulf. Only a month before, a howling mob of rabidly anti-American Muslim militants stormed the United States embassy in Tehran, Iran, and took all of its occupants hostage. World opinion hotly condemned the diplomatic felony in Iran while Americans agonized over both the fate of the hostages and the stability of the entire Persian Gulf region. President Carter slapped an embargo on the export of grain and high-technology machinery to the USSR, called for a boycott of the upcoming Olympic Games in Moscow, and requested that young people be required to register for a possible military draft. Meanwhile, the Soviet army met unexpectedly stiff resistance in Afghanistan and became bogged down in a nasty guerrilla war that came to be called "Russia's Vietnam."

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