The Rights of Gorbachev

In surrendering to Gorbachev’s demands for a Moscow human rights conference in 1991, the American government shut its eyes on two key issues. The first is that the USSR will be able to hold the conference without changing the laws and practices that were responsible for past human rights abuses and that choked off surveillance from within by Soviet activists.

Washington has also chosen to overlook the campaign Gorbachev has been waging to turn back the clock on human rights and seal them off from outside intrusion. Though little noticed, this campaign would nullify the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the similar provisions of the Helsinki Accords. No one knows better than Reagan, as we shall show, how hard Gorbachev has been trying and how determined he is. Yet Reagan, in endorsing the Moscow conference, did not exact any promise to give up this “new thinking” or any assurance that Gorbachev will not use the Moscow forum to further his goal.

What Gorbachev has been proposing is a revolution—or, more exactly, a counter-revolution—in the sphere of human rights. On three major occasions during the past eighteen months, he has tried to sell an old doctrine under a new name to the world community. He calls it “freedom of choice,” or “freedom of socio-political choice.” But it is really the old and anachronistic dogma of absolute national sovereignty and noninterference in so-called domestic affairs. This has always been the Soviet response to human rights criticism, and remains the basic argument of all authoritarian regimes accused of violating the rights and liberties of their subjects. Gorbachev would turn the struggle for human rights upside down. Although he and other Soviet officials speak with several voices, the main emphasis in his statements is on guaranteeing not the right of individuals against state oppression but the right of each state to treat its subjects as it deems fit.

Oddly enough, though these efforts have been made under conditions ensuring maximum publicity, they have evoked little discussion, and indeed attracted little attention. Perhaps this is because they were presented as part of what appeared to be offers of greater Soviet cooperation in international affairs. Another reason may be that the cult of personality around Gorbachev has grown so great outside the Soviet Union that it fosters a tendency to overlook whatever he says that does not fit the mythic image of this energetic and gifted but often contradictory Russian ruler who has aroused so much hope at home and abroad.

Thus while he often talks in One World terms, his proposals on human rights would go far toward sealing off this topic from international criticism and pressure as matters—so he affirms—of strictly domestic jurisdiction. This not so new example of what he terms “new thinking” appeared in the lengthy appeals he made to the last two sessions of the UN General Assembly and between them at the press conference he called last June at the end of his Moscow summit with Reagan.


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