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1977

Secretary of State Cyrus Vance affirms President Carter’s interest in human rights

In the face of recent Soviet crackdowns on human rights activists, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance assures skeptics in the United States that the administration of President Jimmy Carter will hold the Soviet Union accountable for its actions.

On June 1, 1977 the Soviets charged Anatoly Shcharansky, a computer expert and leader of the human rights movement in Russia, with treason and arrested him. Shcharansky was a leading member of the so-called “Helsinki group” in the Soviet Union, a collection of dissidents whose goal was to monitor the Soviet government’s compliance with the 1975 Helsinki accords between the United States and Russia. One part of those accords had been a statement that recognized the right of all people to enjoy basic human rights. Shcharansky and other Soviet dissidents, as well as international human rights groups such as Amnesty International, argued that the Soviets had never complied with this part of the accords. When Jimmy Carter entered the presidency in 1977, he stressed his commitment to human rights and particularly condemned the Soviet Union for its refusal to allow Russian Jews to emigrate. Many in the West saw Shcharansky’s arrest as a direct challenge to Carter’s emphasis on human rights.

Just a few days after Shcharansky was charged with treason, Secretary of State Vance met with members of the U.S. commission on human rights, headed by Representative Dante Fascell. They were skeptical of the Carter administration’s commitment to pushing the issue of human rights with the Soviets, particularly in the face of the recent crackdowns on dissent in Russia. A recently released report prepared by the Carter White House indicated that the Soviets were not complying with the human rights sections of the Helsinki accords. Vance assured the commission that “The United States will not back down with respect to its position on human rights.” The Carter record on this matter, however, remained mixed. While the president publicly condemned Russia’s human rights policies, and sometimes even instigated sanctions (such as a halt on the sale of computer equipment to the Soviet Union), he was never as aggressive with the Soviets as he was with smaller and less powerful nations, such as Guatemala and El Salvador.

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