Senator Edward Kennedy Made Human Rights Part of US Foreign Policy

09/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Aryeh Neier President emeritus, Open Society Institute

Among the many achievements of Edward M. Kennedy during his long tenure in the United States Senate, one that may be overlooked is his central role in making the promotion of human rights internationally a significant factor in American foreign policy for the long term.
Kennedy had reacted strongly to reports of the great cruelties that accompanied the coup in which General Augusto Pinochet took power in Chile on September 11, 1973.  He immediately proposed a sense of Congress resolution calling for a cutoff of economic and military assistance to the Chilean government until human rights protections were restored.  Over the next two years he worked with a group of members of the House of Representatives, led by Representative Don Fraser of Minnesota, to adopt legislation requiring the United States to deny military aid to governments practicing gross abuses of human rights; to establish a State Department post of Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights; and to publish annual reports on the human rights practices of governments worldwide.  Advised by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, President Gerald Ford vetoed the legislation, but Kennedy led the way in persuading Congress to override Ford's veto.  The legislation that Kennedy sponsored still shapes U.S. foreign policy more than three decades later.   
Most of the leading U.S.-based human rights organizations - such as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, Physicians for Human Rights and the Committee to Protect Journalists - were established in the late 1970s or the early 1980s, after the Congress adopted Kennedy's proposals.  The fact that there was legislation already on the books requiring the United States to promote human rights played a role in their emergence and made it possible for them to become influential bodies.  Though Kennedy himself has passed from the scene, the movement that he helped to create can be counted on to continue the struggle that he initiated.