01/07/2007 09:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

President Ford's Contribution to Human Rights: Lessons for President Bush

In his eulogy to President Ford, Henry Kissinger credited the 38th president with helping to put in place "an internationally recognized standard for human rights, now generally accepted as having hastened the collapse of the former Soviet empire."

Ford's contribution to the protection and expansion of international human rights is beyond dispute, although he doesn't always get the credit he deserves. President Bush can learn from Ford's successes.

First, President Ford attempted to protect Vietnamese who had helped support our war effort. "Throughout the final ordeal of Indochina, Gerald Ford focused on America's duty to rescue the maximum number of those who had relied on us. The extraction of 150,000 was the consequence," Kissinger said.

I hope President Bush listened closely. In Iraq today translators, drivers and others are being targeted for aiding U.S. forces. Many are seeking protection from the U.S. and would like asylum here, but few are getting it. Approximately 100,000 Iraqis a month are seeking refuge in surrounding countries but so far the U.S. has done little to help them. If the U.S. had a "duty to rescue the maximum number of those who had relied on us" in Vietnam, doesn't it have a similar duty in Iraq today?

But it was President Ford's decision to sign the Helsinki Final Act in 1975 that made the biggest contribution to human rights. Thirty five countries, including the Soviet Union, signed an agreement calling for "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief."

The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which produced the Helsinki accords, was initially promoted by the Soviet Union to ratify its conquest of Eastern Europe, bolster its political standing in Europe and separate the U.S. from its European allies. But the Soviet gambit backfired.

The Helsinki Final Act gave a huge boost to human rights advocates behind the Iron Curtain. Lech Walesa in Poland, Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union, and Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia all gained courage and support from the agreement. Groups to monitor compliance with the Helsinki Final Act sprung up throughout Europe. In the U.S. a group of human rights advocates established a U.S. Helsinki Watch committee and spawned other monitoring groups around the world. A decade later they merged to become Human Rights Watch.

President Ford's decision to sign the Helsinki Final Act was not popular. Ronald Regan and other conservatives opposed the trip. Editorials in newspapers as diverse as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times called the effort a waste of time or a sellout to the Soviets.

But Ford's State Department held Moscow to the agreement, conducting a series of regular meetings with Soviet officials to discuss human rights issues. At first these meetings had little impact, but "the Helsinki Final Act turned out to be a critical prerequisite for the political acceptance in the Soviet Union of protection of human rights as a legitimate goal," Jack Matlock, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow wrote.

Since Ford's death, much of the commentary has focused on his unpopular decision to pardon President Nixon. Some analysts believe that his decision to sign the Helsinki Final Act may have cost as much politically. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates served on President Ford's National Security Council staff. In his memoirs (presumably he'll write more write after his Pentagon stint), he said that "Ford paid a terrible price for going--perhaps reelection itself--only to discover years later that CSCE had yielded benefits beyond our wildest imagination."

There is a lesson here for President Bush, who is looking for ways to strengthen his position internationally. President Ford advanced human rights by engaging with America's chief enemy at the time--the Soviet Union. Bush is reluctant to deal directly with countries he sees as enemies--Iran, North Korea and Syria. So far his cold shoulder approach is failing. Bush should study how Ford succeeded through negotiation.

Ken Bacon, President, Refugees International