A Reagan-Era Champion of Human Rights

The Reagan administration’s record on human rights remains highly contested because its commitment was never universal but rather distorted by the ideological competition of the Cold War.  Specifically, during Reagan’s presidency, human rights violations in countries seen as anti-communist bulwarks – South Africa, Nicaragua, and South Korea – were largely overlooked while at the same time his administration championed the human rights of those living in the Soviet bloc.  One of his most important aides in the campaign for human rights in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, which was highly successful and has been largely unheralded, was Max M. Kampelman.  Kampelman, who died last week at 92, served in many roles in the Reagan administration, including as an arms control negotiator and as counselor of the Department of State.  Perhaps most significant were his years as United States Ambassador to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) Madrid Review Meeting (1980-1983), where he effectively built a coalition within the CSCE structure to advance the cause of human rights in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  When President Jimmy Carter appointed him as co-head of the United States delegation, Kampelman already was a veteran of Washington politics.  His distinguished career as a U.S. diplomat, however, might have been remarkably short if President Ronald Reagan had not surprisingly retained him after the 1980 election.  Reagan’s decision facilitated a transformation of the United States role in the CSCE and its relations with its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies there.

In Madrid, Kampelman proved to be a skilled negotiator.  With strong White House support, Kampelman focused on highlighting human rights abuses, enlisting Western and neutral diplomats in his efforts, and working to free individual political prisoners.  In a novel innovation, Kampelman insisted on a performance requirement for Soviet bloc states with poor human rights records; in other words, they needed to demonstrate concrete improvements rather than make potentially empty new promises.  Kampelman was frustrated at the prospect of agreeing to new formulations that Eastern governments would never uphold.  Instead, he proposed that as a prerequisite to a concluding document at Madrid, which the Soviets presumably sought, the United States should require the release and possible emigration of a number of human rights activists.  Kampelman and Secretary of State George Shultz discussed the proposal with the president, and Reagan supported the potentially controversial approach. He also insisted that a deal include exit visas for the two Pentecostal Soviet families living in the American embassy in Moscow in a desperate attempt to flee the Soviet Union.   Reagan also pushed Kampelman to work on Soviet Jewish emigration, saying, “Max, see what you can do to help these people,” as he handed him a list of names.  Attention to high profile cases such as internationally renowned Jewish refuseniks or the embassy Pentecostalists was characteristic of Reagan’s highly individualized approach.

In the negotiations that followed, Kampelman pushed the Soviets to improve human rights by suggesting American criticism would lessen.  Kampelman stated, “if they permit a plane load of monitors and activists to leave their prisons, many benefits to them would flow and we could be more flexible on specific human rights words in Madrid.”  Ultimately, Kampelman secured the two families’ emigration, but he was not able to gain the release of prominent dissidents Anatoly Shcharansky or Yuri Orlov as he had hoped.  Although Kampelman’s achievement might have been regarded as relatively minor at the time, his efforts established a pattern that accelerated with later CSCE meetings in which the United States regarded agreement to new commitments on human rights and humanitarian issues as insufficient and sought tangible progress on compliance instead.

In addition to Kampelman’s innovative push for a performance requirement from the Soviets, he also played a central role in fostering a high degree of allied unity regarding objectives and strategy for the negotiations.  Madrid began in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which had shocked the international community and drawn a unanimous response of dismay, leaving Western countries more closely aligned at the start of Madrid.  Kampelman hoped to capitalize on this shift because he recognized that the United States needed NATO support to pressure the Soviets effectively.  First, he made a tour of European capitals, consulting with allied leaders in advance of the talks in an effort to avoid problems that had plagued transatlantic relations during earlier negotiations.  Second, he worked to reestablish regular consultation among the NATO ambassadors to the Madrid meeting.  Kampelman, in his telling, manipulated the NATO states, including France, to attend an inaugural session by promising to brief them on his talks with the Soviet ambassador; given the near breakdown in Soviet-American relations at the time, the United States’ allies were interested to hear the content of the ambassadors’ discussion.  His approach worked and led to regular caucus meetings during the Madrid negotiations.

In an opening statement at Madrid and those that followed, American diplomats resumed earlier practices of citing specific human rights abuses.  At Madrid, after considerable dissent, the United States’ allies eventually unified behind this strategy, owing considerably to Kampelman’s personal contribution.  As Western European governments had lost hope in détente with the Soviet Union in the aftermath of Afghanistan and then the imposition of martial law in Poland, they were more willing to champion human rights monitors by name and explicitly criticize Eastern violations.  In a contrast to earlier CSCE talks, fourteen countries raised the names of 123 people suffering human rights abuses over the course of the Madrid meeting.  This new NATO approach offered key support to human rights activists in the Soviet bloc.

Due to Kampelman’s diplomacy, some exit visas were granted, the USSR was increasingly evaluated on its record rather than its willingness to make written commitments, and the NATO caucus became an effective coalition on human rights within the CSCE.  Equally significant were Kampelman’s achievements as a forceful champion of human rights, which laid an important foundation for later, successful efforts by the Reagan administration to improve respect for human rights in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Dr Sarah Snyder

Sarah B. Snyder is a lecturer in international history at University College London and the author of Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War: A Transnational History of the Helsinki Network.


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