December 16, 2017
Saturday, July 5, 2014

Carter’s human rights Camelot

Former US-president Jimmy Carter meets with Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende, left, in Oslo on June 19.
By Robert Cox
From Where I Stand
The former US president worried about human rights violations in the country

CHARLESTON, South Carolina — Relations with the United States would be vastly improved if more people in Argentina knew about a shining moment during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, when the promotion and defence of human rights became a priority of American foreign policy.

The human rights “Camelot” came about when President Carter focused on Argentina following the March 24, 1976 military coup, when the dictatorship employed state terrorism to forcibly abduct thousands of people, torture them, kill them and then secretly dispose of their bodies.

The horror of the military’s methods, which summoned memories of the Holocaust, became known at the same time that Carter injected morality into US foreign policy. Many diplomats were aghast.

Carter’s own experience growing up in the slavery-haunted, segregated South permeated his ideology.

It was not surprising, although a shock to the bureaucracy, when he appointed Patricia Derian, a civil rights activist, to implement his ideas.

The Argentine military dictatorship was at its most murderous stage when he announced in 1977: “For too many years, we’ve been willing to adopt the flawed and erroneous principles and tactics of our adversaries, sometimes abandoning our own values for theirs. We’ve fought fire with fire, never thinking that fire is sometimes best quenched with water. This approach failed, with Vietnam the best example of its intellectual and moral poverty. But through failure we have now found our way back to our own principles and values, and we have regained our lost confidence.”

Over the years, Carter’s commitment to the highest moral principles in foreign policy has been vindicated and validated. But to begin with his initiative was pooh-poohed and dismissed by many as naïve. However, even the right-wing Reagan administration, initially adverse to Carter’s challenge to the Argentine military, embraced human rights as a tool to free Eastern Europe from Soviet control. Eventually, as Richard Feinberg noted in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs, the Reagan administration “deemed democracy promotion the core of its Argentina policy.”

The struggle to institutionalize human rights is superbly described and documented in The Fate of Freedom Elsewhere: Human Rights and U.S. Cold War Policy toward Argentina by William Michael Schmidli (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press).

Former President Carter will be present on July 16 at The Carter Center in Atlanta, as part of a series titled “Conversations” when more light will be shed on those dark years of dictatorship in Argentina.

The event’s programme

The programme as announced by The Carter Center “will begin with a 45-minute screening of Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo and the Search for Identity, which describes efforts to track down grandchildren missing as a result of Argentina’s ‘Dirty War,’ when tens of thousands were arrested, tortured, and killed. A discussion featuring central figures in the film will follow, led by President Carter, whose focus on human rights continues today through The Carter Center.”


Former US President Jimmy Carter famously placed human rights at the centre of his US foreign policy. At the height of the Cold War, this policy was very difficult to implement, including in Argentina, where a military dictatorship was responsible for the killing and disappearance of thousands of people, mostly those actively challenging the regime. Because Argentina was an important ally of the United States in efforts to push back potential Soviet influence in Latin America, few expected the Carter Administration to object seriously to the crackdown against leftist movements in the country. However, Carter sent a firm message to the military junta by sending his Assistant Secretary of State Patricia Derian to insist on the release of thousands of disappeared and imprisoned activists. Carter threatened serious rupture in the relationship between the two nations. Shortly afterward, the Argentine military releasedmany activists and began a process to address grievances of opponents. This policy is credited with bolstering reform efforts that eventually led to the democratic transformation of Argentina.

Bob Cox was editor-in-chief and president of the Buenos Aires Herald during the “Dirty War” and worked with Tex Harris and others to denounce the policy of state terrorism. His idea was to publish news reports about people who were abducted and shame the military into acknowledging that they were being held. It worked in some cases, particularly when they denounced the kidnapping of babies and children. The Herald became, like Harris’s office in the US Embassy, a refuge and a place of hope for people searching for their missing relatives. The Herald was able to help and protect the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. Death threats addressed to Cox’s entire family prompted their decision to leave in December 1979.

Tex Harris was sent as a political officer to Argentina during the ‘Dirty War.‘ To understand what was happening, Harris invited family members to the US Embassy each afternoon to report the disappearance of loved ones. They came by the thousands. Harris and a local employee collected those reports on 5x8 cards, analyzed the information, and passed it to Washington and to the world’s press. His messages presented an accurate sample of the horrors of the military’s human rights abuses. This unique data collection effort triggered US and international actions against the Argentine military’s brutal campaign and furthered the cascade of justice in the development of international standards on human rights.

Dr. CA Tuggle produced the documentary Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo and the Search for Identity. Dr. Tuggle is the Reese Felts distinguished professor and director of the MA Program for the broadcast and electronic journalism specialization at UNC-Chapel Hill. He enjoyed a 16-year career in local television news before returning to a campus setting to educate and train a new wave of broadcast journalists. Tuggle is the recipient of an Edward Kidder Graham superlative faculty award, the David Brinkley Teaching Excellence Award and the Ed Bliss Award, which is a national honor for broadcast journalism educators who have made significant and lasting contributions to the field throughout their careers. He travels internationally as a Fulbright Senior Specialist in electronic journalism. He is the lead author of the most widely-used broadcast news writing text in the US, now in its fifth edition.

Jennifer McCoy (moderator) is director of the Carter Center’s Americas Program and has been professor of political science at Georgia State University since 1984. Among her responsibilities, she directs the Carter Center’s Friends of the Inter-American Democratic Charter group and previously managed the Center’s project on Mediation and Monitoring in Venezuela. She has directed election-monitoring missions in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Panama, Mexico, Venezuela, Jamaica, and Peru. Dr. McCoy’s academic career has included extensive fieldwork in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and in Uruguay. A specialist on democratization, international collective protection and promotion of democracy, and Latin American politics, her most recent book is International Mediation in Venezuela (with Francisco Diez, 2011).

It will be possible to view the programme live online. Details at:

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