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Reagan's new rights man

President Reagan has gone out of his way to alleviate what he evidently recognizes as deep public concern that human rights have been downgraded in United States diplomacy. In announcing a new nomination for the nation's top human rights post, he went beyond the usual White House practice on State Department appointments and added a presidential statement. He declared that human rights considerations were important to his administration in all aspects of foreign policy and that the US would encourage those who seek freedom.

It is a valuable commitment to make when repressed people in so many lands need a sense that they are not being forgotten by the free world's leading nation. It is a tough one to keep when appropriate ways must be found to carry it out in relation both to the huge Soviet and Chinese communist powers and to the smaller, right-wing tyrannies the US counts among its trading and security partners.

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The President fortified the commitment by forgoing the bureaucratic burial of human rights expected by some after the furore over Ernest Lefever, his first nominee as assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs. It is plain now that the White House seeks neither to eliminate the position nor, as had been discussed as late as last week, to blend it into another.

Mr. Reagan could have underscored the vigor of his human rights statement by choosing a prominent figure in the field. But his young nominee from within the State Department, Elliott Abrams, has begun with firm words that are in effect a challenge to himself for a strong follow-through. For example, unlike Mr. Lefever, he favors continuing yearly reports to Congress on human rights in individual countries. He would not exclude economic sanctions against gross violators nor eliminate the weapon of public criticism against abuses by governments friendly to the US.

Plenty of tests are at hand. On the very day of the White House statement a new plea came from Mrs. Sakharov, whose husband is Russia's celebrated physicist and human rights advocate, for world attention to imprisoned Soviet dissidents, many of whom are now conducting hunger strikes to dramatize their suffering. Is any US response, public or not, called for under the Reagan rights policy? Also in the air are questions about human rights in connection with US military shipments to China, Guatemala, and possibly once more to Chile.

How Mr. Abrams responds to such questions under Senate confirmation scrutiny should give a clue as to how he would run the human rights bureau. The existence of the questions ratifies the wisdom of the President in supporting the agency responsible for that monitoring of human rights on which constructive policy depends.

No written 1 zw has ever been more binding than unwritten customersupported by popular opinion.

Carrie Chapman Catt .

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