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Don Fraser laid the groundwork on human rights, with longstanding impacts

Respected as one of the earliest and most influential defenders of human rights, Fraser’s reputation spanned the globe and his presence in Minnesota was a central factor in the growth of the many human rights organizations here.

Don Fraser
Don Fraser shown in a 2012 MinnPost file photo.
MinnPost file photo by Karen Boros.

Many remember Don Fraser for his domestic policy work as the longest-serving mayor in Minneapolis, or his efforts in Congress to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Less well known, perhaps, is the iconic nature of Fraser’s leadership in the field of international human rights. Respected as one of the earliest and most influential defenders of human rights, Fraser’s reputation spanned the globe and his presence in Minnesota was a central factor in the growth of the many human rights organizations here.

Some of us were lucky enough to witness Fraser’s impact firsthand. In 1989, I joined a contingent of the “Minnesota Lawyers Committee” led by Fraser to investigate human rights in the Philippines after the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos from his brutal dictatorship. We had not appreciated the intensity of the international community’s esteem for Fraser until we attended a state luncheon in Manila in his honor.

The ‘Kosciusko of the Philippines’

At the event, the Philippine foreign minister heralded Fraser as the “Kosciusko of the Philippines,” for his central role as a foreign ally in the country’s 1986 “People Power Revolution,” which banished Marcos and installed Corazon Aquino as president. For those who have forgotten their Revolutionary War history, Kosciusko was a Polish military engineer and statesperson proclaimed a national hero even though he was not a citizen.

Human rights advocates across the globe are now acknowledging the loss of our own statesperson, Don Fraser, who died this month at age 95.

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With all due credit to President Jimmy Carter, well known for his human rights leadership, it was Rep. Don Fraser who truly pioneered the primacy of international human rights in U.S. foreign policy. While representing Minnesota’s Fifth District in Congress, from 1962 to 1978, Fraser initiated the first comprehensive study of U.S. foreign policy and human rights.

As chair of the House Subcommittee on International Organizations and Movements in the 1970s, Fraser held hearings on the human rights atrocities of some of the U.S.’s closest allies in the Cold War, including the military government in Greece, the white minority government of Rhodesia, the Marcos regime in the Philippines and Pinochet’s Chile. These hearings departed from the U.S. government’s usual treatment of its foreign “friends” during the Cold War, where U.S. officials were quick to call out the crimes of the USSR and its allies, while remaining silent about the abuses of governments that were anti-communist or sided with the U.S. against North Vietnam.

Human rights then viewed as aspirations

Human rights, already enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, were viewed as aspirations that had no place in the realpolitik diplomacy of the era. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, for instance, infamously sided with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia at the height of the killing fields as a counter to the Vietnamese, stating, “They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in the way.” Fraser’s work provided a significant counterpoint to turn-a-blind-eye foreign policy.

Barbara A. Frey
Barbara A. Frey
Although Fraser was a liberal congressperson, he saw human rights as a bipartisan and pragmatic approach to foreign affairs, “putting to societies, both the left and right, a rather standard set of ideas in terms of how they treat their own people.” After intensive hearings in fall 1973, Fraser’s subcommittee produced a report, “Human Rights in the World Community: A Call for U.S. Leadership,” that recommended an office for human rights within the State Department and more legislative oversight. In her history of the period, Sarah Snyder explains that while Kissinger had little interest in recognizing human rights, he felt the need to respond to the Fraser subcommittee’s 1973 report and thus made some modest administrative changes within the department.

Fraser and his colleagues pushed on legislatively for institutional changes. A 1974 amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, for instance, forbade security assistance to countries engaged in a consistent pattern of serious human rights violations. The legislation also created the U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices that, four decades later, still provide crucial data on the human rights situation in every country. While these legislative products were not a panacea of human rights protection, they were critical first steps for educating Congress and the public.

A founder of the Minnesota Lawyers Committee

When Fraser returned to Minnesota after his unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate, he continued to play a key role as a human rights champion. Fraser was a founder in 1983 of the Minnesota Lawyers Committee, giving the organization automatic currency in the global community. The Committee (now “the Advocates for Human Rights”) built early events around human rights dignitaries visiting Minnesota at Fraser’s invitation, including dissidents Kim Dae Jung of South Korea and Natan Scharansky of the USSR.

Fraser also led two early study tours, to Central America and the Philippines. According to former Hennepin County Attorney Tom Johnson, who was on the 1986 Central America trip, “Fraser’s reputation in foreign relations gave us immediate credibility among contentious political groups in the region. So much so that within a few days of one another we visited with a right-wing leader in El Salvador (President Duarte) and a communist leader in Nicaragua (President Ortega).”

The legacy of Don Fraser and his equally respected wife, Arvonne, who died in 2018, lives on in the institutions they influenced. Minnesota is an important site of international human rights work, with many respected organizations, research centers and degree programs. This success is due in no small measure to their stature and vision.

Barbara A. Frey is the director of the Human Rights Program at the University of Minnesota.

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