Patricia Derian, a civil rights veteran who tangled with repressive dictators as President Jimmy Carter’s chief advocate on behalf of human rights abroad, died on Friday at her home in Chapel Hill, N.C. She was 86.
Her husband, Hodding Carter III, assistant secretary of state for public affairs during the Carter administration, said the cause was Alzheimer’s disease.
Ms. Derian had been deputy director of Mr. Carter’s 1976 presidential race. The president appointed her in 1977 to coordinate what was then a small State Department bureau that had been created by Congress the year before.
With a bare-bones staff, the bureau was supposed to keep Congress informed of human rights abuses by nations receiving aid. But with the support of the secretary of state, Cyrus R. Vance, and to signal how seriously the administration would treat human rights, the job was elevated to the level of assistant secretary of state.
The White House at the time was beginning a campaign to use foreign aid as a lever to persuade countries to respect human rights.
Ms. Derian, who had trained as a registered nurse and admitted on her appointment that she knew little about diplomatic protocols, earned a reputation for angering despots as well as career State Department diplomats, many of whom viewed her as well-meaning but unsophisticated.
Nevertheless, by most accounts, thousands of lives may been spared because of her work. One big success came during Argentina’s “Dirty War,” when teachers, lawyers, labor leaders and others were being seized by the country’s ruling junta, held without charges and in some cases executed as part of a so-called antiterrorism campaign.