Richard Schifter, a lawyer turned diplomat who served in three presidential administrations, including as the State Department’s point person on international human rights issues from 1985 to 1992, died Oct. 3 at a hospital in Bethesda, Md. He was 97.

The cause was cardiac arrest, said his son, Rick Schifter.

The fundamental right of human beings to live without facing discrimination had been a personal issue for Mr. Schifter, who lost his parents in the genocide of European Jews during World War II.

Mr. Schifter spent more than three decades as a lawyer representing Native American tribes before he was selected by President Ronald Reagan in 1985 to serve as assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs. In that capacity, he headed the State Department’s Bureau of Human Rights, now called the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

Schifter, left, talks to Erhard Busek, the former vice chancellor of Austria, in 1999.
Schifter, left, talks to Erhard Busek, the former vice chancellor of Austria, in 1999. (Vadim Ghirda/AP)

The bureau produces an annual country-by-country human rights practices report, which can influence strategic foreign policy and millions of dollars of U.S. international assistance. During his tenure, Mr. Schifter gained a reputation for compiling an objective annual report and using diplomatic channels to challenge foreign governments on human rights violations.

He was credited with prodding leaders in Moscow to ease emigration restrictions, paving the way for waves of Soviet Jews to leave toward the end of the Cold War.

In a 2003 interview for an oral history project at the Library of Congress, Mr. Schifter said that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he became an advocate for humanitarian intervention in countries such as Somalia and Liberia and pressed for tough policy stances toward China after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

 Shortly after President George H.W. Bush vetoed legislation in 1992 that conditioned China’s most favored nation trade status on human rights progress, Mr. Schifter announced his resignation from the State Department. He released a statement at the time that denied his departure was related to policy differences with the administration.

In 1993, after Bush had lost reelection, Mr. Schifter became a counselor to the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton. Three years later, he led an effort to create the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative to strengthen stability in the region after the Bosnian War. Mr. Schifter served as special assistant to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright until 2001.

He was chairman of the board of the American Jewish International Relations Institute, a nonprofit aimed at tracking and opposing anti-Israel voting patterns at the United Nations and a co-founder and past president of the Jewish Institute for Security Affairs.

Richard Schifter was born in Vienna, Austria, on July 31, 1923, to Jewish emigres from Poland. When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, his parents were able to obtain one visa, which they used to send their only child, then 15, to live with relatives in the Bronx.

Occasionally, he received messages from his parents through the Red Cross. He learned that they made their way to Poland, hoping to obtain visas to the United States, but they were most likely killed at the Majdanek concentration camp.

He graduated in 1943 from City College of New York, then joined the Army. With his fluency in German, he served in Europe with an intelligence unit of German-Jewish refugees trained to interrogate captured German soldiers. They were dubbed the Ritchie Boys because of their training at Camp Ritchie, Md.

Mr. Schifter received a law degree from Yale University in 1951, then moved to Washington, where he worked for the President’s Materials Policy Commission as an analyst assessing the country’s future needs for raw materials.

He subsequently spent 30 years at the law firm now known as Fried Frank, much of that time representing Native American tribes in legal actions involving disputes over fishing rights and access to affordable public housing funds and mental health services.

In 1962, he won a case that he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the Metlakatla Indian Community to restore its access to traditional fishing grounds in Alaska.

He was a Bethesda resident and volunteered with the Maryland State Board of Education, working on racial integration of school districts and early childhood learning opportunities for low-income communities.

His wife of 71 years, the former Lilo Kruger, a former commissioner of the Maryland Public Service Commission, died last year. A daughter, Barbara Schifter, died in 2013.

In addition to his son, of Washington, survivors include three daughters, Judith Alter of Bethesda, Deborah Schifter of Northampton, Mass., and Karen Schifter of Kensington, Md; 10 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.