Sovereign Exercise of Brutality

JONATHAN POWER

October 23, 1992|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON — London. -- For years, Amnesty International has been beating the drum on torture and abuse of children by police and military forces. Three years ago it published a report documenting cases of Saddam Hussein's police arresting the children of political opponents and torturing them to keep their parents quiet.

That story caused little stir until other events conspired to make Mr. Hussein a villain worth paying attention to. President Bush, as he prepared for Operation Desert Storm, told interviewer David Frost that he was reading a recent Amnesty report on Iraq. ''The torture of a handicapped child. . . . a 15-year-old boy beaten on the bottom of his feet'' left him ''staggered,'' the president said.

We should be staggered every day. Last week we read the story of how the Guatemalan Indian and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rigoberta Menchu, was compelled to watch her 16-year-old brother burned alive by the military.

Amnesty's latest report, released yesterday, charges that al over the world ''children are being tortured, killed or arbitrarily detained by government military forces and police.'' In particular, Mr. Bush may find it staggering that in his own country last February a brain-damaged Johnny Garrett was executed for a crime committed when he was a boy of 17.

In Turkey, in March, a 16-year-old Kurdish girl died in police custody. Half her head had been blown away and her body was covered with the marks of torture. Government officials said no, it was not torture. She had, in fact, killed herself with a rifle she found in her cell. (Found in her cell? Some prison.) There has been no full independent inquiry into this remarkable death.

The worst atrocity I investigated as a reporter was the massacre of 100 children in the Central African Republic by Emperor Bokassa in 1979. The more I unearthed, the more unbelievable the story became. Some of the children were murdered by suffocation in the central prison in the capital city, Bangui. Some of the survivors said they saw the emperor inside the prison, personally directing and participating in the killings. Another survivor described how a group of 20 boys were taken outside Bangui and stones were dumped on them.

For long enough, Bokassa was able to get away with his peculiar form of bestiality, of which this was only the worst of many murderous excesses, because he had a protector in Paris, none other than Valery Giscard d'Estaing, President of France. On on one of his many visits to the Central African Republic, Mr. Giscard d'Estaing called Bokassa ''a cherished relative.''

He accepted gifts of diamonds from Bokassa and visited the emperor's private hunting area, a large tract of jungle in the east of the country where he could shoot elephant, giraffe and the rare white rhino.

Only after the scandal was aired in the French press was the president compelled to sell the diamonds and give the money to charity. The accusations of a corrupt relationship with Bokassa probably contributed to Mr. Giscard d'Estaing's election defeat in 1981.

Another tarnished leader, President Collor de Mello of Brazil, is on the high road to impeachment for financial improprieties, of which the worst, in my opinion, was allowing his wife to siphon off funds meant for a children's charity. And this in a country which has probably more abandoned children living on the streets than any other.

According to the United Nations Children's Fund, thousands of these children are regularly murdered by death squads, often run by off-duty police. The government of Mr. Collor was dilatory about doing anything practical about the skewed economic and social system that creates and perpetuates this problem.

In its statement yesterday, Amnesty argues that ''Children cannot stand up for their own rights -- it is imperative that governments take action to do this for them.'' But this begs an important question: Which governments are to take action, if the children's own governments don't care?

Amnesty's report on Iraq three years ago was not given the attention it deserved, in part because the members of the United Nations were still adhering to the outworn convention that outsiders have no right to criticize the internal affairs of other countries, particularly when they are valuable trading partners or lucrative markets for arms sales.

Thus, in courteous sanctimony, does the world community pay undue respect to the ''sovereign exercise of brutality.''

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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