Amnesty group turns 40, castigates U.S. on rights

Report cites increase in abuses worldwide, globalization threat

May 31, 2001|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Amnesty International marked its 40th anniversary yesterday, offering a grim tally of international imprisonment, torture and killings, and spotlighting what it called the human rights threat posed by economic globalization.

Amnesty leaders criticized the United States for its continuing use of the death penalty, for supplying abusive regimes with weapons and instruments of torture, and for failing to support international treaties such as a ban on land mines.

"It is no wonder that the U.S. was ousted from the United Nations Human Rights Commission," William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said at a Washington news conference. "We have no prominent leaders in government sounding the clarion call for human rights. Instead, we have a U.S. government that has abdicated its duty to lead."

Amnesty International, created after a 1961 appeal in a London newspaper sparked worldwide concern over government-sponsored abuses, listed 61 countries where government-sponsored killings were reported to have taken place last year.

It listed 30 countries with unexplained disappearances; 63 nations holding people because of their religious or political beliefs; 72 countries holding prisoners without charge or trial; and 125 countries committing torture.

Little has improved over the past decade, said the group, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 and over 40 years has spawned numerous sister organizations and spurred the release of thousands of prisoners.

Torture took place last year in 84 percent of the world's nations, up from 74 percent in 1990, according to the group's report. Political killings occurred in 41 percent of the nations, up from 32 percent.

Amid turmoil in Colombia, Indonesia, China, Azerbaijan, Congo, Sierra Leone, the Middle East and elsewhere, the number of countries where political killings took place rose 69 percent from 1999 to 2000, to its highest level of the decade, Amnesty officials said.

Amnesty reported a slight decline in the proportion of nations that hold political or religious prisoners, from 46 percent to 42 percent over the 10-year period. The percentage of countries carrying out executions decreased from 24 percent to 19 percent.

The group said the rise in world trade threatens the socioeconomic rights of some workers, requiring sharper scrutiny from human rights groups.

While global economic growth has the potential to end poverty, "globalization has also brought economic volatility and instability," the group's secretary-general, Pierre Sane, wrote in the report. "Deregulation, privatization and the dismantling of social welfare provisions have led to widening inequalities in many countries."

Many advocates of free trade dispute the idea that globalization threatens human rights. They argue that by increasing prosperity, globalization will ease many world problems. Free traders fear that expressions of concern for workers rights are often just an excuse to promote protectionism - ways for developed nations to shield their industries from competition.

Amnesty International criticized the United States for its use of the death penalty, which, the organization said, illustrates the lack of U.S. leadership on human rights.

"The United States stands in the same shameful death penalty league as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia," Schulz said. "This executioners quartet was responsible for 88 percent of all known state killings" in 2000 - a number that amounted to at least 1,457, Amnesty said.

Defenders of the United States often point out that U.S. death sentences are carried out only after fair trials and an extensive appeals process that isn't available in many other nations.

Schulz said that in the end, it doesn't matter.

"A death is a death," he said, and state-approved death penalties send the message that violence is a legitimate response to violence.

A decline in U.S. leadership on human rights, Schulz said, is "the single greatest disappointment."

U.S. officials said they respect groups such as Amnesty, but they took issue with its evaluation.

"Anybody who has followed the cause of human rights around the world over the years and the decades will realize that the United States has been and will remain the leading advocate for human rights," said Phil Reeker, a State Department spokesman.

Not all the trends Amnesty documented were bleak. It pointed to a growing awareness of human rights and to the development of locally based, globally connected human rights groups.

Much credit goes to Amnesty itself, rights experts say.

While not the first private human rights group, Amnesty "was the one that became the most prominent first, and of course that was helped by having got the Nobel Prize a number of years ago," said Burns Weston, director of the Center for Human Rights at the University of Iowa.

"It has had a tremendous impact that can't be minimized. ... It has been at the center of most of the major efforts at pushing the human rights agenda forward."

Amnesty was founded after Peter Benenson of Britain wrote an article for the Observer of London in 1961 titled "The Forgotten Prisoners." More than 1,000 people responded by offering to help free what Amnesty came to call "prisoners of conscience."

The London-based group, which has more than 1 million members, grew into a worldwide organization that investigates abuses and applies pressure through letter-writing, political activism and media contacts.

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