Candles into the dark places

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THE world isn't getting so much worse, as an old joke put it, it's just that the news coverage is that much better. The brighter side of this observation is that some of the makers of bad news - specifically, governments around the world limiting human rights - have fewer places to hide. Amnesty International, the London-based human rights organization, has been turning its candles on many of the dark places of the earth. Today Amnesty is releasing its annual report for 1987, which catalogs reports of prisoners of conscience, torture, and the death penalty in 135 countries around the globe.

Amnesty is to be commended for its care and tenacity in documenting the ``ugly picture'' of what governments are still doing to their people 40 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Amnesty does not recognize a world broken into blocs and makes no distinctions between the human rights abuses of ``our side'' and ``their side,'' nor does it reduce violations to some sort of rankings whereby one country might claim justification in coming off numerically better than a rival. Rather, the reports are given straightforwardly, with a simple, implicit challenge that the government responsible clean up its act.

Amnesty also ignores claims that any extenuating circumstances, such as national security concerns or inexperience in democracy, can ever justify political imprisonment, torture, or capital punishment.

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Amnesty lists the 25 executions that took place in the United States in 1987 as breaches of human rights, not as evidence of toughness on crime - as US officials have attempted, unsuccessfully, to convince Amnesty. Nor was Amnesty terribly impressed with glasnost in the Soviet Union, where at least 300 prisoners of conscience were in prison, in exile or involuntarily hospitalized. The countries in which torture and ill treatment are reported range from Algeria to Zaire. Death squads were a particular problem in Latin America.

In a third of the nations around the world, Amnesty says, government officials torture men, women, and even children. At least half the countries have imprisoned people for simply speaking their minds, often after merely show trials. And scores of countries claim a right to kidnap and murder as an instrument of national policy.

Amnesty, with its reports and with its quiet, polite, but splendidly obstinate letter-writing campaigns on behalf of individual political prisoners, is helping to move the world to a single standard of human rights. Time and again we see that ostensible support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has not prevented abuses. But worldwide political pressure can be effective in pushing a nation from nominal to real support for that standard. And Amnesty has been an effective agent of that pressure.

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