THE new year trails behind it a string of international gasps. Leaders around the world expressed their horror as news emerged last year that Iraqi soldiers were torturing and killing civilians in Kuwait. The previous year, Chinese troops' behavior in Tiananmen Square left the international community aghast. These gross human-rights violations are shocking, but they should have surprised no one. Brutal assaults by soldiers have been the norm in Iraq for more than a decade. Waves of executions had marked political policies in China for many years prior to the events of June 1989.
We could be spared new shocks if governments held each other accountable to international humanitarian agreements. Within their own jurisdictions, governments should be demonstrating their commitment to human rights by prosecuting the people responsible for abuses.
Current situations in Africa, for example, foreshadow events that may have repercussions far beyond that continent. Security forces in Niger launched operations against the country's Tuarog population last year, conducting mass arrests and political killings. Under United Nations standards adopted in 1989, the government is obliged to hold an independent inquiry into the killings. But, month after month, it fails to do so.
Somali armed forces have executed hundreds of their prisoners and killed countless unarmed civilians during the past two years. The government has taken no effective steps to halt the indiscriminate killing.
Security forces in Zaire continue violent assaults on peaceful demonstrators and opponents of the government. Instead of investigating political killings and bringing those responsible to justice, the government allows security forces to flout domestic and international law.
Closer to US shores, we find ``disappearances'' and political killings escalating in Peru. Soldiers massacred peasants in at least two villages during the second half of 1990.
While torture, ``disappearance,'' and killings continue in Guatemala, its government fails to investigate and prosecute. Thousands of gross violations occurred in that country between 1986 and the end of 1990, but Amnesty International reports only two indictments.
In addition to torturing and killing detainees, Brazilian police are operating death squads. The widespread killing of street children was documented last year. Brazilian state governments in effect condone such violence by failing to punish guilty officers.
Long-standing patterns of abuse remain in India, Iran, Morocco, Myanmar (Burma), Sri Lanka, and Syria, to name just a handful of countries where governments flagrantly violate basic human rights.
The good news is that a growing body of international human rights treaties places limits on what governments may do to their citizens. The treaties recognize that justice benefits not only a nation's citizens, but also the world community. Signatory governments can use their political, cultural, and economic ties with other countries to halt repression.
The bad news is that many government leaders remain shortsighted in the way they use their influence for rights protection. Action often fails to support publicly professed principles. A human-rights agenda is sometimes difficult to discern, for example, in US foreign policy toward Turkey, which has a well-documented record of torture; China, which has repeatedly conducted waves of arbitrary arrest and execution; and El Salvador, where ``disappearance'' and political killings persist.
When political decisionmakers ignore other governments' human-rights violations or give them low priority, the perpetrators inevitably assume an attitude of impunity. Continuing abuses tend to result in domestic instability and troubles for the country's allies. Any government wishing to go about its business in a reasonably peaceful and stable world should note the havoc wrought by human-rights abuses.
As we enter 1991, according to Amnesty International statistics, 71 countries hold prisoners whose only ``crime'' is their ethnic origin or the expression of their beliefs. Government agents in over half the world's countries torture or otherwise mistreat prisoners. Over 40 governments commit political killings.
We've all seen what domestic protest and international pressure can accomplish. Shifts in Eastern Europe and South Africa have been dramatic. But governments in every region apparently still lack a basic understanding of human rights. Arbitrary arrest, torture, and political killing are morally outrageous. Such practices also lead to political instability. Protecting human rights, at home and abroad, is the right thing to do.