The politics of human rights. Who speaks for the imprisoned and `disappeared'?

DETENTIONS, torture, and the killing of citizens by their governments are age-old weapons of political oppression. In many parts of the world, they are still employed frequently, and with increasing sophistication. If anything, as poor and oppressed people are increasing their demands for political and economic equity, more regimes are tightening their hold on power through repressive and violent means. But over the last 40 years, the world's response to political repression has changed dramatically. In December 1948, the United Nations International Declaration of Human Rights was ratified in Geneva. In 1961, Amnesty International was founded in London. Since then, a number of other international human rights organizations and countless local activist groups have sprung up.

As a result, when governments kill, torture, or detain citizens without due legal process, they can no longer do so in secret, nor with impunity. Today, general world opinion finds such behavior unacceptable. Mechanisms to protest it - sometimes even stop it - are in place.

``This concept of international accountability is a major breakthrough, and the single most important achievement [of the human rights movement] in global terms,'' says Philip Alston, a professor of international law at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. ``In the '40s, it was assumed that what you did to your own citizens was your own business. That's all changed now. Most states still tend to make a token defense that it's a local matter, but [that defense] never gets anywhere nowadays.''

Aryeh Neier, executive director of Human Rights Watch, a major human rights organization, agrees. ``Most governments at least pretend they comply with internationally recognized standards. That's an advance. A decade ago, many fewer countries made that pretense.

``Of course, there is a large discrepancy between governments' practices and what they profess,'' Mr. Neier says. ``We at Human Rights Watch try to exploit that discrepancy by documenting human rights abuses in detail, and then challenging governments by demonstrating that they don't live up to what they claim to.

``When we publicize their abuses, governments try to discredit what we say,'' says Neier. ``Sometimes they do this by changing their practices so [the report of abuse] no longer remains true.'' (Last year, HRW handled 500 cases of human-rights monitors who had been imprisoned. Of these, about half were released.) ``Sometimes they try to discredit what we say by claiming we are partisan and politically motivated.''

Hence, a reputation for credibility and evenhandedness is a sine qua non of effective human rights monitoring. Many experts, including Professor Alston, cite Amnesty, Human Rights Watch (which includes Americas Watch and Asia Watch), the Paris-based International Commission of Jurists, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, and the International League for Human Rights, both based in New York, for their impartiality. A number of smaller local groups are also considered reliable.

Still, it is almost impossible to divorce human rights reporting from politics. For example, a group like the Washington-based Puebla Institute has been called ``credible'' by the conservative Heritage Foundation, and ``mostly right-wing'' by Human Rights Internet, a clearinghouse for human rights information in Cambridge, Mass.

``To suggest that human rights and politics can be separated is nonsense,'' says Professor Alston. ``The vast majority of human rights violations take place for political reasons.''

This being the case, it is easy to find critics of even the most respected human rights organizations.

``Amnesty comes close to being straightforward,'' says Bruce Weinrod, director for foreign policy at the Heritage Foundation. ``They take up cases un- der all kinds of political circumstances. But I think there have been some cases where there is a question of political bias in particular Amnesty chapters.

``I have more trouble with Americas Watch, which I think has a framework that tends to downplay violations in regimes that call themselves communist, and tends to highlight violations in countries we would call authoritarian.''

Indeed, in countries engaged in civil war, in which both sides of a conflict allegedly commit abuses, the question of even-handed human rights reporting is especially complex. This is particularly true in Central America, where the United States has often used human rights reports to back up its support for one side or the other.

Amnesty and Human Rights Watch approach this problem differently.

``Our first job is to hold governments' feet to the Declaration of Human Rights,'' says John G. Healey, director of Amnesty International USA. ``Our job is secondarily to talk about groups that are fighting governments for power.''

A few years ago, Amnesty handled this dilemma by issuing a 24-page report on abuses by the Nicaraguan Sandinista government, and a six-page report on abuses by the opposition contras. Mr. Healey says the political impact of the reports was not what Amnesty intended.

``You've got to read the data,'' he explains. ``The contras were frequent torturers and executioners - frequent. The Sandinistas were infrequent torturers and infrequent executioners.'' But because of Amnesty's policy of focusing on the abuses of governments more than on those of opposition forces, the documents were used to rally US support for the contras.

Human Rights Watch takes the position that both sides in a conflict should be monitored equally.

``We deal with abuses on both sides in El Salvador; or with abuses by the contras and the Nicaraguan government,'' says Neier. ``We want to make it clear we are not taking sides politically. When an opposition force actually controls territory, the norms of the Geneva Convention apply to both sides.''

As an example of a government changing its practices in response to human rights reporting, Neier cites the case of death squads during the early years of El Salvador's civil war.

``Our great debate with the Salvadorean government and with the [US] State Department was whether the death squads were linked to government security forces,'' says Neier. ``Ultimately we prevailed in that debate, and it was generally accepted that they were.''

Neier says that once this fact was accepted, the pressure to curb death-squad activity increased, especially since the US Congress wanted to continue supporting the Salvadorean government.

``After the fall of '83, death squad activity declined greatly,'' says Neier. ``The use of indiscriminate aerial attacks by the government on civilians also declined. We [at HRW] were engaged in a debate with [Salvadorean President Jos'e Napole'on] Duarte. ... We think we played a significant part in both of these changes.''

Politics may be inextricably linked to human rights reporting, but a number of activists say that discrediting such reports from a position of political bias can be highly detrimental to the cause of human rights.

``The one resource human rights groups have is their credibility,'' says Laurie Wiseberg, director of Human Rights Internet. ``They try very hard to be balanced. Governments have become much more sophisticated in their oppression: They realize that the best way to attack human rights organizations is to impugn their credibility.

``One of the tragedies in El Salvador, for example, is that when the US labels a human rights activist as a communist, he's put on a death list. Governments have been taking organizations with perfect credentials, labeling them as subversives, and setting them up [to be eliminated.]''

Ms. Wiseberg and other experts point out, however, that all who claim to be human rights activists do not have ``perfect credentials.'' Hence, the major monitoring organizations do not ``affiliate lightly'' with local groups, and they go to great pains to cross-check any information they receive.

Still, it is the harm done to genuine human rights reporting by false accusations of bias that most concerns Wiseberg.

``The human rights defenders on the front lines are the most at risk,'' she says. ``If you kill them off, you close any space for others to operate in. Human rights groups are not fighting for democracy, they are trying to create the space to let others do that. The moment you kill the defenders you close off the options for political change.''

One woman's search for her husband

On Aug. 12, 1983, a young man was driving along a country road in eastern Guatemala. Three witnesses saw two men on motorcycles, in military uniforms, follow his car, force it to the side of the road, push him into a waiting jeep, and drive away. Jorge Alberto Rosal Paz, a 28-year-old agronomist with a degree from Texas A&M University, has not been heard from since.

The reason for his abduction is unclear. One source, who asked not to be named, cited allegations of involvement with left-wing guerrilla groups.

According to Rona Weitz, coordinator of Latin American programs with the human rights organization Amnesty International USA, ``disappearances'' of this kind are common in Latin America today.

They are usually the tools of governments that fear opposition and popular dissent, and will go to any lengths to remove them. In a number of cases, the disappeared are never found alive. Often, especially early in their detention, they are tortured.

In countries where human rights abuses are common, protests of these violations automatically take on a political cast. Members of human-rights groups are branded as opponents of the government. Questions of political objectivity become blurred. Sometimes, even international organizations that support the victims of oppression are accused of ideological bias.

When he ``disappeared,'' Mr. Rosal Paz's wife, Blanca, began an exhaustive search for her husband. Amnesty also took up the case, sending out an ``urgent action'' appeal on his behalf. It alerted Amnesty divisions around the world, which in turn caused hundreds of telegrams and letters to be sent to the Guatemalan authorities demanding news of his whereabouts.

In the intervening years, this appeal process has been updated. Amnesty features his case prominently in its reports, and repeatedly approaches the Guatemalan government on his behalf.

Eventually, Mrs. Rosal Paz learned that her husband had been held in at least three military detention centers. Finally, the photograph from his identity card was returned to her by the military. Nothing more. Neither the government nor the military has admitted being involved, nor have they indicated whether he is still alive.

Experts say that as time passes, this becomes less likely.

In June of 1984, Blanca Rosal Paz joined a newly formed Guatemalan mutual-support group for relatives of the disappeared. Almost immediately, she began receiving anonymous death threats, prompting Amnesty to start an ``urgent action'' campaign demanding she be protected. During the same period, several of the leaders of the group were murdered or ``disappeared.''

Mrs. Rosal Paz, with her two small children, applied for asylum in the United States, was initially refused, then accepted. She and her children now live in the US.

Profiles of two watchdogs

Amnesty International, a team of close to 300 researchers in London, sends out fact-finding missions and publishes reports on individual cases of human rights abuse. The organization also issues annual global human rights reports. The actual work on behalf of ``prisoners of conscience'' is conducted by Amnesty's 46 section offices throughout the world. In addition, Amnesty members form countless less-formal groups - about 350 in the United States, as well as about 1,000 high school and college groups, whose numbers are growing at the rate of 10 to 15 a week. Amnesty has individual dues-paying members in 150 countries around the world.

Amnesty is funded exclusively through membership fees ($25 a year in the US), private donations and grants from foundations.

Human Rights Watch, with a staff of about 125, including volunteers, has been hailed by many observers for the effectiveness of its work. HRW is made up of four committees: Helsinki Watch, established in 1977 in response to persecutions of Soviet human rights monitors; Americas Watch, founded in 1981; Asia Watch, founded in 1985; and the Fund for Free Expression, an umbrella organization focusing on freedom of opinion. Plans to start Middle East and Africa Watch Committees are in the works.

The primary focus of HRW is to influence governments - and opposition groups - to respect international norms of human rights, either through publicity or by providing information on human rights violations, and to encourage US foreign policymakers to exert pressure on the governments in question. They also publish a critique of the US Department of State's annual human rights report.

All HRW funding comes from individuals and private foundations.

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