Amnesty International reported this week that more countries were charged with human rights abuses last year than at any time in the organization's 27-year history. Among the 135 countries in which human rights violations were reported, the London-based organization said that torture or ill-treatment of prisoners was reported in 90 countries and prisoners of conscience - who have committed no violent crimes - were being held in 80 countries.
Capital punishment for various crimes is on the law books in 120 states. The most executions reported last year were in South Africa (164), Iran (158), and China (132). The United States was criticized for executing 25 people in 1987 and having another 1,982 on death row.
Despite what Amnesty described as the ``ugly picture'' of human rights violations worldwide, it was not cynical about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted 40 years ago by the United Nations. In its annual report released this week, Amnesty said that while all members of the UN formally subscribed to the declaration, many considered it ``subversive.''
Amnesty noted that the human rights movement continues to grow. It includes more than 1,000 organizations in every region of the world, and Amnesty is the largest of its kind. In protecting people against human rights abuses by governments, Amnesty said that exposure to international publicity is ``the greatest weapon we have.''
As an example, Amnesty cited the torture and death last year of a South Korean student, Park Chong Chol. International publicity brought pressure on the South Korean government and led to the arrest of police officers and the resignation of government ministers.
Such cases are exceptional, however. Amnesty noted that many governments find it easy to prevent abuses from coming to light by blocking the flow of information, censoring the press, restricting journalists, and keeping prisoners incommunicado.
Another common technique is launching an investigation that fails to reach a conclusion, or which glosses over facts.
As an example, Amnesty criticized Britain for failing to publish the results of an inquiry into three incidents of killing in 1982 by security forces in Northern Ireland. The investigation - known in Britain as the Stalker report after its principal investigator, John Stalker - continues to be a sensitive issue in Anglo-Irish relations.
In Latin America, Amnesty reported the increased use of clandestine forces by governments to terrorize political opposition, and the operations of ``death squads'' in Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, and Guatemala, among others. Torture by state security forces was widely reported in the region, and the report cited a ``marked deterioration'' of human rights in Haiti.
Despite the release of political prisoners in Afghanistan, Vietnam, South Korea and Taiwan last year, additional prisoners were taken without fair trials.
China was cited for trying to halt the ``widespread use of torture'' by local security forces. However, Amnesty noted the absence of adequate legal protection for prisoners in China and the extensive use of the death penalty, including for a variety of non-violent crimes.
Some governments in Africa have improved their human rights record, including Togo, Niger, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe.
But torture and ill-treatment of prisoners were reported in 18 countries on the African continent. Some 4,000 alleged prisoners of conscience were being held in Uganda as opponents of the government and large numbers of such prisoners were also jailed in Angola.
In Europe, large numbers of conscientious objectors to military service are in jail, in France, both Germanys, Italy, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, and the Soviet Union.
Torture was reportedly widespread in Turkey where 17 people died in police custody in 1987. Many prisoners of conscience were released in the Soviet Union last year but some 300 prionsers were still in jail, kept in exile, or held in psychiatric hospitals against their will, according to Amnesty.