THE annual Amnesty International report on human rights abuses worldwide is tough reading - often more than one can bear. Not that the language or images are lurid or sensational. Just the opposite. What is difficult is the sheer volume of state-sponsored beatings, tortures, and killings in 142 countries reported in an almost clinical tone through some 285 pages.
The 1991 report documents atrocities in out-of-the-way places: the execution without trial of more than 1,000 persons in Burundi; the killing of 100 peaceful demonstrators by Indonesian-backed police in East Timor (with, ironically, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture actually present in Dili, the capital).
But serious rights violations also occur in familiar places: Mexico, perhaps soon a US free-trade zone partner, is reported to have sanctioned a systematic "widespread use of torture" by local police in all parts of the country. In Brazil, hundreds of street children were killed by death squads, bringing the total to 7,000 since 1986.
In all, Amnesty found prisoners of conscience in 65 countries, political killings in 45, and torture practiced in 104. Religious groups were persecuted in 22 states, including Jehovah's Witnesses imprisoned in nations like Greece and France for refusing to serve in the military. As usual, most of the cases are those who question or challenge the use or abuse of power: lawyers, journalists, artists, professors, rights and political activists. Any human rights violations are intolerable. But persecution fo r reasons of conscience seems particularly heinous.
In terms of actual and potential crimes, Yugoslavia and Cambodia are areas most important to watch. Executions and torture are commonplace. Amnesty still can't send monitors to China and North Korea. That must change.
Comparatively, the trend in recent years has improved. In the post-Soviet era, dozens of formerly closed countries are open. Prisoners in Russia, Bulgaria, Poland, and Albania have been released - a trend spreading to many parts of the world. Human rights are taken less for granted. They have a higher place in foreign relations and questions of national conduct. The West, especially the US, must not be quiet about state-sanctioned crimes - or the brutality of opposition movements such as Sendero Luminoso
in Peru, the Tamal Tigers in Sri Lanka, or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
What needs notice now are phony rights improvements - states making laws or high-sounding pronouncements, yet conducting grisly business as usual. In country after country, investigations remain incomplete, guards who beat prisoners go unpunished, crimes never go to trial. Amnesty is now stressing the number of countries (22) in which people simply "disappear." Dozens of Thai youth "disappeared" after the student protests in Bangkok this spring.
Over time, Amnesty has developed excellent access and contacts worldwide. Its findings demand, and deserve, attention.