Amnesty USA Director Sees New Context For Rights Abuse

Rising ethnic conflicts have generated more `prisoners of conscience' since cold war's end

THE world's human rights scene is quickly changing, with increased ``disappearances'' and summary executions making it harder to identify and publicize the plight of individual victims, says William Shulz, the newly installed executive director of Amnesty International USA.

Dealing with such ``new realities on the ground'' will be a prime concern for Mr. Shulz as he prepares to barnstorm the country as Amnesty's top official in the United States. He anticipates countless talks on college campuses and gatherings with community groups to drum up financial and personal support for Amnesty's campaigns to free ``prisoners of conscience.''

While the identities of those people who are jailed and often tortured for holding dissenting political or religious views may be harder than ever to establish, their numbers have not subsided, Shulz says. The end of the cold war and the decline of world communism, Shulz observes, might have led some to assume that human-rights violations would decline, too. But the abuses have only taken other contexts.

``The resurgent ethnic tribalisms we're seeing - in Bosnia, the former Soviet Union, and elsewhere - often lead to very serious rights abuses,'' Shulz says. And too often the perpetrators of such abuse are sheltered by political leadership.

The question of impunity is high on Amnesty's agenda, Shulz says. The organization strongly supports calls for an international tribunal on war crimes in Bosnia. With a tone of disgust, Shulz notes the ``comfortable'' lives being led by such flagrant oppressers as Uganda's Idi Amin, Haiti's Jean-Claude Duvalier, and Cambodia's Pol Pot.

Social-activist past

Seated in his condo in the outer Boston suburb of Maynard (he will soon move to New York, Amnesty's US headquarters), Shulz surveys the demands of his new job. It's a post that he feels well prepared for, he says. His past 10 years were spent as head of the Unitarian Universalist Association in the United States. That work, heading a denomination known for its social activism and tolerance, gave him ``a firm grounding'' in some of the issues he will now be dealing with daily.

To begin with, he has practical experience in managing a ``medium-sized'' nonprofit organization (Amnesty has a US staff of 80). And questions of social justice have preoccupied him since his first ministerial assignment in the late '60s. That was in Kent, Ohio, right at the time of the student protests that led to the shooting deaths of four Kent State students by Ohio National Guardsmen in 1970.

International experience

His religious faith emphasizes ``the inherent dignity of every human being,'' Shulz says. He recounts his trip to Romania four years ago just after the overthrow of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Romania's Transylvania region was the birthplace of Unitarianism some four centuries ago, and Shulz and his delegation wanted to help ensure that the religion's adherents there would be treated fairly. Unitarians had been persecuted for years under Ceausescu. Shulz also traveled to India, where his church has missions helping women and bonded laborers.

Amnesty just released a major report detailing forced prostitution, domestic slavery, and other abuses against women in Kuwait, Pakistan, Thailand, and elsewhere.

As head of Amnesty's US section, Shulz's energies will initially center here. Fund-raising is always a concern, though Amnesty's US membership, at 400,000, is ``about the highest ever,'' Shulz says. It's a ``strong, fundamentally stable organization,'' he says.

Each national ``section'' contributes to the support of Amnesty's international secretariat in London, which has nearly 300 paid staffers. That's where most of the research that leads to reports on specific rights abuses is organized and published.

Though Amnesty may be best known for championing the cause of persecuted people in autocracies like China's, Iraq's, or Burma's, it doesn't spare the US, Britain, and other democratic lands. Last year alone, the organization sent 73 fact-finding delegations to 58 countries.

One recent Amnesty report criticized alleged British collaboration with loyalist militias in Northern Ireland. Another surveyed human rights abuses against homosexuals, covering such countries as Romania and Turkey, as well as the US, Australia, and Britain. That report, Shulz says, was largely instigated by Amnesty's US section.

The sharp increase in executions in the US has been on the agenda for years now, and Shulz says Amnesty's British section is about to issue another report on capital punishment here. The organization's stand on the death penalty, he says, springs from its belief that executions violate the ban against cruel and unusual punishment embraced by international treaties affirming human rights. Nonetheless, the stand draws fire from critics who see it as a liberal, partisan position.

Charges of partisanship are off base, Shulz says. ``Amnesty prides itself on the fact that everybody gets mad at us, left and right,'' he says. He mentions, for instance, the controversies fueled by the organization's criticisms of Israel's occupation policies in the West Bank and Gaza. But Amnesty has also been ``straightforward about raising offenses by Palestinians and Arab governments as well,'' Shulz says.

The main thing, he asserts, is not to compromise principle, despite the outcry. Take the linkage between trade and human rights, for instance. While the importance of economic relations is obvious, Shulz says, and Amnesty won't take sides on specific political decisions like extending China's most-favored-nation trade status, the organization has no qualms about arguing that ``human rights must be preeminent'' in all relations between nations.

Amnesty's assumption

Amnesty's ``fundamental assumption,'' Shulz says, is that ``light and air themselves have a powerful impact on the world, at least eventually.'' The light and air are provided by Amnesty's reports and also by grass-roots actions such as the ``Urgent Action'' network that can mobilize thousands of Amnesty members - 19,000 in the US alone, he says - to write governments about specific cases of imprisonment, pending execution, or torture.

Such pressure tactics have worked in hundreds of cases, Shulz says. And he is clearly eager to help make them work in hundreds more.

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