World

THE GLOBAL STRUGGLE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

Marci McDonald November 24 1980
World

THE GLOBAL STRUGGLE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

Marci McDonald November 24 1980

THE GLOBAL STRUGGLE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

World

Marci McDonald

Spring had fallen softly on Santiago when they came for her—11 men with guns thundering down upon the tiny student café, dragging Ines Angelica Diaz Tapia screaming into an unmarked car. Four days later, her sister caught sight of her before a military tribunal, ravaged beyond her 25 years, her dark beauty unrecognizable. She was unable to stand upright. In those four days earlier this year in a “café house” of the central Nacional de Informaciones, one of Chile’s secret services, she had been stripped and chained to the metal torture grid called the parillo. Slowly, with the exquisite attention to detail of the truly professional, they had beaten her all over her body, twisting their lighted cigarettes into her breasts and thighs.

Each time she passed out with the pain, she awoke to a doctor’s ministrations. He did not dress her wounds but revived her to assure that she was conscious for the worst that was yet to come: the searing jolts of an electric shock rod roaming her flesh, then rammed deep into her private parts. In court, when she tried to cry out to her sister, an attendant slammed her across the face and led her away. For that pitiable bleat, she was held five days more, before being released to a womens’ detention centre where she languishes still, during what is termed a secret trial.

In the catalogue of testaments that trickle daily out of every corner of the globe on man’s awesome capacity for inhumanity, the case of Ines Angelica Diaz Tapia is one of the less monstrous offerings. She, after all, lives to tell her tale—survives to awaken each night screaming with the souvenirs of her voyage into the murkiest sewers of the human spirit—her cry heard by that small band of the perpetually outraged who subscribe to Amnesty International’s monthly newsletter.

But around the world, other wails will never be heard: the 15,000 Argentines declared officially “disappeared” since they were hauled out of their beds or assembly lines or even their detention camp cells and ominously promised a “transfer”; the hundreds of political opponents of Zaire’s General Mobutu Sese Seko who, if not massacred or hung for their audacity in returning home to a promised amnesty, have perished of hunger, malnutrition and untreated disease in the torrid squalor of equatorial prison . camps which not infrequently forgo the luxury of one meal a day.

Network news cameras numb the horrors from Asia: the slow sure genocide of two million Kampucheans by systematic starvation and murder. In the Middle East, the nightly firework spectaculars of a suicidal war overshadow the savagery tamed by statistics: 100 Iraqis put to death in a sixweek period earlier this year, including the 50-year-old Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al Sadr, most of them for the crime of simply being Shi’ite Moslems; more than 1,100 Iranians dispatched to execution squads without real defence or appeal by the contemptuous revolutionary tribunals that have succeeded in replacing the shah’s bloody reign of terror with their own.

If those voices have been suffocated— often for merely posing the most fundamental of questions, or holding a belief that did not please—it is nonetheless disconcerting to note that had they lived to rage against their fate, their cry would never have penetrated the broadloomed conference theatre of Madrid’s Palacio de Congresos, where the diplomatic muscle of 35 nations gathered last week (see box) in an international tug-of-war over human rights.

As that tussle swells into a major confrontation of West against East, the tragedy may be that human rights themselves become a political club lost in the confusion of the fray. As former Irish foreign affairs minister Sean MacBride, an old soldier in the human rights wars and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, puts it: “It would be all right if it were furthering human rights, but all this is being used for propaganda purposes.” Says Dr. Bernard Kouchner, France’s 40-year-old “human rights doctor” who organized the hospital boat Ile de Lumière, which saved thousands of Vietnamese refugees from fetid death rafts: “Human rights has become a gadget.”

Ever since the Soviet Union pushed for a European conference on security in Helsinki five years ago to win official sanction for their post-war boundaries, they have found themselves saddled with the astonishing trade-off of a commitment to protect their citizens’ civil liberties which they never expected anyone to take so seriously. As pressure from dissidents within and Jimmy Carter’s evangelistic foreign policy without mounted, the Kremlin’s enraged backlash of repression surprised only those who failed to see that a system founded on the revolutionary ruminations of Karl Marx would be the first to realize that men with ideas are more dangerous than those with pistols.

As the Madrid conference opened, a rush of two dozen discreet post-Olympic trials clamped stiff prison sentences on the final larynges left to dissent—the names of journalists, Lithuanian and Ukrainian leaders and orthodox priests were added to that tragic 10,000-strong rollcall of the Soviet Union’s best and brightest who have been silenced by enforced exile, psychiatric wards or the frozen hell of one of the Gulag Archipelago’s 1,000-plus labor camps. Last Wednesday, when Olympian whitebearded novelist Lev Kopelev, who had survived Stalin’s prisons, boarded a flight to Frankfurt on a one-year visa that is expected to turn into lifelong banishment, the ragtag band who saw him off at Moscow airport crumpled into tears and despair. His departure, coupled with the sudden death of exiled writer Andrei Amalrik in a freak car accident en route to the Madrid conference, were like twin fists which pummelled the last breath from the dissident dream of freedom.

The toll of recent repression has led more than one critic to question whether the whole Helsinki process hasn’t hurt human rights more than it helped. Others warn that the West may well discover that, in wielding human rights as a club, they have unsheathed a double-edged sword. “If the U.S. can focus attention on violations of human rights, then all to the good,” says MacBride. “But it must stop supporting these surrogates in Latin America who kill and torture people by the thousands. It’s financing them, training the torturers in police colleges. It must put its own house in order.”

Indeed, in their kit bag of Madrid diversions, the Soviets have a handy stock of American sins: discrimination against blacks, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans and, most damning of all, the news that the United States is the only major power that—thanks to a Senate standoff—has failed to ratify the International Genocide Convention, as well as 30 other assorted human rights pacts, all fastidiously signed by the Soviets.

In Europe, the backup squad, the French Communist party, has burrowed gleefully through the files of Amnesty International—the London-based human rights organization that tries to stay out of politics—to come up with France’s treatment of Breton nuclear power demonstrators and West Germany’s penchant for psychologically debilitating isolation cells. Britain already stands twice condemned of torturing suspected terrorists in Northern Ireland interrogation centres.

But in the mutual mudslinging that threatens to erupt between East and West in Madrid, the risk is that the terrible itemizations of torture, murder and legalized hate that fester in Africa, Asia and Latin America will be ignored or undermined. “If human rights are seen as a point in the cold war, it will tend to divide the Third World,” says Thomas Hammerberg, Amnesty’s new secretary-general. “We would hate a situation where most of the Third World countries came out against human rights because of superpower pressure—because they were financially dependent on one of the giants.” As the Third World War seems already under way—a battle for men’s minds fought with food aid and ideas in a series of quick brush-fire clashes—the body count continues to mount.

How to number the dead in South Korea, list the cadavers dumped into mass Vietnamese graves since Ho Chi Minh’s legions marched into Saigon with flowers sprouting from their rifles? In Ethiopia today, there are estimated to be 100 times more political prisoners than during the most repressive of Emperor Haile Selassie’s frenzies. In Chad, Uganda and the Central African Empire, one regime gives way to another but the dead still litter the deserts and the jungles.

The technology that hurtled man to the moon and spawned babies in test tubes has also devised subtler, more sophisticated cruelties. When Peter Benenson, a London lawyer with a social conscience, launched Amnesty on May 28, 1961, the world was a simpler place of “forgotten prisoners of conscience” languishing uncharged, untried and, in many cases, unidentified in the world’s jails. Now, as the organization enters its 20th year, it is faced with combatting an insidious and frequently undocumentable new face of horror—the enigmatic official “disappearances” and confinements to asylums, the sleek updated torture chambers that specialize in electric and psychological tinkering leaving no telltale scars, only broken spirits and psyches. “Now governments blame executions on terrorism,” says Hammerberg. “Political opponents are marked by death squads who are very close to the authorities. Or they plant drugs on them or invent false rape charges. It makes our work more difficult. In a case of psychiatric abuse, how do you find out the real background?”

Guatemala can boast that it has no political prisoners, but in the last decade at least 20,000 political opponents— many of them stubborn trade union leaders—have been eliminated by paramilitary death squads. Last September, Amnesty succeeded in documenting the deaths of three Iraqis who died promptly after their release from jail with a parting glass of orange juice or yogurt—the victims of thallium, a rat poison that produces an excruciating agony.

Third World leaders such as India’s Indira Gandhi, who has just fallen back on her old emergency measures nightstick, argue that the West’s vaunted liberties are luxuries they cannot afford in unstable societies floundering under poverty and illiteracy. “Nonsense,” retorts MacBride, who heard the argument most recently during his threeyear study of the international media for UNESCO. “There is nothing that creates instability quicker than the brutalization of a population. Iran is a perfect example.” Iran, in fact, illustrates the human rights conundrum. But as Amnesty spokesman Richard Reoch points out; “What’s happening in Iran now doesn’t mean the shah’s regime was more humane. It only means the problem is still there.” Iran has become the textbook example of the difficulty of translating morality into realpolitik— an effort the embryonic Reagan administration already seems all too willing to forgo.

Last week, as the debate droned on in Madrid, David Rockefeller, chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank and friend of the former shah, flew off on what appeared to be unofficial gladhanding to reassure the Latin American juntas with the worst torture records—Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil—that Reagan “will deal with the world as it is. He is not going to try to change the world in his own image.”

Nevertheless, when critics ponder whether human rights ought to be softpedalled for the sake of preserving the frail spider’s web of détente to which they cling, the loudest rallying cry to slog on has come from those who are suffering most for the price of the issue having become a political football: the dissidents themselves. From his bleak exile in Gorki, Andrei Sakharov survives police beatings and harassment to launch the call: “Our only protection is the spotlight of public attention.” From the merciless bowels of a Soviet forcedlabor camp, Yuri Orlov risks death to smuggle out word of his hunger strike begun last week and to urge the West to hold the Soviet Union accountable for its violations of the promises made in Helsinki.

The danger is that as the economic crisis turns the West toward conservatism and navel-gazing, human rights will pass the way of all fads—a kind of moral crunchy granola which has lost its novelty and political expediency. In the end, as MacBride points out, it must come down to the individual “who is willing to stand up and be counted.” Amnesty acts on just that principle: adopt three prisoners of conscience and lobby for them before taking on the world. “If I have managed to save one man from being hanged,” says Hammerberg, who reads the bad news from the front lines of the human rights wars daily, “then it’s worth it all.” It is the viewpoint shared by Bernard Kouchner, the “human rights doctor” who founded Médecins Sans Frontières and its breakaway group, Médecins du Monde, with teams of French doctors treating the wounded in the political minefields of El Salvador and Afghanistan. “The first law of human rights,” he says, “iá to prevent a man from dying.” Kouchner rages against institutionalized charity, “where everybody shrugs off the responsibility and says the Red Cross will cope.” Two years ago, when nobody was going to the Southeast Asian seas to throw a lifeline to the thousands adrift in their own despair and vomit, he organized the Ile de Lumière against official opposition from all sides—now hailed as the West’s humanitarian triumph. “You can’t say, T can do nothing,’ ” he explodes over a Paris bistro table. “You must say, T can do anything.’ There’s so much misery in the world, one must throw oneself into it to defy our own deaths. In the Third World, it’s ourselves we seek. You take one sick man in charge, you take up the cause of one prisoner, you dig one village well. One for one. A man for a man.” Peter Benenson put it another way. He launched his band of faithful with a Chinese proverb: “Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”