LONDON – For the first time, Amnesty International (AI) is targeting the US for a year-long campaign, accusing it of double standards and creating a climate "in which human rights violations thrive." Its detailed October report attacks the US for "a persistent and widespread pattern of human rights violations."
Federal and state authorities, police, immigration, and prison officers are criticized in a study that paints a picture of gratuitous violence, sexual abuse, and cruelty. Shocked that the US was singled out, the State Department issued an angry repudiation.
"While successive US governments have used international human rights standards as a yardstick by which to judge other countries," the report notes, "they have not consistently applied those same standards at home. Across the USA people have been beaten, kicked, punched, choked and shot by police officers even when they posed no threat." Authorities pay millions in damages rather than seriously tackling the problem.
AI also accuses the US of refusing to recognize the primacy of international law, reserving the right to use death penalty against juveniles, not paying UN dues (over a billion dollars is currently owed), and being one of only two countries that hasn’t ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
US prisons come in for particular criticism. Up to one-third of all young Black men are in jail or on parole or probation. "Women and men are subjected to sexual as well as physical abuse," the report says. "Overcrowded and underfunded prisons control inmates by isolating them for long periods and by using methods of restraint that are cruel, degrading and sometimes life-threatening." It contains graphic descriptions of asylum seekers held in shackles and detained in "inhuman and degrading" conditions.
Amnesty reiterated its long-standing criticism of the death penalty. More than 350 people have been executed in the US since 1990 and 3300 are on death row. According to Amnesty, the death penalty is "applied in an arbitrary and unfair manner and is prone to bias on grounds of race or economic status … it has become so highly politicized that virtually no politician is willing to speak out against it."
STOCKHOLM – Swedish politics took a turn back toward global engagement in September with the big win of Gudrum Schyman’s Left Party in the country’s general election. Eclipsing the Liberal and Centre parties, it won 43 seats in parliament on a platform opposing the European Union and supporting debt relief for poor countries in Africa, Asia, and South America.
"We hope to strengthen solidarity with movements across the world so that the problems of mass unemployment and poverty are fought together," says Schyman, a single mother who uses personal experiences to illustrate her commitment to social change. Her party’s success has confounded critics and upstaged the rightist drift of Sweden’s Social Democrats. Losing eight percent since the last elections, they had to join forces with the Left Party in order to govern.
According to Lars Olof Hellgren, who coordinates the Swedish Coalition for Jubilee 2000 debt-relief campaign, a strong Left Party may be able to push the government on aid issues and influence the World Bank. "For every dollar given as aid to Africa, the Africans are paying us back $1.30," he notes. "This can’t go on."
Using her new clout, Schyman wants to reassert Sweden’s role as a "front-runner in global cooperation." The first step will be a move to channel aid through non-governmental organizations to assist women, children, and the elderly.
WASHINGTON, DC – The Book of Leviticus describes a "year of jubilee" every 50 years. At this time, social inequalities are rectified, slaves are freed, land is returned to its original owners, and debts are canceled. With this inspiration, the Jubilee 2000/USA campaign was launched in 1997 to obtain major debt relief for the world’s poorest countries by the start of the next millennium.
On the eve of October’s IMF/World Bank annual meeting, supporters surrounded their Washington headquarters with a human chain, symbolizing the need to break the chains of debt that encircle impoverished nations in Africa
Efforts are also underway in England, Scotland, Canada, the Philippines, Australia, Ireland, Austria, Germany, Sweden, and South Africa.
Some of the poorest countries have been struggling with enormous debts since 1982, diverting limited resources from basic needs. In response, the USA Campaign emerged from a project of the Religious Working Group on the World Bank and the IMF, a coalition of 40 Catholic and Protestant organizations.
The idea is to build a common position on debt relief that mobilizes diverse organizations. Tactics include public meetings and prayer services, writing letters, and meetings with elected officials and international financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF. For more information, call (202) 783-3566; or visit the Jubilee 2000 website, www.j2000USA.org.
KARACHI – Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif says his plan to impose Islam’s Shari’a doctrine in Pakistan is designed to "root out all social and legal evils." But his opponents in the Pakistan People’s Party, which was in power until early 1997, say the real aim is to distract people from his inability to manage a deteriorating economy. Since Sharif took over, the rupee has lost half its value against the dollar, and domestic debt has soared above $45 billion.
Sharif’s proposal, giving the government sweeping powers in the name of Islamic doctrine, would impose Iran-style restrictions on women and force judges to submit to supervision by a committee of pious Muslims. Social activists see this as an attempt to extend the influence of the Taliban, the fundamentalist sect that already controls most of neighboring Afghanistan.
Several groups have deserted Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League over the issue. Even the country’s major religious party, the Jamat Islami, has reservations.
When he was prime minister in 1991, Sharif pushed another Shari’a Act through parliament, but was criticized for not obtaining a constitutional amendment. This time he’s doing exactly that. Urging parliament to reject the idea, Asma Jehangir, chair of the country’s Human Rights Commission, argues that Sharif’s amendment is an attempt to repeal the constitution and return to the type of martial law that prevailed under the dictator Zia ul-Haq.
JAKARTA – Contradicting its new president’s promises, Indonesia has sent more troops into East Timor. In August, to great fanfare, the government announced it would withdraw 1000 soldiers. But this was a normal troop rotation and another 8000 soldiers arrived.
Based on their movements, the added forces have been deployed to wipe out Falintial, a guerrilla movement that’s observed a unilateral cease-fire since April.
"The build-up of Indonesian troops shows extreme bad faith as Indonesia sits down to UN-sponsored talks on the territory," argues John M. Miller, spokesperson for the East Timor Action Network. "Instead of threatening a military attack on the East Timorese, Indonesia should be negotiating with them to schedule an internationally-supervised referendum on self-determination."
The troop increase came as Indonesia and Portugal prepared to negotiate limited autonomy for East Timor. The talks, which began in October at the UN, are supposed to conclude by the end of 1998. But East Timorese leaders, who aren’t allowed to directly participate, reject any plan that doesn’t lead to a referendum on their political status. Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Ali Alatas states flatly, "Indonesia will not accept a referendum."
NEW DELHI – Not all Tibetans are happy with the Dalai Lama. In fact, some claim their religious leader is trying to silence them. "We want the world to know that Tibetan society has problems," said Chema Tsering, one of the marchers at a September protest in India. "There is religious repression." Dissenters also prefer independence to an autonomy arrangement with China, which invaded in 1959.
Much of the discontent stems from a ban on worship of the protector deity Dorje Shugden. The Dalai Lama began discouraging devotions in 1976 after an oracle told him that Shugden, whom he previously worshipped, was an evil spirit causing disharmony and blocking autonomy. A complete ban two years ago led to accusations that he was "persecuting his own people." Opponents, many followers of Lama Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, have consistently defied the edict.
The Dalai Lama’s officers portray Dorje Shugden as a blood-hungry demon; advocates say the deity only shows his wrath when battling evil. But observers suspect the dispute stems from the threat posed by Lama Gyatso. Capitalizing on the division, China is encouraging Shugden temple construction in Tibet.
WASHINGTON, DC – After a decade of failed peace attempts, Colombia is nearing a breakthrough with the help of the new Andres Pastrana administration and numerous sectors of Colombian society. Last summer, over 3000 people attended a Permanent Assembly for Peace forum to draft guidelines for the government, while Pastrana pledged to initiate dialogue with guerrilla groups by November.
This opening presents US policy makers and activists with a rare opportunity to promote a peaceful settlement that ends the destructive "war on drugs." International concern over human rights violations may reach critical mass. In October, human rights activists gathered in Washington for the presentation of the Letelier-Moffitt Memorial Human Rights Award to a Colombian human rights group. Meanwhile, the Colombia Human Rights Committee (CHRC) sponsored a well-attended Capital Hill briefing.
Founded in 1982, CHRC is opening a Washington office to promote coordinated advocacy and coalition-building in the US. Supported by grants from the Peace Development Fund and Oxfam UK, the new office will encourage US policies that respect human rights and support peace rather than relying on military action.
For more information contact office director Alison Giffen, 1630 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20009; (202) 232-8148; fax, (202) 462-4724; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.