Amnesty International: Inhuman Bondage

Torture knows no boundary — the legendary human-rights group draws the line

Silent Demonstration To Support Political Prisoners In Paris On January 25th, 1982. Credit: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

You could call it the human-rights archipelago. Amnesty International is a string of thousands of chapters stretching across the Western world and into the fringes of the third world. Each chapter is a kind of island of concern for human rights, wielding little power and attracting little notice. Each consists of 15 or 20 people who meet every so often to write letters or send telegrams on behalf of political prisoners elsewhere in the world. Altogether there are some half a million members, and their common goal is simple: to free prisoners of conscience, prevent torture and stop capital punishment.

Since Amnesty was founded exactly 25 years ago, it has helped thousands of people and saved untold lives. But there is no indication that it has succeeded in reducing the total number of political prisoners in the world, the incidence of torture or the number of people facing execution. Quite the contrary. Indeed, the harder you look for the grand total of Amnesty's achievements, the more it recedes into shimmering speculation.

More often than not, the demands from the human-rights archipelago are ignored. Put yourself inside the boots of the warden responsible for the roughly 3,000 prisoners in Diyarbakir prison in Turkey. The batches of telegrams from Amnesty support groups on behalf of a former mayor imprisoned there for political activism must be a nuisance — but perhaps not much more. The letters from Amnesty addressed to Fidel Castro's Boniato prison may never even get there. Cuba has a policy of largely ignoring Amnesty.

After a while, it becomes tempting to dismiss Amnesty as a balm for the conscience of the liberal middle class of the West. One starts to wonder if the rioting teenager in South Africa or the Muslim rebel in Afghanistan isn't doing more than any dozen Amnesty chapters to save people from being crushed by the state.

But Milan Kundera, the Czechoslovakian novelist, has said that "the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." Remembering — not revolution, not relief — is what Amnesty does best. It remembers the political prisoners whom the world would prefer to forget. If, in the first quarter century of its existence, its achievements seem disappointing and elusive, well, that may be because we don't remember how much the world has been changed since Amnesty International came into being.

Jose Zalaquett is a big, friendly man who goes by Pepe, a diminutive Latin nickname more appropriate for a little boy. Zalaquett's unlikely combination of qualities has made him a leader of the international human-rights community. Once a church lawyer in Chile, his native country, he was imprisoned for his human-rights work before being exiled and becoming a top official in Amnesty. Now he works in the quiet, carpeted offices of a Washington, D.C., think tank, studying the human-rights movement — where it is going and where it came from.

One of the first stories I heard about Amnesty was the tale of two young men in a bar in Lisbon who offered a toast to freedom and were imprisoned for seven years. According to Amnesty legend, a British lawyer read about the story while riding the subway to work and, by the time he arrived at his stop, had come up with the idea for Amnesty.

Whatever the accuracy of this account, Zalaquett locates the historical forces behind Amnesty's origins in the 18th-century Enlightenment and the great social movements it generated. "The abolition of slavery was the paramount issue of political ethics in the early 19th century," he explains. "Then the decolonization movement in the early 20th century, and now the human-rights movement." The women's-rights movement probably fits somewhere in there, but Zalaquett is undoubtedly correct that the human-rights movement — of which Amnesty International is the core — is the latest expression of the 200-year-old impulse in the West to expand the minimum definition of individual rights.

In fact, a British lawyer named Peter Benenson did found Amnesty, but he seems to have prepared the idea very carefully. His initial manifesto, "Appeal for Amnesty, 1961," appeared in the London Observer on May 28th, and it recounts no scenes of barroom martyrdom. Rather, Benenson stated, with the earnest charm of an amateur, the principles that would prove critical to Amnesty's success. He proposed to work for the release of "prisoners of conscience" — "any person who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing (in any form of words or symbols) any opinion which he honestly holds and which does not advocate or condone personal violence." Regimes of all types would be scrutinized in order "to avoid the fate of previous amnesty campaigns, which so often have become more concerned with publicising the political views of the imprisoned than with humanitarian purposes."

The original appeal also insisted that multiparty elections were a critical test of freedom, a notion that Amnesty never tried to put into practice, perhaps out of necessity. Zalaquett says that Amnesty secured its credibility in its early years by focusing on individuals and on what he calls the "apple pie of the human-rights movement: no torture, no killing, no political imprisonment without a fair trial."

Apple pie or no, Amnesty won little international recognition in the 1960s, and membership remained concentrated in northwestern Europe. One problem was that, in those excitable days, Amnesty's narrow and muted approach verged on quaintness. The rights of man were being defended at the barricades of Paris or in the jungles of Vietnam. Political prisoners would be freed by demonstrations, riots, revolutions — and these people were sending post cards!

Some in Amnesty pushed for change, arguing that people who took up arms against unjust economic systems were acting in good conscience. A few Amnesty members, mostly from Germany and the Netherlands, urged that the definition of prisoner of conscience be expanded to include people who had engaged in justified violence. But these motions, offered annually between 1970 and 1975, never came close to winning approval.

Paradoxically, it was by refusing to expand its political focus that Amnesty vastly expanded its political influence. Amnesty narrowed its concerns, paying more and more attention to treatment of prisoners. If the organization could not succeed in getting governments to free prisoners, it might at least succeed in making their lives in prison more bearable. That meant stopping torture, Amnesty began to realize in the early 1970s.

It is important to remember that the term torture, like political prisoner, has been transformed in the public mind since 1972. Richard Reoch, head of press and publications for Amnesty, remembers going through the photo files at Associated Press in London, looking for ways to illustrate a brochure. "I looked under 'Torture' and found two photos," he says. "One of Auschwitz and one of a sex club in Miami where customers paid to be tortured. That was it."

After Amnesty announced its international Campaign for the Abolition of Torture in December 1972, the organization took off. Membership doubled in the next three years, and the staff of the London headquarters, only 19 people in 1972, grew almost as fast.

Amnesty had reminded the world that torture is not a psychological aberration but a political institution. It is a means of affirming power. As Elaine Scarry points out in her critically acclaimed book The Body in Pain, often the goal of the torturer is not to extract information. "Intense pain is world destroying," she says. The prisoner has to acknowledge that his or her world has been destroyed and that the torturer's — the government's — world is all-encompassing.

In this context, Amnesty's effort to help torture victims is not so much a humanitarian gesture as a political one. As Scarry puts it: "The ongoing attempts of Amnesty International to restore to each person tortured his or her voice, to use language to let pain give an accurate account of itself, to present regimes that torture with a deluge of letters and telegrams. . .these acts. . .return the prisoner to his most elemental political ground."

It cannot be a historical accident that Amnesty's campaign against torture coincided almost exactly with the emergence of human rights as a major political issue in the West. Both were a sign the 1960s were over. Grand passions to remake the world were subsiding. The humbler goal of helping people in pain began to seem more realistic. Remember what the United States was going through in 1973. Trying to extricate itself from the nightmare of Vietnam and beginning to comprehend the depths of the Watergate scandal, America had lost its bearings. In the fall of 1973, congressmen began urging, for the first time, that human-rights requirements be incorporated into U.S. foreign policy. It was as if the Amnesty approach might be able to return the country itself to its "elemental political ground."

So too in Chile. The elected civilian government was overthrown in a military coup in September 1973, and Zalaquett subsequently became head of a church-sponsored human-rights office. Starting out with a staff of just five people, Zalaquett tried to help the victims of the new regime's repression and to restore even a minimal respect for human rights. In November, an Amnesty mission arrived. "It was the first time I'd ever heard of them," Zalaquett says. "I thought they were just another one of the international groups coming to Chile then. Then they sent a draft of their report and asked for more information about certain cases. I realized, 'Hey, these guys are serious.'"

The influence of the human-rights movement on international politics in the mid-1970s was as sudden as it was unmistakable. Most important, the Soviets and their allies signed the Helsinki Accords in 1975. The treaty ratified the post-World War II borders of Europe and required the governments to respect freedom of speech and the free flow of information. The communist governments never intended to respect these provisions, but throughout the Soviet bloc, human-rights groups began forming to demand compliance. By 1977, the U.S. State Department was issuing annual country-by-country reports, similiar to Amnesty's, on human-rights violations, and Jimmy Carter was stressing human rights in his inaugural address. It was altogether fitting that when the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize was announced, the winner was Amnesty International.

Perhaps nothing symbolized the ambiguity of Amnesty's success better than the phenomenon of disappearances. The Nobel publicity had boosted membership again, and the American media began citing Amnesty as a definitive source on governmental abuses of human rights. But repressive governments had gotten the message, too. In the 1970s, political dissidents began to be kidnapped on a massive scale by uniformed or civilian agents. They simply vanished. The practice was first used with frequency in Guatemala in the 1960s; in the mid-1970s, it became epidemic in Argentina, Chile, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, the Philippines and Central America.

"When Amnesty started in the early 1960s, long-term imprisonment was the standard mode of dealing with your political opponents," Pepe Zalaquett explains. "In the Seventies, you had more disappearances, more short-term detention, more torture." It was as if the repressive apparatus was adapting to the watchful eye of public opinion.

Amnesty had to adjust accordingly. In 1974, it started its Urgent Action Network with the idea of helping people in immediate danger of torture. Government authorities would be bombarded with telegrams and letters as soon as Amnesty heard word that someone had disappeared, been arrested or was facing interrogation. Zalaquett himself was an early beneficiary. Arrested without charges and held incommunicado in late 1975, he was "adopted" by his friends at Amnesty. The Chilean government threw him out of the country in April 1976.

Communist regimes posed more difficult problems for Amnesty. Their repressive ways and their insulation from public opinion, domestic and international, was nothing new. But the Helsinki Accords, the increase in Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union and the opening up to the West in general raised hopes everywhere. Everywhere, that is, but in the Kremlin. In the late 1970s, the Soviets and their client regimes arrested the leaders of committees monitoring compliance with the Helsinki Accords.

These arrests were every bit as cruel as those anywhere in the world. A Ukrainian lawyer named Levko Lukyanenko, who had been jailed from 1961 to 1976 for supporting Ukrainian autonomy from the Soviet Union, formed a Helsinki committee in 1977. He was promptly sent back to prison for another 15-year term at a notoriously harsh prison camp. He was adopted as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty, but his plight has never gotten much attention in the West.

It was not that Amnesty's efforts could have no effect on a regime as rigid as the Soviet's. In 1977, Amnesty prepared documentation of Soviet psychiatric abuses for presentation at a world convention of psychiatrists, severely embarrassing the Soviets. In 1980, Amnesty took up the case of Victor Davidov, a Soviet lawyer who had written a book critical of Stalin's legal system and had landed in a psychiatric prison for his trouble. Davidov says that as soon as the Amnesty mail began arriving, his food improved and he was given newspapers — as well as his own pen, the first time any prisoner had enjoyed such a privilege. And Davidov credits Amnesty for securing his early release in July 1983.

Still, the miserable prospects for human-rights improvements in communist countries helped generate a right-wing critique of the human-rights movement in the late 1970s. Amnesty was not usually criticized by name, nor its credibility directly challenged. But this argument, articulated most flamboyantly by a then-obscure academic named Jeane Kirkpatrick, insisted that the Amnesty approach resulted in a double standard toward noncommunist governments. Whatever the abuses perpetrated by authoritarian regimes, Kirkpatrick said, they had the potential for evolving into democracies. By contrast, communist governments never evolved into democracies. Thus, Kirkpatrick said, the absolute number of individual abuses was less important than the character of the regime. Authoritarian (meaning pro-Western) regimes were never as bad as totalitarian (meaning Marxist-Leninist or anti-American) regimes. This, of course, was the philosophy the Reagan administration brought to Washington in January 1981.

Amnesty officials had heard it all before. Kirkpatrick's argument, ironically, recycled the leftist arguments of the early 1970s. Then, the "institutionalized violence" of capitalism should have given Amnesty more sympathy for the violent insurgent. Now, the "institutionalized violence" of communism should give Amnesty more sympathy for the violent authoritarian.

Ian Martin, the head of Asia research at Amnesty's London office, doesn't pretend he can get an accurate picture from such "closed societies" as Vietnam and China. "To me, this means that closed countries require long-term, consistent attention," he says. "But even in situations where the short-term possibilities for change are quite difficult, it's still important that we be there to witness.

"Our job is simply to see that human-rights safeguards are put into the country's political system. That means that people are not being detained, not being tortured," Martin says. I put the conservative rejoinder to him: "But is it sensible or realistic to think that, say, China's communist political system could ever have such safeguards?" "That's a question we wouldn't answer," Martin replies quietly.

To those on the right, Martin's non-answer — the essence of Amnesty's whole approach — betrays the symptoms of "moral equivalence," of believing communist and noncommunist political systems are ethically equal. To be sure, a current of sentimental liberalism is common among Amnesty's relentlessly decent members. But in general, the right's suspicions of Amnesty betray a lack of understanding of its mission.

Zalaquett, who found his way to the United States after he was exiled and who worked his way up the Amnesty hierarchy, says, "Some Amnesty people believe that human-rights work is a substitute for politics. But most people, including the people who run Amnesty, have a much more intelligent idea: that you can have your human-rights views that are very important and you can have your political views, which are very important too." Indeed, you would think that right-wingers might recognize that the impulse to lay ideology aside for a moment and think only of individuals in pain is profoundly conservative.

Victor Davidov, who now lives in Washington, D.C., points out — probably justifiably — that because Amnesty members tend to be liberal, they get more excited about working on behalf of prisoners in El Salvador than they do about those in the Soviet Union. But he denies that human-rights activists have to choose between trying to change political systems and helping individual victims. "If you help one person," he says simply, "you help change the system."

Even the conservatives themselves are backing away from their criticism of Amnesty. In 1985, nine former commanders of the Argentine military were tried for directing a program of "disappearances" that killed at least 9,000 civilians between 1976 and 1982. Five were convicted. Some of these same military officers had been warmly welcomed to the U.S. in 1981 by Jeane Kirkpatrick, then U.S. ambassador to the UN, and other top members of the Reagan administration. All were repeatedly defended by Kirkpatrick and other ranking administration officials.

Reagan's dalliance with this gang of criminals is so embarrassing that discussion of the whole episode is now taboo among conservatives. These days the administration is busy trying to convince the world that its approach to human-rights questions is evenhanded. Jack Healey, the executive director of Amnesty's U.S. office, says that administration officials have never been more friendly or more receptive to Amnesty than they are today. He notes, too, that Amnesty membership in the United States has doubled in the Reagan era.

Amnesty "can change the moral climate of the entire world, even in totalitarian countries and under repressive regimes," says Yelena Bonner, the wife of Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov (both are Amnesty prisoners of conscience). In the last decade, dozens of human-rights groups around the world have begun trying to hold their governments accountable for violations. Political prisoners like Sakharov, like Lech Walesa in Poland or Kim Dae Jung in South Korea or Nelson Mandela in South Africa, are now able to influence governments that once would have ignored them. When Parade magazine gave prominent coverage in May 1985 to a Cuban prisoner of conscience named Ricardo Bofill, he was promptly released. Improbable as it may seem in such a dangerous world, powerful governments regard it as unwise to ignore Amnesty International any longer.

But it is really no favor to Amnesty to credit it with changing the world — even if it has. Amnesty's work, several officials told me, is like "dripping water on a rock." Better just to say that the dripping goes on. A friend of Victor Davidov's was put in a psychiatric hospital last summer, but Amnesty's Urgent Action Network went into action, and he was released after just four weeks. And in July, Pepe Zalaquett will return to Chile. A decade ago, no Chileans had heard of Amnesty. Today, he says, Amnesty has nearly 30 chapters there.