World of Brutalities

The annual report of Amnesty International is sobering, important reading, a reminder of how much remains to be done to realize the global commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted 40 years ago. That is the theme that permeates the pages of the report.

In 1987, the report found, at least 80 nations held prisoners of conscience, at least 90 nations tortured or ill treated prisoners, thousands of persons were victims of death squads operating in many nations, but particularly in Latin America, and in 39 nations, including the United States, more than 760 prisoners were put to death while 1,200 others were condemned to death in a total of 62 nations.

“There are many who justify their own inactivity by asserting that 40 years of human rights activity has produced nothing but failure and disillusion,” the report states. “It is important to respond to the critics, not by denying the scale of the challenge that remains, but by noting the advances made in the past 40 years. Today, unlike 1948, there is a human-rights movement that is genuinely worldwide.”

Amnesty International has proven an important element in that movement, operating in 60 nations. The conditions in 135 countries, more than ever before, are reported in the 1987 report. The organization’s only tool has been to focus public opinion on violations, identifying prisoners of conscience, and organizing global campaigns of publicity and letters of protest. Even some of the harshest of the world’s tyrants have bowed to that pressure.


For Americans, the report is particularly sobering because it serves as a reminder that the United States is among those found in violation of human rights. Much of the criticism of the United States is focused on the use of the death penalty, which Amnesty International opposes. The report notes that in 1987 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found the United States in violation of the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man for the execution of a 17-year-old. The report challenges the federal prison conditions under which three women were being held for crimes carried out as part of a political protest. And the report notes that Amnesty International adopted as a prisoner of conscience an American church worker imprisoned for helping undocumented aliens from El Salvador.

In terms of the death penalty, the report noted the difficulty in tabulating the numbers of executions. The report counted at least 164 executions in South Africa, 158 in Iran, 150 in a single prison in one month in Iraq, 54 in Saudi Arabia, and 25 in the United States, with 1,982 held on death rows in U.S. prisons at the end of 1987.

One of the nations that escaped criticism was Canada, praised for resisting efforts to reinstate the death penalty. Canada has enjoyed a declining homicide rate since the death penalty was abolished in 1976, the report noted.

The report concludes with a challenge for us all:


“As with any struggle, what will determine whether the human-rights movement goes forward or backwards is, in the end, the balance of forces. Our forces consist not of armies or governments but primarily of the men and women who are prepared to commit themselves to the struggle for human rights. This report demonstrates only too clearly how essential that continuing commitment remains.”