Americans take their freedom for granted: They hear a joke about President Clinton and Congress and they laugh. But in many other countries, as Amnesty International, the human rights watchdog, points out in its annual report, jokes about national leaders are no laughing matter. A wrong word about an official can result in prison, or worse.
The London-based Amnesty International is an invaluable resource for those who care about human rights. Though it depends on the targets of oppressive governments for much of its information, its reports are considered highly credible. Perhaps most significant of all its noteworthy work is the annual report, which proves a general picture of state cruelty and oppression the world over.
Some of the worst trouble spots are in the headlines. Haiti, Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina, not surprisingly, made the list of countries where politics motivates killings, torture and imprisonment without benefit of trial.
In Haiti, Amnesty depended largely on the neutral reports of observers from the United Nations and the Organization of American States to document numerous executions of supporters of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
In Rwanda, Amnesty reported "systematic and unprovoked killings of the Tutsi minority," in the strife that broke out in April and noted the threat of the massacres spreading to neighboring Burundi.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, politics motivated hundreds of "deliberate and arbitrary killings" according to Amnesty, which attributed blame to "all sides."
Amnesty is particularly valuable because it is even-handed. It notes atrocities of oppression by both right-wing and left-wing regimes. And no region of the world is unblemished, according to Amnesty's 1994 survey of 151 countries.
Since 1961, more than a million volunteers have worked for Amnesty International, helping in various ways to fight the execution, imprisonment and torture of people solely because of their beliefs, religion, race, gender, ethnic origin or politics.
This Amnesty army is essential. If such evils are made known, perhaps they will not go unpunished; the world will respond with action rather than rhetoric. That at any rate is the hope.