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Human rights: Amnesty holds a mirror to America - The Times of India

William Raspberry ()
October 23, 1998

Title: Human rights: Amnesty holds a mirror to America
Author: William Raspberry
Publication: The Times of India
Date: October 23, 1998

It will surprise no one that Amnesty International has launched a
yearlong investigation of human rights violations. But it will shock a
lot of us to learn that the target of the investigation is America.

Human rights violations in America? Oh sure, an occasional overzealous
cop or negligent prison guard, but human rights violations? Isn't that a
Third World phenomenon?

William F Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, is
accustomed to the incredulity. Americans are accustomed to hearing about
civil rights violations, but violations of human rights sound like
crimes of despotic regimes, not of Western democracies.

"Take police brutality," says Mr Schulz. "I think most people, even
those who acknowledge it as a serious problem, will say that it is a
result of a few bad cops. A few more people will say, yes, there's a
racist tinge to it, and a few more people will say, yes, that's a civil
rights issue.

"But rarely is it framed as a violation not just of guarantees under the
US judicial system and the constitution but also as a violation of
guaranteed international human rights. And when you add that additional
layer or framework I think you reinforce the seriousness with which that
issue needs to be taken.

That is one of the reasons for Amnesty's US campaign. Another is its
wish to be taken as both serious and balanced - not just Western white
folk looking down their ethical noses at nonwhite heathens. Mr Schulz
thinks the campaign could be a good thing for the United States.

"To the extent to which its own house is not in order in human rights
terms, it compromises and jeopardizes the role that the US can play
internationally," he said. "To take one example, when the US ratified
the international covenant on civil and political rights a number of
years ago, it did so with reservation on the issue of the execution of
juvenile offenders. Having done so, it now makes it impossible for the
US to criticize the reservations that China is going to be taking as it
ratifies the international covenants."

What besides police brutality and juvenile executions would Amnesty be
looking at in America? Says Mr Schulz: "One of the more dramatic
developments in the US is the treatment of female inmates - the
systematic harassment of women in some prisons, including selling women
to male guards or male prisoners as sex slaves. In at least eight
states, it is not a criminal offense for there to be sexual contact
between guards and women prisoners. There's also the issue of shackling
women prisoners while they're giving birth - a practice that is more
common than most people realize."

Amnesty also will be looking at the increasing use of electronic devices
such as Tasers, stun guns and stun belts - that last being a device that
can be strapped around the waist of a prisoner and used to deliver a
50,000-volt shock from as far as 300 feet (91 meters) away. "An
eight-second shock invariably throws the prisoner to the ground,
incapacitates him for up to 15 minutes," says Mr Schulz. "Often the
person will defecate or urinate on himself. It's pretty gruesome."

Two other areas of Amnesty's concern, aside from its longtime opposition
to the death penalty in general, are the treatment of political asylum
seekers (who often are thrown into county jails along with common
criminals) and some of America's foreign policy positions. For example,
only the United States and Somalia have failed to ratify the UN
convention on the rights of the child - in America's case because it
outlaws the execution of juvenile offenders.

A major part of what Amnesty hopes to accomplish is the education of the
American public as to the seriousness of human rights breaches. "A lot
of people, including some who claim they've been supporters of Amnesty,
think Amnesty's values ought not to be applied to the United States -
who believe that it's somehow a violation of our charter."

In a way, it is the reaction of the middle-class speeder who, when
apprehended, demands to know why the arresting officer isn't out there
arresting criminals. It is not that he denies the violation, only that
he is convinced that he is not one of those who make the streets unsafe.

Americans tend to see Amnesty's "human rights violations" as symptomatic
when they happen in the Third World, anecdotal when they happen in
America. There may be less of a difference than Americans willing to
admit.


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