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The Practice of Selective Indignation : Annual Amnesty International report underscores tragedy of convenient indifference

July 14, 1991

Amnesty International's annual report on the status of human rights throughout the world once again makes for grim reading. Once again, it relates how scores of governments and ruling parties maintain power by routinely brutalizing, debasing and butchering their own citizens.

This chronicle of organized cruelties and injustices is a reminder that in much of the world, torture, official murder and "disappearances" remain instruments of state policy. It's necessary to scan only a few pages of the 1991 report to appreciate why a monitoring organization like Amnesty International is so urgently needed.

"The governments of the world stand in danger of sabotaging the hope of a new era for human rights," says the report. "Some governments are sabotaging it by the violations they commit directly; others by the selectivity with which they exert their influence. Even those governments which are committed to protecting the rights of their own citizens have other interests to pursue in their foreign relations, and these frequently conflict with the obligation to defend human rights worldwide."

Here is a description of Realpolitik as it is practiced in the area of international human rights that many governments might wish to deny but that few in truth can dispute.

To grasp the point, it's necessary only to recall the U.S. government's attitude toward human rights abuses in Iraq during most of the 1980s. Fixated on Iran as the greatest threat to peace and stability in the Persian Gulf, Washington found it expedient largely to ignore the wholesale and well-documented abuses of human rights that had already made Saddam Hussein's regime notorious. So, for that matter, did the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

Now there has been a reversal of fortunes. Iraq is regarded as an outlaw state, and the Western democracies--ironically, if not unexpectedly--find it in their interests not to dwell on Iran's continuing violations of human rights.

The democracies aren't unique, of course, in practicing selective indignation; it is a universal human trait as well as a universal political one. Still, if the democracies fail to take the lead in consistently calling attention to human rights abuses and vigorously protesting them wherever they occur, who will?

It isn't enough, says the Amnesty report, to herald the improved respect for human rights that has recently occurred in some countries. What must still be recognized is that in much of the world gross violations of human rights remain the norm.

Credit Amnesty International for the lead it has taken in publicizing those abuses, and in acting courageously to combat them.

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