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Human rights crises: we need early action




September 4, 2001

This article is written to coincide with the U.S. publication this week of my book, "Like Water on Stone, The Story of Amnesty International".Penguin and Northeastern University Press.

The entry of Nato forces into Macedonia rises yet one more time the vexing issue of the value of military intervention. No one, whatever their ideological position should wish this mission ill, but one must watch with bated breath to see if this deployment led by British troops ends up becoming counterproductive. Doubters perhaps recall the Catholics of Northern Ireland welcoming the first deployment of British troops on the streets of Belfast with cups of tea, only to turn against them with a savage viciousness, once it became clear that London was in no great hurry to change the political order of the Protestant ascendancy and the IRA became adept at provoking retaliation on the Catholic populace.

Thirty years later the troops are still there and peace remains an elusive goal. Right now, the underdogs in Macedonia- the Albanian minority- are fulsome with praise at the arrival of NATO troops. But we wait to see if the tables will be turned if Nato responds to the understandable pressure from the Macedonian government to be rather more demanding in their weapons collection program. Besides, there are enough militants on the Albanian side who will not rest until there is a greater Albania, and it is in their interest to provoke both the Macedonian army and the Nato forces to the point that they visibly become an army of repression and intimidation.

Invariably with Western interventions we come back to the unanswered question: if decisions to militarily intervene are motivated by the quest for justice, why do the Western countries allow situations to deteriorate to such unspeakable injustice? It was a fair comment about the British government in the 1960s, which had effectively shunted Northern Ireland off the political map of the United Kingdom for the best part of half a century. It was the same over Kosovo when the Nato bombing of Belgrade started three years ago. The Nato governments were the same governments that were willing to wheel and deal with Slobodan Milosevic's government during the break-up of the original Yugoslavia and ignored events in Kosovo until the violence had reached a critical mass.

If situations are allowed to deteriorate too far we should not naively expect that some latter-day military intervention could put things rapidly right. By the time the TV cameras arrive it is probably already too late. Certainly this was the experience in Somalia. Eight years after the splendidly covered UN military intervention- in which the U.S. army, arriving on a well photographed beach, acted as an autonomous agent- there is no functioning government and no judiciary. The unsuccessful attempts of the U.S. Rangers to arrest one of the guerrilla leaders diverted them from the ostensible purpose of their mission. They killed and arbitrarily detained hundreds of Somali civilians, including children.

The point of all these horrendous examples is to underline the need for prevention. If we have our wits about us and not just our reactive impulses, we will observe that none of the human fights tragedies of recent years were unpredictable and perhaps not unavoidable. A year before the genocide in Rwanda, the UN special Rapporteur on Extrajudical Executions warned of what was to come. For years before the Indonesian security forces ran amok in East Timor, Amnesty International had repeatedly exposed the Indonesian government's gross violations of human rights, and in the provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya too.

Prevention work may be less newsworthy and more difficult to justify to the public than intervention in times of crisis. It requires the sustained investment of significant resources without the push from public opinion that happens when the media is rich with images of hardship, suffering and the wailing of the innocents. What, for example, are Western governments doing today about the new war that the bad man of West Africa, the Liberian leader, Charles Taylor, is stirring up in hitherto peaceful Cote d'Ivoire? Or what about what Amnesty International calls the "culture of acquiescence" in Lebanon where the authorities appear to go along with the harsh treatment of women prisoners? Or what about the Indian government's apparent indifference to the plight of the "disappeared" and their grieving families in areas of local conflict, in particular in Kashmir, Manipur and Assam?

Being vigorous and attentive to human rights abuses means that governments must be prepared to condemn violations of human rights by their allies as well as their foes. It demands a halt to the sale of arms to human rights violators. It means, in this new age of universal jurisdiction, that there be no impunity for unscrupulous army and police commanders or the politicians who tolerate, excuse or even encourage their behaviour.

Why should human rights activists be forced to choose because of the inertia of their governments between intervention and inaction? These are two forms of failure. Prevention is the answer. The problem is not lack of early warning, but early action.



I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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