Sep 1, 1978

Amnesty International: Enemy of the State?

“This variety of action programs makes AI an ideal institution for people of almost any political persuasion to join.”

“Everybody asks what do I need and what they can send me,” wrote Soviet “prisoner of conscience” Mark Nashpits to Amnesty International’s Adoption Group No. 17 in Great Neck, New York. “I need freedom.”

That simple plea from the prisoner in Tshita, Siberia, to the group of middle- and upper-class Americans with whom he had been corresponding had momentarily brought two completely different worlds into contact: the dark, isolated, lonely world of a prisoner had touched that relatively free, comfortable existence with which most of us are so routinely familiar. The contrast was a bit jolting. Concrete prison walls had met hamburgers and drive-in movies. Electric-shock torture implements had been introduced to portable hair dryers. Muttered complaints about rush-hour traffic had come face to face with desperate screams for a sadist’s mercy. Our relatively trivial day-to-day problems had temporarily intersected the nearly hopeless existence of an innocent human being, enslaved and tortured by agents of his government.

This is the essence of Amnesty International: making the world aware of governments’ worst crimes against individual human beings.

Torture has been a stain on human history since long before the Spanish Inquisition made it into a holy institution. Today, in the modern scientific age, the very latest discoveries of the very brightest minds of our time are applied in the fast-growing field of Torture Technology. Sophisticated experts in medicine, psychiatry, biochemistry, and many other fields pool their intellectual resources to determine precisely the combinations of pain, isolation, fear, intimidation, demoralization, discomfort, sexual abuse, drugs and other techniques of human degradation which will destroy the will while keeping the body physically alive, and perhaps even conscious in order to prolong the pain. It used to be necessary in order to save our souls. Now it is necessary to save us from communism, or from “capitalism,” or from terrorism.

Even the Inquisitors did not try to claim that torturing people like this would make this world a better one.

According to Amnesty International, torture is used by over 60 national governments today, and is used regularly and systematically as a normal, operating official policy by at least a third of them. Concern with politics is thus of crucial importance today for the simple reason that any other contributions we may try to make to the lives of our fellow men and women—from nuclear energy to drug research, from medicine to computer science—runs the serious risk of being appropriated and transformed by governments into tools of repression. We may study pain and the nervous system to find ways of alleviating human suffering, only to have our skills abused by sadistic “doctors” (as, all over the world, torture experts nearly always call themselves) who are trying to maximize human suffering. Political power will continue to divert the productive efforts of human beings to its own purposes, to protecting its own privilege by crushing any resistance, until enough people come to realize that they have the strength to stop these “official” criminals.

History knows no social force as potent as an overwhelming popular consensus: a people terrorized, taxed, conscripted or otherwise bullied into saying, “We’re fed up,” and removing tyranny. Governments are only as solid as the myths they perpetrate about how necessary they are, myths whose frail foundations have already been exposed. And only mass dissemination of such exposes to the state’s victims is necessary before statist mythology goes the way of religious apologia for inquisitions.

Amnesty International is one of the world’s most powerful organizations for arousing public opinion against these blatant abuses of human rights. It engages in research, documenting and verifying the mistreatment of prisoners all over the world, and publishes its findings for the historical record. But more importantly, it seeks to enrage the public with these brutal facts, to disgust them into political action, to shock them out of their lethargy into doing something. It reports on fingernails that are ripped out of human hands, because it believes that if most people realized this was going on they would want to stop it. It details the plunging of hot irons into terror-stricken eyes, because it believes that if they were your eyes you would not want this crime to be forgotten. When Amnesty International publishes grisly accounts of crushing genitals, sexually abusing women and children, forcing people to crawl over nails and then stand to receive their daily beatings, denying them sleep, food, toilet facilities, communication, trial by jury, medical care … it is not because its members can stomach these outrages any more than the rest of us. On the contrary, it is just because these crimes make them sick that they insist on repeating them. It is bad enough that these things happen at all, but when they happen in silence, when they go on occurring regularly, routinely, sanctioned and excused by the highest leaders of the world’s governments, then none of us can afford the luxury of averting his eyes from the horror.

Lavoie,AmnestyInternational-1If we on the “outside” are serious about wanting to put an end to these subhuman practices we must at least be willing to become and remain informed. AI is the leading research organization for documenting extreme abuses of rights around the world, and for this reason alone ought to be supported wholeheartedly by every decent person. We must identify the people who are both permitting and perpetrating these crimes, and we must unmask the laws and institutions that make them possible. And then we must fight them.

With their long, though increasingly corrupted, tradition of individual liberty, Americans should be in the forefront of this battle. We should be particularly concerned when we learn that the American state, while not an especially blatant offender directly against its own citizens, aids in numerous ways the continuation of this gross affront to humanity. Our tax dollars have helped to prop up many of the most obnoxious of these official criminals: CIA agents have trained torturers; U.S. Immigration Service thugs have blocked victims from escaping the sadists’ knives. And they are still doing so. And they are doing this with our tax dollars. We cannot avoid these unpleasantries by ignoring them. We are involved.

Lavoie,AmnestyInternational-2Just to take one example of the complicity of the U.S. government, consider the case of the Phillipines. The imposition of martial law in September 1972 was (not coincidentally) simultaneous with a 106 percent increase in military aid from the United States, supplying the dictatorship with tools of repression at the rate of $40 million a year (see Bello & Rivera, The Logistics of Repression). According to the Phillipine government’s own estimates, within a few weeks of this American-financed suspension of traditional liberties, some 30,000 individuals had been arrested and detained. President Marcos has almost completely undermined the formerly independent civilian judicial system, shifting the law into his military courts. AI reports that the torture of martial law detainees has been “widespread and systematic.” For example, of 107 prisoners from eight detention centers that AI interviewed, 71 reported that “they had been subjected to brutal treatment and torture” (Matchbox, Winter 1977). As usual, these reports were scrupulously doublechecked against independent testimony, and many specific torturers were named by prisoners from different detention centers who had had no previous opportunity to meet. Typical was the ordeal of two sisters who were forced to watch each other endure 45 minutes of electroshock each:

You can’t help screaming—it makes you writhe all over …

We had hallucinations afterwards—we each lost five pounds from the torture sessions. We couldn’t walk straight. We had burns on our hands. They didn’t allow us to sleep for almost two nights running. We were threatened with rape from the very beginning.

These are not isolated instances of abuse by a few sadistic cops. They are representative of a systematic, government-sanctioned program of repression which Marcos could not have instituted without the substantial assistance of the American government.

Then there are the United States immigration restrictions—vicious cold-war relic that accepts refugees from communist countries, but turns away victims from right-wing tyrannies on the grounds that they would compete for American jobs. Beyond the fact that there are good economic arguments why open immigration would improve the standard of living of American workers (see Richard Ebeling’s article in the June 1978 LR), does this make you proud to be an American? Would you personally keep an innocent person in prison to keep him from competing freely with you for your job? Yet there are agents of our government, acting in our name, doing precisely that. There are people in South American prisons who, but for the U.S. government, would be free men and women, and who are mistreated by their own governments every day.

E.L. Doctorow reminds us that we cannot avoid these events by regarding them as other people’s problems. Their horrible world is closer to us than it seems:

You and I might by nature avoid stepping on insects, but the torturers of Iran and Chile are as close to us as the child is to the parent. They are our being, born from our loins. A terrible connection is made with these dark exotic faraway places, these barbaric civilizations who do not have our tradition of freedom and justice: they are ours. We made them with our Agency for International Development, and our Office of Public Safety. We made them with our Drug Enforcement Administration and our

Amnesty reports on violations from all contemporary political systems, from fascist Argentina to agrarian-communist China, from monarchist-feudal Iran to racist-apartheid South Africa, from Marxist-Leninist Ethiopia to “democratic” Italy. When AI-USA’s Larry Cox was asked if there were any countries in the world which stand out as at least relatively decent in this nauseating parade of cold-blooded cruelty, he was able to tentatively suggest two—after a long pause that said as much as his answer. Amnesty International has a lot of work cut out for it.

How Amnesty works

“I am grateful to be free. I know in large part this is because during my years of confinement many people associated with Amnesty International steadfastly continued to bring my case before public opinion and state authorities.”—Vladimir B. Bukovsky

Amnesty International was founded in 1961, after an appeal by British lawyer Peter Benenson. It quickly became an international organization, largely on the efforts of Sean MacBride (Nobel Peace Prize laureate, 1974), and today has more than 168,000 members and supporters in 107 countries. Its International Secretariat in London has a 100-member staff that handles nearly 5000 cases of human rights violations each year. From June 1976 to June 1977 AI responded to violations of human rights in 116 countries, sent missions and observers to 22 countries, issued 70 news releases on 36 countries, published extensive reports on 19 countries, and dispensed over $200,000 in relief to prisoners and their families. In that same period, the cases of 2,285 new prisoners were taken up and 1,657 adopted prisoners were released.

The central activity of the organization is case work for individual prisoners, conducted by its 2000 adoption groups and national sections. Each group works for at least two “prisoners of conscience” from countries other than its own—countries that are balanced geographically and politically to ensure impartiality. (Interestingly enough, by attacking both left-wing and right-wing governments, AI unwittingly induces a bias for libertarianism.) Amnesty does not advocate or condemn any particular form of government but simply reports on, and applies public pressure against, severe human rights violations wherever they occur. The London research staff supplies each adoption group with detailed information about each particular prisoner’s situation—e.g., which officials in the state or prominent individuals in the community to send appeals to, what to say or not to say to improve the prisoners’s chances for more decent conditions or release, what specific institutional obstacles (such as immigration barriers) there may be and how to confront or circumvent them. Writing politely worded letters to officials may seem a desperately futile gesture against people with the ethical constitution of torturers, but the amazing fact is that AI gets results. In its 16 years it has aided in securing the release of over 8,000 of the 15,000 individual prisoners of conscience on whose behalf its members have worked.

Beyond its adoption groups’ case work, AI has a variety of specific projects to amass broader organizational pressure where needed. It sends missions to various countries to investigate the treatment of prisoners—wherever the countries will let them in. It produces well-documented reports on investigated countries, in addition to publishing its quarterly, Matchbox and its annual A.I. Report, which details violations in over a hundred countries. Amnesty also organizes separate campaigns which permit members to select the issues they want to concentrate on: the Campaign to Abolish Torture, the Prisoner of the Month Campaign (which focuses broader organizational strength on a particularly difficult case), Prisoner of Conscience Week (the second week of October), greeting cards for prisoners, specific country campaigns, and “Urgent Actions” (emergency cases in which time is dangerously short—due, for example to the failing health of a prisoner, his imminent execution, or his ongoing torture).

This variety of action programs makes AI an ideal institution for people of almost any political persuasion to join. This carefully structured organization isn’t just a collection of well-intentioned folks flailing in vain at the behemoth states of our time. It is an effective, professionally run, flexible, and yet specifically focused activist organization. It does not exist merely to assuage the guilty consciences of middle-class liberals. It is a brilliantly designed force on the political scene and, especially now that it has received the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize, it stands a reasonably good chance of significantly changing the world.

Amnesty is absolutely independent of any government, and, due no doubt to its extensive research, in fact shows a healthy distrust of all of them. David Hawk, the Executive Director of AI-USA, for example, writes that “sovereign states—with their age-old and inevitable tendencies to repress the rights and liberties of their citizens—cannot be entrusted to preserve and protect human rights” (Matchbox, Fall 1977). And Dr. Mumtaz Soysal, vice-chairman of the International Executive Committee of AI, succinctly declares that “human rights will not be protected if left solely to the governments of this world” (Matchbox, Winter 1978).

Thus the organization wisely avoids using one state to pressure another, recognizing that no one government can accuse another without hypocrisy, and that human rights, as Larry Cox of AI-USA has remarked, should not become reduced to a mere tool of foreign policy. (Indeed, an aggravated international scene and its product, war, are the primary breeding grounds for rights violations.) Instead, it stands outside of governments, utilizing its growing resources to amass public opinion on an international scale to pressure all governments to limit their abuses of rights.

Amnesty has had a significant positive influence on the United Nations, with which it has consultative status, and it constantly presses for observance of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. International bodies which represent the very governments that commit these atrocities cannot be expected to defend human rights consistently. Thus a recurrent UN debate has been waged over whether so-called “economic and social rights” can be used to justify watering down demands for political liberty. In this battle, Amnesty has unwaveringly come down for an absolute commitment to individual liberty. Commenting in his address to the recent AI-USA annual meeting in San Francisco, C.L. Lamb emphasized the fundamental difference between these kinds of “rights”:

Civil and political rights are capable of being ensured by restraint on the part of government. Economic and social rights, on the other hand, can only be assured by the adoption of policies geared to positive action on the part of governments …. It is difficult, if not impossible, to contemplate a uniform standard for the right to an adequate standard of living.

AI does not explicitly reject these so-called “socio-economic rights” the way a libertarian would. While we would argue that these “rights” actually constitue severe infringements on the rights of businessmen to establish and profit from any noncoercive business ventures they care to undertake, Amnesty spokesmen tend to concede that they are legitimate rights, but rights which cannot override basic political rights. AI is committed to allowing nothing to serve as an excuse for violating the simple political rights the organization is specifically mandated to uphold. Indeed, if Amnesty had the resources behind it, the consistent application of its own defense of prisoners of conscience would invariably lead it to defend peaceful tax rebels and “free-enterprisers of conscience” everywhere. And we all know where that avenue leads!

Does AI go far enough?

“Amnesty International was not founded to work for general economic, social and political justice in the various countries of the world—however much its members may wish to do so, and are free to do so through other bodies—but to bring relief to individual victims of injustice.”—Amnesty International Handbook

AI clearly is not a libertarian organization. It does not defend actively every category of individual rights. It cannot be expected to come to the rescue when a businessman is prevented from hiring someone at a mutually agreeable wage, or when a prostitute is routinely jailed for practicing her profession, or when a young person is forced to attend public schools. Amnesty rather concentrates its resources on what Larry Cox calls the “classic prisoner” cases—i.e., those particularly gross violations of basic rights which most people would immediately recognize as such.

Some libertarians might argue that since all rights are indivisible, it is arbitrary and hypocritical to focus on certain commonly recognized instances of coercion to the exclusion of less popular but equally unjust violations of rights. If the conscription of conscientious objectors, which Amnesty opposes, is to be condemned, while taxation of conscientious objectors for the income they earn from January to May is to be condoned, is this not a fundamental inconsistency which principled libertarians should forthrightly denounce? If governments fail to assemble via the draft enough cannon fodder for their wars, is it then justice when they coercively collect taxes to pay mercenaries instead? Can one justifiably object to a war by refusing to fight it but not by refusing topay for it?

Yet Amnesty is not a broad-based political movement that is responsible for addressing all social and political issues, and should not be judged by such standards. It is a specific, ad hoc organization that purposefully (and wisely) limits its goals, and remains noncommittal over all questions outside its carefully circumscribed mandate. From a strategic point of view, it would be foolish for Amnesty International to bite off a broader challenge than it can chew effectively.

There can be no question but that AI’s defense of human rights is incomplete. But it is no condemnation of an ad hoc organization to say that it doesn’t do everything. It is the most impotent of imaginable strategies to reject every cause that does not fully coincide with one’s complete political ideal, or to reject possible allies on one issue only because they are our opponents on another. If, by joining a cause, one step toward liberty can be taken without directly worsening anyone’s freedom, then one should join that cause. We must always promote consistency in the application of rights, of course, but we cannot afford to insist on consistency among all allies as a precondition for our every political action.

Even so, it is important to realize that AI is so designed as to have a natural tendency to universalize its own understanding of human rights. A “prisoner of conscience” is defined as anyone imprisoned for his beliefs who has neither used nor advocated violence—which is close enough to the libertarian principle of nonaggression to provide for a considerable overlap in evaluating individual cases. Amnesty’s continual application of this principle forces it to face up to the tricky cases brought before its Borderline Committee. Last year, AI decided to accept a gay rights case as within its mandate; and as the group’s influence grows, it encounters broader and broader appeals. That Amnesy, like libertarianism, is fundamentally concerned with applying universally a simple principle of freedom, makes this organization ideally susceptible to being nudged, by its own borderline cases, into a continually more comprehensive defense of liberty. Amnesty’s mandate seeks to remove from the world’s prisons all those who have neither used nor advocated violence, which is one giant step in the libertarian direction of also removing all those who have notinitiated the use of violence.

Consider the following example: In 1976, Admiral Sudomo, head of the Indonesian state security agency KopKamtib, announced that government’s three year “release program” which, translated from the Orwellian newspeak of the announcement, actually meant altering the location and surroundings, but not the essence, of prison. Between 1969 and 1977, the government relocated on Burn Island some 14,000 of the estimated 55,000 to 100,000 political prisoners it holds (most of whom are now in their 13th year of imprisonment without trial). This is exactly the kind of borderline case that expands the application of the slogan, “release those imprisoned for their beliefs who have neither used nor advocated violence.” This case highlights the question of just what a prison is. Is it only the “classic”: the concrete walls, barbed wire, and guard towers? Or can it not also be a Burn Island? These “liberated” prisoners have been forced to clear a tropical jungle, to build their own detention camps, and to produce food and livestock, one-third of which is seized by their military guards.


The Indonesian government offers the same justification for its “resettlement centers” that the U.S. government offers for its immigration policy: unemployment, this time in Java. Once again a government tries to solve an employment problem by restricting people’s free choices about where they live, what they produce, and what they do with their property. Once again a government is using coercion against innocent persons to “protect” jobs. Beyond the fact that no jobs are created by such coercive activities, but are only shuffled around at a net loss to everyone, who among us would have the impudence to defend such practices? Who among us can excuse keeping an innocent man in a prison, or on an island, or out of a country, to keep him from competing with us in free, voluntary transactions?

Happily, the Indonesian government’s excuses for its crimes have fallen on deaf ears at AI. That organization’s defense of individual rights as inviolate against any claims for so-called “socio-economic rights” has kept it from exonerating the Indonesian authorities for their no doubt sincere concern over their unemployment statistics. And Amnesty’s humanistic attitude has kept it from being conned either by this disguised prison or by the flimsy arguments for delaying the full release of these prisoners. These people, who have already suffered so much, AI has declared, “should not be forced to endure for another day the harsh conditions of prison or separation from their families”—most of whom, not too surprisingly, did not want to move to Buru Island. Amnesty has distinctly rejected the government’s lame suggestion that these people have been freed, stating concisely that “[f]orced exile to a distant and harsh location does not constitute a ‘release’ of political prisoners.”

As an oppressive state tries to relieve itself of international public pressure by changing the form of its coercion while retaining its essential content, Amnesty is naturally led to block these evasions at every turn. Once you begin to examine the essence rather than the surface appearance of governmental activities, the logic for extending the defense of rights to all areas becomes inescapable. A prison is, in essence, only a special and extreme point along the continuum of constraints upon liberty.

No doubt the founders of AI were unaware of the full radical implications of their own principles, and its members cannot be expected to immediately carry this logic as far as we would like. But especially with our influence from within the organization, libertarians can be a positive, universalizing influence. We can take some pride in a significant comment an AI leader in New York made to LR Editor Roy Childs and myself: “You guys [libertarians] are like Amnesty International’s good conscience, always keeping us honest.”

Overlapping goals

“In a world of increasing brutality, internationalization of violence, terrorism and torture, Amnesty International used its forces for the protection of human values. Its efforts on behalf of defending human dignity against violence and subjugation have proved that the basis for peace in the world must be justice for all human beings.”—citation for the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize

Whether one endorses AI on every single issue or not, libertarians should support this humane and effective human rights organization. It is precisely the kind of international, principled, strategically sophisticated, and widely respected group with which libertarians can enthusiastically involve themselves. Far from being a reason to avoid the organizaztion, the fact that Amnesty’s members and leaders are not fully consistent advocates of liberty is rather another good reason for joining it. Here is a group whose clearly stated goals overlap ours, and whose members are advancing our interests even though many of them have never heard of libertarianism. In their daily activism these people continually confront some of the most grotesque of the crimes of governments. Such people should be as ripe for our ideas as we are for their activism. What better opportunity can we imagine, not only for increasing the clout of our own activities but also for influencing these partial allies in the direction of our wider perspective?

But more importantly, we should remember what libertarianism is all about. The people of the world do not need to tolerate the treatment of human beings in ways the ASPCA would not tolerate for dogs. We have the power, if we are willing to work for it, to wield the tremendous weight of an international popular consensus against such atrocities. Let us echo the appeal by E.L. Doctorow(Matchbox, Summer 1977) and commit ourselves, as a first step toward achieving a free society, to the modest proposals of Amnesty International:

If you or I do not condone torture, who among us does? If we abhor gangsters and tyrants and dictators, who among us installs them in their power? Let us have their names, who act in ours.

Don Lavoie is a graduate student in economics at New York University. His essay “The Decay of Radical Socialism” appeared in the October 1977 issue of LR.