issue 161 - July 1986
Photo: Blair Seitz / Camera Press
Turning back the tide
Around the world regimes of varying political stripes routinely
torture and imprison their citizens. Sometimes the wave of state terror
seems so strong it appears we can do little to help. But, as Betsy Hartmann
explains, Western solidarity and support can make a critical difference.
SO far the news in 1986 has been mixed. Dictators fell in the Philippines and in Haiti, but any sense of rejoicing at the demise of those despots was quickly overshadowed by more killings in South Africa, kidnappings and airline bombs, the US raid on Libya and the persistent violation of human rights in countries around the world. Bad news terrorizes as effectively as any bomb. It reinforces a chain of despair and inaction. Newscasters don't tell us the good news: that ordinary people actually can do something to help.
Many Western countries financially support Third World regimes that use terror against their own citizens. But unlike those people Westerners still have the luxury of participating in elections, demonstrations and pressure groups without threat of arrest or torture. There are things people can do to help - and many people are already doing them.
One of the first is to stop giving aid to known human-rights violators. In the US, for example, an astounding $11.7 billion went for military and security aid in 1985 and only $1.8 billion for humanitarian and long-term economic assistance. Among the main recipients of US military aid are El Salvador, South Korea, Pakistan and Turkey - all recognized human-rights abusers.
While Western military aid directly strengthens repression in many Third World countries, supposedly 'neutral' development aid can help keep undemocratic regimes in power. In the Philippines, aid from Western governments and agencies like the World Bank not only financed Imelda Marcos' designer shoe collection. It also greased the Marcos patronage machine - allowing the family to buy the support of landowners and businessmen and stave off social and economic reforms.
Western-based multinational corporations doing business with repressive regimes can also be lobbied. 'We only have to look at issues like investment in South Africa and the infant formula campaign to see the impact of 15 years of church advocacy on US corporations,' says Timothy Smith, Executive Director of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) in New York. The ICCR is a coalition of over 200 church groups with some $12 billion in investments.
Tactics used by groups like the ICCR and Canada's Task Force on the Churches and Corporate Responsibility include shareholder resolutions, talks with management and boycotts. And they bring results - like the 1981 Infant Formula Marketing Code which ended the often unscrupulous sales techniques of babymilk producers in the Third World. This year ICCR's top priorities include challenging corporate involvement in President Reagan's Star Wars program, which the church-funded group brands a dangerous escalation of the arms race.
The fight to stop the damaging activities of government and business aid to regimes that rule by terror can be reinforced in other ways. 'Aid can be channelled very effectively to liberation organizations through private voluntary agencies,' says Mary Corkery of OXFAM-Canada. Although OXFAM-Canada does not give aid to the military wing of liberation movements, it supports their development programs. In El Salvador, the Canadian agency funds health and literacy projects in guerrilla-run zones. And in Eritrea it works with the Eritrean Relief Organization trying to provide clean water and helping to train barefoot doctors.
Solidarity groups are also important. Human-rights abuses in 'friendly' Third World countries often go unreported in the Western press. By creating their own information networks, support groups can sway public opinion and sympathetic officials within government
In Europe, the Bangladesh International Action Group (BIAG) has campaigned against mistreatment of dissidents and coercive government population policies. As a result, European aid agencies have become more critical of their governments' involvement in World Bank population projects. And the Swedish government has withdrawn altogether from the Bank's Bangladesh family planning programme.
Support for political prisoners is one of the most direct and effective ways people can address state terrorism. With over half a million members in 150 countries, Amnesty International is the largest organization working to free prisoners of conscience and to stop torture and execution. Members of Amnesty's Urgent Action Network respond immediately with letters and telegrams on behalf of prisoners in danger.
'When the first 200 letters came, the guards gave me back my clothes,' writes an ex-political prisoner from the Dominican Republic. 'Then the next 200 letters came, and the prison director came to see me.
The letters kept coming ... 3,000 of them. The President was informed. The letters still kept arriving, and the President called the prison and told them to let me go.'
Political refugees provide both a challenge and opportunity to activists. In the US many churches now give sanctuary to illegal refugees from Central America, who face imprisonment or death if they are deported. In Denmark and Canada torture rehabilitation centers help to heal the physical and psychological wounds of torture survivors. In Toronto alone, where the Canadian Center for the Investigation and Prevention of Torture is located, there are an estimated 5,000 torture survivors. Many of these people also need assistance in integrating themselves back into their families and into the new community.
'It is important to understand the human dimension of terror and torture,' says Marilyn Nucci, an Amnesty activist in Boston, Massachusetts. She recommends starting with one's own neighborhood, finding out if there are any refugees with special needs whom you can assist.
'Torture is the ultimate in depersonalization,' she explains. 'We need effective organizations to work for human rights, but we also have to ask what we can do as individuals. Little things can make a difference. A letter on behalf of a political prisoner gives us a connection with the person, and with other people in that country who are suffering.'
In the end, making that connection is what it is all about. The media and politicians encourage us to put on blinkers. We don't see how Western aid and armaments often bolster state terror in our own societies: rubber bullets in Northern Ireland, police brutality against racial minorities, the steady erosion of civil liberties in the name of so-called 'national security.' Making the connection is empowering - because it shows that all struggles for social justice are connected and there is no such thing as being alone.
Betsy Hartman is co-author of A Quiet Violence: View from a Bangladesh Village (Zed Press). She has just completed a critique of population control, The Strategic Womb: Women and the War on Population.
Trouble next door
George Fisher reports from Sydney on
In 1974, Portugal's newly elected socialist government decided to get rid of the remnants of its faded colonial empire. The move paved the way for self-rule in East Timor - a tiny Catholic island at the tip of the mainly Muslim Indonesian archipelago.
The revolutionary Front for the Independence of East Timor (FRETLIN) soon gained control. But not for long. In October 1975 the Indonesian army invaded, and poorly armed FRETLIN troops fled to remote mountain areas.
Indonesia stepped up the pressure by aerial bombing villages and burning crops. Desperate from hunger , thousand of families were flushed from the mountains and herded into Indonesian controlled settlements. The Catholic Church estimates more than 100,000 East Timorese deaths since 1975 - either by starvation or directly at the hands of the Indonesian military.
Australia, a close neighbour, was quick to respond. The Australian East Timor Association (AETA) was formed in December 1975, on the day of the Indonesian invasion. George Scott, from the Australian Council for Overseas Aid, had been in East Timor only days earlier and roundly condemned Indonesia's actions. AETA's 16 members agencies, while not endorsing FRETLIN, called for self-determination in East Timor.
Under Scott's influence they immediately sent a delegation to the United Nations to press the ex-colony's case. The Australian government rallied to this call for a time, but then withdrew its support. Trade and military links with resource-rich Indonesia seemed to take precedence over the slaughter of the Timorese people.
This is a crucial year for both the Timorese and their Australian supporters. East Timor is high on the UN agenda - despite the Indonesian Foreign Minister's wish to 'obliterate' East Timor from the UN debate.
As a result, AETA is now busy lobbying the Australian government to support self-determination in East Timor. AETA's members are also making sure the issue stays hot by enlisting well-known Australians, politicians and entertainers, to speak out publicly. And with good results; a recent Melbourne conference drew more than 1,500 people.
In the wake of the Indonesian Government's recent threat to restrict Australian tourist visas there is mounting pressure to censure Indonesia for human-rights violations in East Timor. Says AETA activist David Scott: 'Better now than never. But if Australia had taken a firm stand ten years ago we would all be better off.'