issue 244 - June 1993
The two-faced West
Governments in the rich world are keen to export the notion of civil
and political rights. But this cause is weakened by their past hypocrisy in dealing
with the human-rights records of their allies — and their opponents.
The Sandinista regime’s punishment of people assisting the contra guerillas causes some concern, as does the harassment of opposition-party and trade-union members. Around 2,500 prisoners are held for offences committed under the Somoza dictatorship. The press is subject to some censorship. Treatment of Miskito Indians is brutal at first but improves later.
The US trains and finances the contra rebels, who in 1986 alone receive $100 million in military aid. Covert funding for them is revealed in the Irangate scandal. Human-rights abuses by contras are common. The US also strangles Nicaragua’s economy by a trade-and-aid blockade. In 1990, tired of war and hardship, Nicaraguans vote in an opposition coalition but the US refuses to renew aid, claiming the new government is still too far left.
EL SALVADOR (1980s)
Between 1979 and 1985 45,000 unarmed civilians are murdered by government troops and right-wing death squads operating under military control. The late 1980s are only slightly less grim: death squads continue to operate; torture and arbitrary arrest remain routine. The guilt of the military and the Government is confirmed in a UN report published in March 1993.
In the 1980s the US gives six billion dollars in aid to the Salvadoran Government. US advisers train the military in the latest counter-insurgency techniques and suggest ways for the Government to improve its image abroad. The Reagan Administration withholds information from US Congress about the worst human-rights abuses.
ANGOLA (1974 – present)
The Marxist MPLA Government allows no opposition parties through the 1970s and 1980s; it fights a civil war against foreign-backed UNITA guerillas. Government opponents are detained without trial for long periods and prisoners are tortured. But the 1990s sees a sea change: 3,000 political prisoners are released in 1990, a multi-party system and human-rights guarantees introduced in 1991 and free elections held in 1992. The Government wins the election fairly but UNITA disregards the result and renews the civil war.
The US and South Africa support UNITA from independence in 1974 – joint CIA-South African forces try to capture the capital but are routed by the MPLA's Cuban allies. Further CIA involvement in Angola is outlawed, though in 1986 the Reagan Administration is found to be channeling $15 million of covert aid for UNITA through Zaire. Western countries, led by the US, maintain a trade-and-aid embargo. The US embargo remains in place despite the free elections: President Clinton has this ‘under review’.
ZAIRE (1965 – present)
Former army commander Mobutu Sese Seko rules Zaire with an iron fist from 1965. Torture, detention without trial and imprisonment of political opponents prevail throughout his rule. In 1990 Mobutu promises free elections but later changes his mind, wishing 'to preserve his authority without exposing himself to criticism'. Student protests calling for his resignation are brutally put down, with at least 100 students murdered. Today Mobutu still faces major popular uprisings but refuses to relinquish power.
From 1975 Mobutu is the West’s staunchest ally in the region and Zaire is the biggest recipient of US aid in sub-Saharan Africa. In 1979 Mobutu is saved from a major rebel offensive by French and Belgian paratroopers, with US logistical support. In 1993 the mounting popular pressure on Mobutu finally leads Western powers to take a tougher line: France, Belgium and the US decide they can no longer sustain him and press him to resign.
IRAQ (August 1990 – present)
Since the Gulf War Saddam’s regime has re-asserted its complete control over society. Virtually every important liberty is denied the Iraqi people. No political dissent, even of the mildest kind, is possible and fear of the mukhabarat, the ubiquitous secret police, pervades everyday life. Thousands of political prisoners are detained without charge and torture is still routine.
Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait the UN imposes a total economic and military blockade and a US-led alliance then bombs the major cities and routs Iraqi troops The blockade is still in place in 1993, justified partly by the human-rights abuses of the Saddam Hussein regime. The destruction of Iraq’s electricity, health-care, water and food-supply systems has caused hunger, disease and suffering for millions of ordinary people. Absolute poverty levels have soared and child mortality rates are four times what they were before the War.
IRAQ (1979 – August 1990)
US State Department Report, Feb 1990: ‘Human rights, as such, are not recognized in Iraq. As our report details, the ordinary Iraqi citizen knows no personal security against government violence. Disappearances, followed by secret executions, appear to be common... Torture is routine, for security offenses and ordinary crimes alike, and confessions extracted under torture are admissible in court... The regime is ruthless in its efforts to maintain absolute control over the population.’
The West supports Saddam Hussein in his war with fundamentalist Iran between 1980 and 1988. The US shares CIA and Pentagon intelligence with Iraq and in 1987 US ships confront Iran directly. Other Western powers are outraged by the massacre of Kurds with chemical weapons. But the US remains aloof, exporting advanced technology with possible military use. On 1 August 1990, the day before Iraq invades Kuwait, the US approves the sale of $695 million worth of advanced data transmission devices.
Sources: Amnesty International annual reports; Human Rights Watch World Report 1990; Third World Guide 93-94.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.