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Waging the worldwide battle against torture by governments

EVENTS such as recent terrorist acts in Greece, West Germany, and El Salvador rivet the attention of news media and the public on the plight of victims and their families. Such attention can be expected. But a different kind of terrorism -- the secret detention, torture, and killing of individuals -- is inflicted on many thousands of people every day, mostly by their own governments. Except for a few celebrated individual cases and blatant atrocities, these inhumane activities tend to be little noticed until their collective enormity comes to light (the matter of the ``disappeareds'' in Argentina, for instance).

Since its founding in 1961, Amnesty International has tried to rouse the public consciousness and conscience about such abuses while pressing governments to stop depriving citizens of their basic rights and, indeed, their lives.

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The London-based human-rights organization now has more than 500,000 members around the world. It was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 for its painstaking documentation of torture and murder of individuals by those in authority.

Signatory nations to such documents as the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the 1975 Helsinki agreement on human rights have fallen far short, so far, of the ideals expressed in them. Delegates from 35 nations which ratified the Helsinki accord met for six weeks in Ottawa this spring but could not agree on a final report before adjourning June 17.

Among Amnesty International's chief assets are its independence, which the organization carefully guards by not accepting any more than 5 percent of its annual budget from any single source, and a worldwide network of dedicated volunteers who support a small professional staff. But the organization is not without its critics, who often point out that it sometimes appears to be harder on those noncommunist governments where information is more accessible than on the closed societies whose human-rights violations are harder to document.

Duke University Prof. James David Barber, chairman of Amnesty International, USA -- in Boston for the organization's June 20-23 annual meeting -- stressed Amnesty's determination ``to get the facts of torture out into world consciousness and to press . . . governments to stop it once and for all.''

To get governments to change their ways, as Professor Barber says, it is necessary to ``enter into dialogue with the powers that be and those who can influence them.''

Amnesty International's major contribution to the dialogue is information, from which much of the public would prefer to turn its gaze -- ``revealing the facts of the torture epidemic.'' It sees a media tendency to soften the starkness of such evidence by ``balancing'' it with often self-serving denials by the governments involved, or by putting it into broad historical, sociological, or economic contexts that would obscure the suffering of the individuals involved.

Recent events illustrate the indivisibility of freedom -- how the deprivation of human rights in one part of the world cannot be isolated from rights elsewhere. Highly visible acts of terrorism against innocent people capture the world's attention briefly. But the ongoing secret torture of unseen individuals should not be forgotten.

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