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Justifying cruelty: how a hard look at torture is avoided

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NO government admits it. Most constitutions forbid it. But the world is experiencing a torture epidemic. Torture can be tracked today in nearly a hundred countries. All you have to do is pay heed to the incredible accounts coming out in the trials in Argentina to see how deep and wide the cruelty has become.

Amnesty International battles that monster; sometimes we win. Currently in America we are concentrating on moving the United States government to use its influence with other governments to get them to stop torturing. As we move into political influence in Washington, the best bet is to stay simple and not to get lost in the traps the perverted forms of political ``realism'' can lay for us. Such as:

The progress trap. If the US government makes foreign aid contingent on a nation's human rights performance, how is that performance to be judged? What mode of judgment will work -- in the real world -- to end abuses?

An obvious, real-world criterion would be to assess whether the nation's performance is getting better. If the nation's human rights record is improving, the aid will continue; if not, it will be cut down or cut off. Like certain forms of welfare policy at home, progress-linked foreign aid policies would provide an incentive for nations to clean up their act.

But the trap is also obvious. Putting aside the many ways governments can play with numbers, what constitutes progress? In one country, the US was asked to continue and increase aid because, in a given period, death- squad murders declined from the thousands to the hundreds. Was that supportable ``progress''? What if the Soviet Union were to release Andrei Sakharov tomorrow -- should that good news constitute ``progress'' justifying a more generous economic policy by the US? We must not accept ``progres s'' in this sense as satisfactory. That would be like letting a murderer keep it up because he had been murdering fewer lately.

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