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Amnesty Head Urges More Pressure on Human Rights


IAN MARTIN, secretary-general of Amnesty International, met with Monitor staff on March 23, a day before the release of a report on human rights violations in India. He spoke of Amnesty's work around the world.

What do you see as your mission and what is it you do that changes the situation?

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Any ordinary person can do something that can affect the human rights conduct of governments. [When it was first proposed,] that seemed like a pretty crazy idea. But over the years, that's exactly what has happened.

In the last five or six years access has opened up to a lot of places that were closed off to us before, obviously, but it's still not all the world. Some people are surprised to know that [India] is one [nation] that won't give us visas to go and do research, as well as the more obvious cases like China, Syria, and Iraq, etc.

We have, I think, largely gotten away from the case where there's any resonance for the argument that human rights criticism is interference in internal affairs. We still get that a bit from the Chinese government. But it sounds more and more anachronistic each time you hear it. Even the Chinese are beginning to shave that position and to say, yes, we are going to engage in human rights dialogue.

What's particularly important ... is that people don't give up on human rights as an issue because they think it's sort of taken care of, with the trend to democracy, with Western governments making human rights more central in their foreign policies.

Because, positive as those things are, it's not very hard to see that democracy from elections is only the beginning ... of improving the protection of human rights.

How do you function on the ground?

Information collection is very hard to generalize about because you have such a spectrum of situations. You have the really open situation: If you're talking about the Philippines, or if you're talking about Peru or Colombia, there is no obstacle to our going there.

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So you've got that on the one hand. I suppose North Korea would be the ultimate example at the other end now, but a few years ago I would have included Burma, for example, in the case of countries [that do not allow access to Amnesty workers. In Burma, that changed in] 1988, when students fled into Thailand. But there we can only go to the borders where there are refugees and interview them.

How big a factor is Amnesty's letter-writing campaign in addressing human rights abuses?

It's real. It's not just keeping members feeling involved. Take the kind of report we release. If I were a government and a human rights organization was publishing a report, I'd be unhappy about it. But if it was a [matter of a] week's publicity, I wouldn't be that worried. I'd sort of keep my head low and let it blow over a bit....

[The India] report would be the beginning of an international campaign, which means that Amnesty members in all our 47 sections would be going to see ambassadors in their countries.... I think our strength is in ... the publicity around the fact-finding and its results with sustained action, and our membership base gives us that possibility.

What happens when a country gets letters about its human rights record? Does it reform because of a change of heart or because of international pressure?

It's both. Perhaps it is overwhelming embarrassment. But I don't think one should underestimate the extent to which sometimes at the other end [there] are people with a conscience. Or, more than that. We all know no government is monolithic, and there are apt to be very different attitudes, and there are balances of power within it. Perhaps what we're doing is strengthening the hands of the better people within the systems of governments.

Have improvements in technology had any effect on Amnesty's work?

Yes. One of our researchers in Guatemala said - I don't think she was exaggerating - that today we get faxes from indigenous Indian groups who five years ago just sort of walked in for three days to give information to a contact who would then post it to us. Now they're sending us faxes.

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