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Faces Behind the Fight for Human Rights

Five individuals are honored by Reebok for their battles against poor labor practices, government oppression, and police brutality

Julie Su, a recent Harvard Law School graduate, is on her first big case: battling a handful of the biggest clothing manufacturers in the United States.

At issue is justice and restitution for the 72 illegal Thai immigrants found working in August 1995 as virtual slaves behind barbed-wire fences in a sweatshop in El Monte, Calif.

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It is a subject with which Ms. Su, a lawyer for the Asian Pacific Legal Center in Los Angeles, is intimately familiar. For the last two years, she has fought against sweatshop violations and is defending the rights of the El Monte immigrants. Now Su is being honored for her work: She is one of four human rights activists from around the world who will receive the ninth annual Reebok Human Rights Awards of $25,000 each on Dec. 11 in Boston.

Other recipients include Jesus Tecu Osorio, a Guatemalan massacre survivor pressing the government for just compensation for his community; Ma Thida, an imprisoned Burmese physician who opposes Burma's military government; and Innocent Chukwuma, a Nigerian activist challenging the abusive practices of Nigerian police.

Canada's Craig Kielburger, a 13-year-old who campaigns against child labor practices worldwide, will receive Reebok's Youth-in-Action Award.

Craig founded a nonprofit organization, Free the Children, to carry on the work of Iqbal Masih, a Pakistani boy freed from being a bonded laborer who spoke out on the plight of children forced to work under inhuman conditions. After gaining worldwide attention, Masih, the 1994 winner of the Youth-In-Action Award, was murdered in Pakistan. (His murder apparently was not related to his activism, according to Pakistani sources.)

Reebok established the Human Rights Awards to recognize and encourage young people under 30 years old who fight for human rights against great odds. Since their inception in 1988, the awards have been given to 52 young people from 26 countries.

But Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based human rights group, charges that the Reebok awards are a "public relations hoax," because the company makes shoes in China and Indonesia where labor organizing is illegal.

More repression

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Amnesty International reports that the number of countries with political killings and repression has increased since 1989. In Asia and Africa, for example, the increase "has happened mostly because of the emerging forms of nationalism, tribalism, and ethnic warfare," says Bill Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International in New York.

What is promising over the past few years, he says, is the proliferation of human rights organizations among indigenous people. "Twenty years ago," he says, "Amnesty International was almost alone as a human rights organization. While it might be nice to remain the only show in town from a financial point of view, we are encouraged by the growth of these organizations."

For example, through the persistence of Mr. Chukwuma, who has been jailed twice in Nigeria for his activism, the Civil Liberties Organization was created and is now the country's leading human rights association. In a nation where police arrest arbitrarily, and torture and kill people, Chukwuma pioneered a program to monitor and publicize the abuses. He also initiated a human rights workshop for police.

In the US, Su, the daughter of Taiwan immigrants, also co-founded Sweatshop Watch, an effort to monitor sweatshop violations. She has not only successfully prosecuted the operators of the El Monte sweatshop - seven are in prison now - but is demanding that the firms who contracted with the operators pay back wages and damages.

The defendants, including Mervyn's, Montgomery Ward, and Miller's Outpost, asked that the suit be dismissed, but a state court denied the motion and the case is moving slowly forward.

"The corporations can't just say it was an independent contract and walk away and say they weren't responsible for what happened," Su says of the El Monte case. "They say they didn't know [the conditions], but they should have, because it was their duty to discover where their clothes were being made."

Su has not only directed the lawsuit against clothing companies, but also helped the Thai immigrants after they were freed from the sweatshop where they worked 18-hour days.

The Thai workers are now learning English, and have their own apartments and bank accounts. Some have new jobs in the garment industry.

"The workers have been so grateful about everything," Su says. "I feel that part of the wonder of this work is that I feel grateful to them for everything they have given to me. They say the lawsuit is not about money or even winning, but it is about their humanity, about our humanity as a society to put issues of economic security and justice with human dignity at the top."

Forced displacement

In Guatemala, Mr. Osorio also seeks compensation from the government for the massacre and forced displacement of his village of Rio Negro in 1982. When he was 11, soldiers took over the village, raping and murdering women and children, including his brother.

Years later, Osorio was one of the few villagers willing to testify against those responsible for the atrocities. He also initiated the exhumation of mass graves and continues to press the government to provide land and goods lost.

In Burma (Myanmar), Dr. Thida was arrested in 1993 for her work with the National League for Democracy, a group opposed to Burma's military government. She was convicted in a secret trial of "endangering public tranquillity, having contact with illegal organizations, and distributing unlawful literature," and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

"The Reebok awards can have an effect," Mr. Schulz says, "by lending prestige ... to people in their societies who may have been perceived as ... thorns in the side of the establishment. Also it sometimes offers a degree of protection to the recipient who is no longer just known within their own country."

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