The RW Interview

A Shocking Denial of Rights

Secretary Pierre Sané Discusses New Amnesty International Report on the United States

Revolutionary Worker #981, November 8, 1998

On October 6, Amnesty International released a report targetting human rights abuses in the United States. The report, titled United States of America: Rights for All, was issued in conjunction with the start of a year-long campaign by Amnesty International focusing on the human rights situation here in this country. The report covers several different subjects: brutality by police and other law enforcement agencies; unjust and racist use of the death penalty; incarceration of people seeking poli tical asylum; U.S. double standard on human rights; export of arms to pro-U.S. governments and groups.

Larry Everest, contributing writer to the Revolutionary Worker, recently had a chance to talk with Amnesty International Secretary General Pierre Sané about the report and the campaign on the U.S. Sané is originally from Senegal, and he worked for many years in international development issues before being appointed Secretary General of Amnesty International in 1992. He is responsible for the day-to-day management of Amnesty and serves as a primary spokesman for the organization's w orldwide membership.

LE: The Revolutionary Worker is happy to be able to speak to you and appreciates your taking time, from what I've personally witnessed is a very busy schedule, to talk with us. Amnesty International's new 150-page report, United States of America: Rights for All, covers very important issues--issues we've been covering for many years as well, but which need much more attention. To my knowledge, this is the most extensive report Amnesty International has done on the U.S. Is that correct, and what stimulated Amnesty to issue this report?

PS: We have done reports on the U.S. since 1965, but those tended to be issue-focused, like the death penalty or looking at the human rights situation in one single state--for instance in Georgia, which we did in 1996. This report is the first comprehensive look at the human rights situation in the U.S., focusing on issues which are in the Amnesty mandate.

We felt it was important to not just do the research and the report, but also to start the campaign. This is going to be a 12-month campaign in which we will mobilize our membership worldwide to disseminate this information and to pressure the U.S. government to bring about the needed changes.

We felt it was necessary to do this because of the extent of human rights violations in the U.S. The human rights situation in the U.S. is bad, and our research shows it's getting worse. It is getting worse because there is a sort of warlike mentality in this country. There is a war on crime, there is a war on drugs, there is a war on illegal immigrants, there is a war on terrorism. And law enforcement agencies are given a lot of scope to deal with these issues, which are presented as national threats. And in a context like that, human rights are likely to be a casualty.

We see police brutality on the increase from coast to coast. It is a daily occurence. The prisons are overflowing--1.7 million prisoners, one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world. And the death penalty is being used more and more frequently and with less and less mercy. Asylum seekers are treated as criminals and jailed, some of them in very bad conditions. We feel that there is a need to raise awareness about the extent of the human rights violations and the rapid deterioration of the human rights situation.

The second reason [for the report] is that the U.S. offers itself as a model of how politics should be organized, how an economy should be run, and how a society should relate to those who govern. Not only does it offer itself as a model, but it imposes that model through various bodies, such as international financial institutions and through various tactics of arm-twisting in its relations with other governments. If those governments are to choose that model and travel that journey to develop their economy and their democratic system along the same model, we have to make sure that they see also the other side of the coin, which is the violations which are inherent in the model. And that people in those countries are vigilant as they are promised paradise at the end of the journey.

LE: You mentioned a 12-month campaign. Your report covers conditions in prison, police brutality, the treatment of immigrants, as well as other issues. Is the campaign going to focus on any particular issues?

PS: We have launched the report this week in order to put all the issues on the table. In the course of the 12 months we will then focus and release other reports which are more detailed. For instance, we'll take the opportunity of International Women's Day in March to release a report on women and human rights in the U.S. We are preparing a detailed report on juvenile justice, a detailed report on the death penalty and race, and a detailed report on the death penalty and innocence. We will also prepare a report on asylum seekers. And all those launches throughout the campaign will give people the opportunity to highlight specific issues, for all our members to focus on one particular issue throughout the world.

LE: Will you issue anything special on police brutality?

PS: Police brutality is an issue we have covered really extensively, from the Los Angeles police to the New York police, to the Chicago police. It's an issue that we have asked our membership here in the U.S. to work on closely with other groups in order to really force the setting up of systems of oversight, monitoring, and accountability of the police throughout the country.

LE: How would you describe the scope, extent and the character of police abuse in the U.S.?

PS: "Good society" may not be aware of the full extent of police brutality because the primary targets are the so-called "dangerous classes." And the primary focus of the police is on those that they have profiled as being "criminals"--which are mainly young Black males, Asian Americans, or Native Americans. But the problem is that unless the brutality of the police is kept in check, then nobody is safe. No one in America will be safe tomorrow if we allow the police to continue to believe that they can brutalize citizens with total impunity. That's the risk, that it will continue to spread.

LE: Do you think police brutality is getting worse, as you had mentioned earlier, in terms of the human rights situation generally?

PS: It is getting worse because of the impunity. Many of the incidents of police brutality that we heard about are settled out of court. And settlement out of court, of course, is not a recognition of liability. Police officers are not prosecuted. It is getting worse because the police are also using new technologies such as pepper spray, electro-shock guns, and electro-shock batons. And it will continue to get worse as long as the politicians are using the insecurity created by the crime wave for political advantage and giving the police carte blanche to deal with crime.

LE: You mentioned that some communities, especially people of color, are being targeted. Could you talk about how you see this?

PS: It seems that the context in which all these human rights violations are taking place is a context in which the government's propaganda is the propaganda of war: it's a war against crime, it's a war on drugs, it's a war against illegal immigrants, it's a war against terrorism. And in a situation of war, we tend to dehumanize the enemy. We tend first of all to profile the enemy and then to dehumanize the enemy. And in the process human rights become a casualty. It is clear that the profile of the enemy in the war against drugs and in the war against crime is the young Black male. And in the war against illegal immigrants it's the Hispanic or the Mexican. And in the war against terrorism it is the Arab--the Arab-American or Arab abroad. And this obviously leads to violations committed against innocent people.

LE: I understand that you've just returned from a trip to the border between Texas and Mexico. What were you looking for and what did you find?

PS: In May 1998 Amnesty International issued a report as a result of a research mission on the abuses committed by border guards and on the conditions of detention of immigrants and asylum seekers. We wanted to assess for ourselves whether things had changed as a result of that report, and also as a result of a citizens advisory committee that was set up by the INS to look at all these allegations of abuse and to prevent abuses in the border area. It was a very short trip, it was not a research mission.

The INS District Director and the head of the Border Patrol assured us that the implementation of the recommendations is underway and that this has led to a reduction in reported abuses and an improvement in the conditions of detention. But when we met with immigrant organizations, human rights organizations and lawyers on both sides of the border--be they from Texas or Mexico--they told us that things have not improved, that the brutality of the Border Patrol is still an issue, and that there are still incidents of shootings of immigrants.

The Border Patrol and the INS is becoming the largest federal body in terms of law enforcement. Their budget is being increased. They are hiring more and more people in order to contain immigration. We don't take a position regarding the right of the United States to control illegal immigration. Where we have concerns is when this control is exercised in such ways as to deny the immigrants some of their basic rights. The right not to be tortured. The right to have access to a lawyer. The right to have access to family. Many asylum seekers who are fleeing persecution in their own country and who come to get the protection in international law are detained as if they are criminals. Some of them are shackled, they are moved from county jail to city jail.

LE: Was there anything that really shocked you in Amnesty's report on the U.S., or were you pretty much expecting what you found?

PS: There were a few things that I continue to find shocking. Many of the things I was aware of, but there were a few things which I discovered when I read the first draft of the report. One is the way women in prison are treated. There are 75,000 women in prison in the U.S. today, which is a number that has quadrupled since 1980--not because of violent offenses but mostly because of drug use, drug abuse, and drug trafficking. And in the facilities for women they are subjected to the same types of abuse--physical abuse, sexual abuse-- that the men are. And I would say it is worse in the case of women because they actually need more protection.

What I find shocking is that the guards themselves are committing abuses. What I find shocking is that medical staff are committing sexual abuse against women prisoners. What I find shocking is women being shackled when they are in labor. One thousand pregnant women give birth every year in U.S. prisons. They are shackled when they are pregnant, they are shackled when they are taken to the hospital. They are shackled to their beds when they are giving birth. And I just can't understand the logic of that.

LE: Was there anything else that stood out to you as particularly damning?

PS: The other is the treatment of mentally impaired people. There are many people who end up in prison instead of being sent to mental institutions. And those people are not criminally responsible. But some of them are executed. For instance, Bill Clinton went back to Arkansas in the midst of his 1992 campaign to sign the death warrant for Ricky Ray Rector who was totally mentally impaired. Actually, when he was taken from his cell to be executed, he left his dessert and said, "I'll finish it later." So he had no idea what was going on. And that's Bill Clinton. We have a case of someone mentally impaired who was restrained on a four-point metal board for 12 weeks. 12 weeks!

So you have people who are entitled to receive care from society, because they are mentally impaired or because they are the weakest segment in society--women and children. But instead of receiving that care they are thrown in jail, and in jail they are further abused. That's just unacceptable.

LE: Is there anything in particular Amnesty is urging people to do to combat the problem of police brutality?

PS: What we want to do through this campaign is to ensure that our membership in the U.S. participates in the mobilization of civil society in America against police brutality. The report, of course, should be a contribution to the work that various organizations are doing. And our actions internationally will be a demonstration of our solidarity with the victims, but also with the organizations on the ground who are struggling to hold the police accountable.

LE: So would you be encouraging your members to unite and participate with these various groups?

PS: Yes, that's the strategy. We know that changes will only happen if we can combine domestic pressure coming from below with international pressure coming from outside. And that is really what is at the heart of our strategy--going to the trade unions, to the church-based groups, to women's organizations, to various social movements--to bring this issue to the table and invite them to join.

LE: You mentioned that many people from what you called "good society," and by that I understood you to mean the middle classes broadly, feel a distance from the poor, the dispossessed, people of color. How do you see Amnesty helping bridge this gap?

PS: First, bridging the gap is really injecting the human rights discourse and the human rights language into everyday life. Yes, people accept that we are all born free and equal, that we have equal rights, etc., etc. But the reality, the structures of injustice in society, require that beyond the acceptance of the equal rights, people engage more in action to ensure that others will not be denied their rights--be it socio-economic rights, or civil and political rights.

Certainly history is a good reminder that unless the rights of all are protected, our rights individually tomorrow can be confiscated. Certain groups can be targeted today, which gives police officers a sense of impunity, a sense of being above the law. And tomorrow it would be members of "good society" who will fall victim to a police force which will not be held accountable, and that is not being sanctioned when abuses are being committed.

LE: In your travels around the U.S. do you see a growing concern among those who haven't been directly affected by police abuse? How do you read the mood of intellectuals, the middle class, professional people, journalists and others concerning police brutality?

PS: I sense something. I'm not sure that I can talk about it expertly because my visits are not that frequent. But I can judge something by the enthusiasm of Amnesty members in joining this campaign. Amnesty is a typical middle class organization. And in the U.S. it is from the white middle class. But it is made up of people who come with compassion, who want to help others, mainly victims in other places, and who have enthusiastically joined this campaign in order to strengthen human rights protection in their own country.

I think that people are seeing through this propaganda effort [of the government]. And I think it comes to a point where people see through it and are not ready anymore to accept certain abuses which are committed, after all, in the name of "good society." It is in order to protect "good society" from crime, that people are being executed and poisoned, that juvenile offenders are being executed, that mentally ill people are being executed. It is in the name of the well-being of "good society" that immigrants are treated like criminals, that people in the prisons are treated with total, total disrespect for their rights.

There comes a point where people weigh what is being put to them in terms of what is needed in order to keep them in comfort, and the price they are paying as a member of that society in terms of bearing responsibility for the atrocities that are taking place behind the walls. I think it is difficult to bear. We can see this in the religious movement. Last weekend we organized a weekend of faith where we reached out to all congregations in the U.S. to join in a weekend of prayer, but also of sermon, regarding the death penalty. And the response was enormous, unexpected.

LE: Where did this take place?

PS: Throughout the country. All congregations--Christians, Muslims, Jews--responded enthusiastically, asking for resource material they could use in addressing the issue of the death penalty and calling for a moratorium. I think there is a moral vacuum that the religious right and the right-wing groups in the U.S. have tried to fill. But it's a fraud and people are seeing through that. And I think what we need to bring back at the center is the human rights package--the message of equality, of dignity, of respect, of tolerance, brotherhood and sisterhood.

LE: I'm interested in your comment that people are seeing through the right-wing's crime agenda. In an Amnesty press release you say that Rights for All is coming out at a time when Congress is debating right and wrong in regard to President Clinton's actions. Could you comment further on this?

PS: I guess for us it is the whole hypocrisy of a political establishment that has immersed itself in this soul-searching exercise on morality and politics, about what is right and what is wrong--and at the same time, it allows juvenile offenders to be executed. At the same time it allows mentally ill people to be locked up behind bars and be subjected to conditions of detention and of restraint which are totally unacceptable. A political establishment that is extending the use of the death penalty; that legislates three strikes and you're out; that undermines the international system of protection for refugees; and which shapes the very society that the police police. After all, the police police the society that they find. And this society is unequal and unjust. So, while we welcome this soul-searching exercise on issues of right and wrong, I think that to convince public opinion, at least at the international level, Congress will have to dig deeper.

LE: It seems like there has been, as you have put it, an increase in awareness and concern by some middle class people. And it is also a very positive development that many of the oppressed themselves are organizing and speaking out, including the relatives of victims of police abuse. Rights for All includes a photo of the group Parents Against Police Brutality in New York. Is this a development that you've noted as well?

PS: Yes, we've seen it. And as we have publicized these issues, it strengthens those organizations. It gives them more coverage of their work. Our experience covering human rights abuses throughout the world is that associations of families of victims--like the association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, the mothers of the disappeared in Turkey, in Mexico, in Lebanon, and so on--are really the organizations that are the most successful in keeping alive the issue, because those organizations will not disband until such time that they have received justice.

Most of those organizations that we have seen are formed and led by women. And when groups of women share something in common and are fighting for the rights of their children, of their husbands, of their fathers--they are the best defenders I have seen. So for us, assisting those organizations, making sure that they receive the support of our members worldwide and our solidarity is very important, including in our U.S. campaign.

LE: Mumia Abu-Jamal is a well-known prisoner on death row here in the U.S. Could you talk about Amnesty's position on his situation? So for us, what is important is keeping Mumia alive. I know that there is controversy--should we adopt him as a prisoner of conscience, should we say he's a political prisoner, etc., etc. For us at this stage, we think our best contribution to the support of Mumia is to mobilize our membership worldwide to work for a commutation of his sentence--we have to get him off death row. We have to make sure that he's not executed.

LE: I have not met Mumia myself, but I understand that he's an amazing person.

PS: Yes, certainly they have not succeeded in breaking his spirit. I think that even behind bars he's able to contribute a lot to all those who are fighting for respect for dignity, and I think he's certainly an inspiration for many in the younger generation.

LE: Is there anything that you would like to add that we haven't covered?

PS: Our message is that this campaign is a manifestation of our solidarity with the groups that are fighting for justice in this country, and that change will come from the groups in this country. We can help from outside, but Amnesty cannot bring human rights to the people in this country.

Amnesty can contribute in mobilizing public opinion in supporting the struggles that go on, but if tomorrow people want their human rights protected, they will have to fight for them, and they will have to harness that tradition of fighting for civil rights and fighting for union rights and move beyond just litigation, which is what the U.S. civil rights movement is now, to a certain extent, locked into.

We need to bring people into the streets. We need to educate and to mobilize. And that will be for Americans to do. We can help, we can mobilize support from outside, but ultimately the change will come from within. And for us it is important that that change come--because we know that when that change comes, then changing the rest of the world will be much easier.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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