AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL (1989)
From Amnesty International Report

Tens of thousands of people were deliberately killed in 1988 by government agents acting beyond the limits of the law. They were victims of executions that evaded the judicial process.

Killing grounds were many and varied. Some alleged opponents of governments, or people targeted because of their religion, ethnic group,

language or political beliefs were killed in full public view; others in secret cells and remote camps. Some victims were shot down near battlefields, others in mosques and churches, hospital beds, public squares and busy city streets. Prison cells and courtyards, police stations, military barracks and government offices were all sites of political killing by agents of the state. Many people were killed in their own homes, some in front of their families.

Victims were assassinated by snipers, blown up by explosive devices or gunned down in groups by assailants using automatic weapons. Others were stabbed, strangled, drowned, hacked to death or poisoned. Many were tortured to death. In Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Syria and the Philippines victims were often severely mutilated before they were killed. Their bodies were burned or slashed, ears and noses were severed and limbs amputated.

A state of armed conflict was frequently the pretext, as well as the context, for government campaigns of extrajudicial execution against those they considered undesirable. Warfare makes it easier to evade accountability: not only is access by independent observers limited but the dead can be characterized as combatants killed in encounters or as the unavoidable civilian casualties of war. In Afghanistan forces of the Afghan Government and the USSR summarily killed civilians and captive guerrillas. In one incident a mosque was demolished, killing nine of the 12 captured guerrillas held within. In Ethiopia troops combating guerrilla movements in Eritrea and Tigray carried out mass executions of civilians accused of supporting the guerrillas. On one occasion hundreds of people were reportedly forced into a shallow ditch and then crushed by army tanks. In Burma measures to control the people in areas of insurgency included instant, illegal executions of those found outside their communities or in possession of quantities of food or other goods. In Peru massacres and summary executions largely replaced imprisonment and trial by the courts in counter-insurgency zones under the control of the military. . . .

In many countries prisoners died as a consequence of torture. . . .

Some prisoners died as a result of deliberate neglect -- by being denied medical attention, by exposure, or from starvation. . . .

Not all victims of extrajudicial execution were formally in custody when they were killed, although all were under the state's control. . . .

Governments sometimes targeted domestic human rights defenders for liquidation -- setting out to kill the people who most effectively monitor, report on and combat human rights abuse. The victims have included leaders of local and national human rights commissions, human rights lawyers and members of religious orders who have worked actively for human rights and have helped dismantle the walls of silence, fear and lies concealing gross human rights abuse. Some have been killed outright -- in El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, and the Philippines. Others have been the object of persistent death threats or have survived assassination attempts in public places.

Government denials and measures to muzzle or eliminate local witnesses were often combined with efforts to exclude outsiders. In Burundi the authorities denied reports of a pogrom of the Hutu majority and refused to allow an international commission of inquiry to investigate how thousands of civilians had died. The Government of Iraq refused a request by the United Nations Secretary-General to permit on-site investigation of the reported killings of members of the Kurdish population. . . .

Assessing whether killings carried out in the context of crowd control and against violent opposition groups are lawful may depend on whether official policies on the use of lethal force comply with international legal standards. Orders issued to security personnel were in question in many countries in which unarmed civilians were shot dead during demonstrations in 1988. They included Israel and the Occupied Territories, where over 300 Palestinian civilians were killed; Algeria, where at least 176 demonstrators died; Tibet, where armed Chinese police killed dozens of pro-independence demonstrators; Burma, where troops normally assigned to counter-insurgency operations killed hundreds of demonstrators calling for an end to military rule. . . .

International awareness of extrajudicial executions as a major human rights issue has grown dramatically in the 1980s. The strengthening of human rights monitoring at a local level in many countries and concerted efforts by international human rights organizations -- both governmental and nongovernmental -- have helped turn this awareness into action. . . .

The 1980s have been marked by an extraordinary level of mass killings and individual assassinations by government forces and by a significant change in the way they are viewed by international public opinion. The international community receives more and better information and is readier to cut through the fog of secrecy and deceit that cloaks illicit government actions.

It is common practice for governments to attribute state-sponsored killings to independent "death squads," vigilantes or uncontrollable intercommunal violence but it is increasingly obvious that this may merely be a device to deflect public criticism from those in authority.

Killings continue but the fact that reports of extrajudicial executions now rapidly become known around the world is a new element in international relations. In the 1990s the impact of public opinion and the remedial action of the international community should make it more difficult for governments that aim to carry out killings which are murder by any other name.

 

Source: Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report, 1989, pp. 9-15. (AI Index: POL 10/02/89). Permission from Amnesty International, International Secretariat.