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Mr. Rights

Checking In With John Healey of Amnesty International

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The far end of the waxy, hardwood basketball court is in shadows. A rock 'n' roll band, Paul Cebar and the Milwaukeeans, is positioned at midcourt, a few dozen revelers gyrating before them. Nearer the entrance, a couple of sections of bleachers hold most of the onlookers. With pennants of victories long gone hanging from its ceiling, the cavernous Loyola University Alumni Gym has taken on the aspect of a high school mixer gone sour.

A 50ish man on the dance floor is pointed out to me. The cuffs of his blue jeans are rolled up, his oversized plaid shirt hangs around his thighs, and he's wearing black boots. He is John Healey and he has been Amnesty International's executive director since 1981.

Healey and some 1,500 Amnesty members from around the country were in town for a weekend-long membership meeting, headquartered at Loyola's Rogers Park campus. During their stay, they held silent vigils outside the Chilean, Chinese, South African, Turkish, and Yugoslavian consulates and the office of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service; they also rallied at the Daley Center Plaza for the abolishment of the death penalty. After all that and a full day of seminars on women's rights, torture, and other grim reminders of human failing, most of them skipped the dance.

But not John Healey. Healey belies the Eddie Murphy joke that all white people dance the same tame two-step. On the dance floor he is intense and free-spirited. He likes to dance, he told me later. I was not surprised.

In 1988, Healey orchestrated Amnesty International's Human Rights Now! tour, featuring such rock luminaries as Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman, Peter Gabriel, and Sting. The tour raised millions of dollars and the profile of what had been a rather staid organization working in the trenches of human rights abuses.

Once a Catholic priest, Healey left the church in 1968. Later he worked as director of the Freedom From Hunger project, and still later President Jimmy Carter appointed him to direct the Peace Corps in Lesotho, a small African nation entirely surrounded by South Africa. There he met Bishop Desmond Tutu and became interested in human rights on a global scale.

Seated in the bleachers of the Loyola gym, wiping sweat from his brow, Healey gave me a brief rundown on the state of human rights in the world. He started with China.

"They've gotten away with years of good press. They've been regarded as a good communist country when they're a bad communist country. Because of foreign policy needs, [the U.S. government] has looked away. Totally. Unmitigatedly. China is a good place to get something to eat, to take a boat trip down the river, but it's not a good place to be a dissident.

"The Chinese torture in their jails," Healey continued. "No one talks about it. Why don't Americans know the Sakharovs and Solzhenitsyns of China? It's fraud. It's fraud. Soon the U.S. will be reinvesting in China. The U.S. refuses to look at Chinese people simply as people that need to be protected from their government."

Earlier in the evening, an Amnesty member from Kentucky had offered the opinion that freedom in the world is on the wane. Increasingly, she said, people are divided from their own governments. Which is getting stronger, I now asked Healey, the forces of freedom or the forces of repression?

Without a moment of doubt, he said, "The forces of freedom are getting stronger." He ticked off the reasons. "Central American violence is down; the volume of killings in Central America is down. There are more symbolic killings, but the volume is down. The eastern bloc as a whole is getting better. Argentina just changed from civilian government to civilian government for the first time in I don't know when. A real wind is blowing."

But Healey believes people in the United States are too comfortable to feel that wind. "People in the U.S. don't know about it," he said disgustedly: "80 to 85 percent of them are still for the death penalty. In direct contrast to the winds of change in the rest of the world."

Later, I talked with Healey about our country's role in the worldwide human rights movement. "I think to a person in Central America, the U.S. is not a part of it," he said. "Sometimes we're good, sometimes we're bad, and sometimes we're very bad." This is not, he acknowledged, how Americans see themselves. "We're not in touch with the aspirations of suffering people, because basically we're not suffering. Compared to the rest of the world, we're a bit decadent....We think that because we're good we're part of the human rights movement, and I don't think that's necessarily true."

I asked him about the new administration. "Bush, Baker, they're playing it a little bit different. They seem to talk to Gorbachev a little more easily about things--regional wars and so on. They seem to have taken a little different line on human rights abuses in Israel."

So Bush is OK then? "Not at all. I'm very, very critical of him. But I'm saying you gotta take the good when you get it. So, on Namibia, OK. So, you talk to Gorbachev a lot, that's good. He's not going to toe the line to the Israelis on human rights abuses of the Palestinians, good. You take what you get. And there are some things to take. He's not a scoundrel. He's not an idiot. But, on the other hand, there's a hell of a lot more he could do."

Overall, Healey is upbeat. He sees an almost weekly improvement in human rights around the world. Namibia, Ethiopia, and Mozambique have all made significant progress in just the past few weeks, he said. And when I asked him about the future, he sounded for a moment like the priest he once was. "Virtues," he said, "are easy to lose and hard to gain. They have to become habits and that hasn't happened yet.... But, overall, I think anybody who has watched human rights for the last 25 years has to be ecstatic. People talk about human rights now. Governments talk about human rights. When they make treaties, human rights are a part of it. I think it was Sweden that passed a law that they don't want their businesses dealing with states in the United States that kill. They are saying to the Turks that they have to quit torturing before they come into the European Economic Community. There's a lot of good solid shit happening. People mean it. It's not just rhetoric."

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