Human Rights and Economic Power: The United States Versus Idi Amin
Richard H. Ullman is a member of the Editorial Board of The New York Times. Until July 1977, he was Professor of International Affairs at Princeton University and Director of the 1980s Project at the Council on Foreign Relations.See more by this author
By the time this journal is in its readers' hands, the American Congress may have been called upon to decide whether Uganda's coffee should be barred from entering the United States. Its decision will hold great importance for Uganda, for the United States, and for the international system. At stake will be the issue of whether or not the richest and most powerful of sovereign states is justified in using its economic power unilaterally to force the government of a smaller and weaker state to alter the way it treats its own subjects. The questions raised come cascading forward: Why should rich North Americans interfere in the internal affairs of a poor African state? How would that interference relate to other American interests and policies - in Africa and elsewhere? What is the larger significance for the international system of such use of an economic instrument - a coffee boycott - for a political purpose?
In any contemporary lexicon of horror, Uganda is synonymous with state-become-slaughterhouse. The most conservative estimates by informed observers hold that President Idi Amin Dada and the terror squads operating under his loose direction have killed 100,000 Ugandans in the seven years he has held power. Some estimates run as high as 300,000. Many victims have been guilty of nothing more than catching the eye of the killer - a shopkeeper with coveted goods, a Christian in a Muslim village, a civil servant who questions a command, a judge with foreign friends.
Other governments, in Africa and elsewhere, rule by terror and reward opposition by death; Equatorial Guinea and Cambodia would belong on any list, and there are more. But the scale of official murder in Uganda, its ferocious brutality, and its terrible capriciousness all place Idi Amin's Uganda in a category of its own in which the nearest analogues may be Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia. Just as South Africa is unique - an entire system of political and social repression resting on racial distinctions - so Uganda is also. Each, for different reasons, deserves international condemnation.