Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law

First Page



In the fall of 1975 the United States, in a much publicized step at the United Nations, introduced an abortive resolution calling for world-wide amnesty for political prisoners. Admittedly, this draft resolution was withdrawn because of crippling amendments, and it may well be that this American initiative was launched more to deflect criticism to others than to help political prisoners. But it seems to be the case--at least from a Western perspective--that political prisoners are becoming a more salient subject in world affairs. The concept of political prisoners has existed for quite awhile. In the last decade and a half, however, non-governmental organizations (NGO's) such as Amnesty International have tried to arouse public concern on behalf of persons detained without benefit of due process of law as generally found in Western democracies. More quietly, other non-governmental organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross have made regular prison visits and trial observations for these persons.

These non-governmental efforts seem to have rekindled interest in political prisoners. The American draft resolution of 1975 probably would not have been offered but for this renewed interest in political prisoners. Even more demonstrative of this interest has been the effort of the United States Congress to legislatively compel the Executive to pay attention to the subjects of human rights and political prisoners. Congress has tried to make security assistance dependent upon avoidance of political prisoner detention or gross violations of human rights through amendments to the Foreign Assistance Act. In view of this renewed interest in political prisoners, it is the purpose of this article to explore the following questions. What indeed is a political prisoner? What importance do political prisoners have in world politics from the point of view of either power relationships or humanitarian concerns? What protection exists in international law and diplomacy for the political prisoner? What changes in the international legal order--if any--are desirable and feasible?