Acting on the orders of the Chinese leadership, martial law troops brutally ended the Tiananmen Square protests when they opened fire with tanks and machine guns on the unarmed people of Beijing on June 4, 1989, initiating a massacre which took lives of young and old across the city. This crime still remains unpunished, eleven years later.
But under the banner of the Tiananmen Mothers, a group of courageous family members of victims of the Beijing massacre has banded together to challenge the official lies about what really happened. Those in this network provide support to each other and work together to gather information about the reality of the tragic days at the beginning of June. In addition, they collect and distribute the humanitarian funds donated to assist the injured and the families of the dead.
The Tiananmen Mothers are also pushing for legal accountability for the crimes committed in the massacre: last year they took the unprecedented step of submitting the evidence they had painstakingly collected - including testimonies from 24 victims families and three people who were injured and a list of 155 names of the dead and 67 names of the injured - to the Supreme Peoples Procuratorate, Chinas prosecutor general. They asked for a criminal investigation to be initiated to determine legal responsibility for the loss of life and the use of excessive force by troops, requesting specifically that the culpability of leaders such as Li Peng and Deng Xiaoping be determined. This petition was signed by 108 family members of victims and people injured in the massacre.
Although the Procuratorate is required by Chinese law to respond to such petitions requesting a criminal investigation, there has been only silence, although the group wrote again in May 2000 to request a reply. Instead, the efforts of the Mothers have been met with constant, escalating persecution from the Chinese government. Their requests for dialogue with the government and for a proper investigation of the events have met with stony silence. Yet the Mothers have refused to give up their fight against the cycle of impunity which has allowed perpetrators of gross violations of human rights in China to go unpunished again and again. They see their mission as going beyond the issue of their own childrens fate; their struggle is crucial in preventing such massacres and rights abuses from happening in the future.
The campaign involves an on-line petition and activism campaign; more traditional campaigning through NGOs, media and individuals; educational outreach; and cooperation with groups fighting against impunity in other countries.
Ending impunity for human rights abuses is a global trend, with the Pinochet case, the UN Tribunals on Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the discussion over trying the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and over establishing a war crimes tribunal in East Timor being some recent examples.
But this insistence on accountability is not an initiative of governments. It emerges from years of pressure from citizens movements that carry out investigations, insist on revealing the truth about human rights violations and on finding justice for their victims. In many cases, mothers of people detained, disappeared and killed have been at the forefront of such campaigns, bravely facing down intimidation and persecution. The Tiananmen Mothers are just one example of such a struggle.
In recent months, for example, groups in Asia engaged in a number of actions to demonstrate their commitment to ending impunity. In mid-May in South Korea, families of people disappeared and killed by security forces around the region gathered to share their experiences and participate in the unveiling of an official memorial to the victims of the 1980 Kwangju Massacre. In Thailand, families of students killed in the 1992 massacre of demonstrators by the military insisted that there be full disclosure of what happened. In the Philippines, groups from around the region met in late May to hold the first congress of the Asian Federation Against Disappearances, where they were joined by the Latin American Federation Against Disppearances, FEDEFAM, a network of 20 member groups, including the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo from Argentina.
International solidarity campaigns have been crucial in supporting such citizen campaigns against impunity. Where activists are facing intimidation, harassment, detention and imprisonment merely for demanding justice and insisting on revealing the truth, the support of people in international society means a great deal. HRIC will be asking people from all walks of life to endorse the petition and demonstrate their support for the Tiananmen Mothers in a variety of ways. We hope that others will also take up this effort, recognizing the importance of the struggle against impunity for the whole project of establishing effective protections for human rights in China.