By Lucy Macdonald.
On Saturday 19th October 2019, activists of all ages gathered in the centre of Glasgow for the Amnesty International’s Scotland Activists Conference. It was an event to not only celebrate the work carried out by Amnesty International’s high-ranking offices but also to recognise the work done by local activists this past year. Their vital work stretches the length and breadth of this nation with this conference serving to be an opportunity to celebrate and to inspire present and future activism. Furthermore, it served as an important reminder that there is no voice too quiet and no act too small for it to still have an impact on the work being carried out by Amnesty all over the world. Through recognising the efforts of Amnesty Chapters, this conference radiated a sense of community, united by a common cause.
Notably, Amnesty International is synonymous with its stark yellow banner, a bright and distinct colour which symbolizes the organisation’s aims to draw attention to gross human rights violations across the world and its means as a resolution. Indeed, I think the choice of their logo colour is not by accident – with the alarming and hazardous connotations of Amnesty’s yellow logo while also being synonymous with aid and provision; with Remembrance Day held around this time of year, I can’t help but think of the Canary ladies of the First World War and the risks they undertook to support the war effort. Like them, Amnesty exists for a cause greater than itself, striving to protest against war and conflict…. but not without risk. This notion is echoed in the theme of this year’s Activists Conference by choosing to take a slightly different path from those of past years – namely, by focusing particularly on ‘individuals at risk’. An ironic subject to place into the limelight given some of the dangers and consequences that a heightened platform can bring. This became clear later in the conference,… but this was exactly Amnesty’s aim.
During the conference, the theme of ‘risk’ was seamlessly weaved into the day’s busy schedule. The conference opened with an introduction from Amnesty Scotland’s regional representative, Malcolm Dingwall-Smith who introduced this year’s keynote speaker – Amnesty International UK’s Campaigns Coordinator, Sena Atici. Atici spoke of why Amnesty chooses to work with individuals at risk and the importance of their work. She expressed how rewarding she found her work in not only fighting and campaigning for individuals who need it the most but also the wider issues and common causes that are addressed as a result.
Following the keynote speech, two speakers from the Human Rights Defenders Fellowship programme at Dundee University came and spoke as part of the guest speakers’ segment of the conference. The first of the guest speakers (who Amnesty has kindly asked not to be cited in any works and is notably in line with the theme of individuals at risk) highlighted the significance of governmental corruption and poor education in limiting prosperity in the country of Zambia. Indeed, she sent a resonating message across the conference, arguing that “rights are inconvenient for governments’ own selfish interests”. She further contended that the concept of power and the prospect of restrained accumulative wealth has prevented the nation as a whole from being able to prosper to the potential that it could. In this particular case, Zambia is by no means a ‘poor’ country in terms of gross resources; however, the country has been impoverished due to decisions of those in power regarding the distribution of resources and the management of public money. Moreover, concerning the education system, she stated “our Einsteins end up illiterate”. According to her, this is as a result of funding going into private pockets instead of investing in the educational potential of students. The educational system helps to facilitate this issue because instead of serving as a means of encouraging students to prosper, it uses exams as a way of removing children from the system itself. This is because the threshold for passing are set so high that it excludes a high proportion of youths from further progressing. In turn, the state invests less money into running of the education system and instead chooses to accumulate wealth elsewhere.
Although the speaker focused primarily on Zambia, one couldn’t help but notice how the issues of power, resources, and economic growth is found all over the world, regardless of wealth. Indeed, politically and economically speaking, our international system is party to vast competition in terms of power politics – most notably, the rising political-economic trade war between the two superpowers the USA and China. As scholar Hans Morgenthau succinctly put, “International politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power.”
The second guest speaker of the conference came and also weaved the theme of individuals at risk in his speech. As a member of the LGBTQ community in Eastern Europe, he shared his personal experiences of discrimination and hatred from high-ranking government officials to neo-Nazi groups and online trolls. Furthermore, he spoke about the experiences of his friends whom he lost due to this hatred. Making an appeal for change, he referred to the notable Human Rights Activist death in Russia in 2009 of which to this day have not been resolved. In addition, he expressed gratitude to Amnesty for their efforts to protect and to enact positive change for such individuals at risk. For example, he noted their recent accomplishment in successfully urging Microsoft to change their policies on the protection for information of NGOs and small media groups in 11 deemed repressive countries. Indeed, this change has now brought about greater protection for activists such as this speaker; however, it is clear that there is a way yet to go.
Overall, the guest speakers sought to highlight Amnesty’s work whereby human rights violations do not only equate to food, water, and shelter – subjects commonly associated with the developing world. Rather, they focused on the issues of education, protection, and freedom and their prominence and relevance today. This is especially poignant for the LGBTQ communities in even so-called developed nations.
The morning focused on identifying individuals at risk with four workshops – each focusing on a specific geographical area: Eritrea, North Africa, China, and the former Soviet Union. These workshops continued to stress the important messages of the guest speakers. Furthermore, they highlighted to the attendees that one way to make it more difficult for human rights defenders to be targeted is to increase their visibility. Through organisations like Amnesty International, they are given a global platform to do so and serves as a means of prevention to an extent.
Certainly, the belief that prevention is better than a cure when a cure is not yet possible rings true. Our international system has no international government. As such, international organisations, despite their strenuous and credible efforts, hold more of a capacity of guidance than authority. Thus, problems can and do arise. This issue was exactly what Amnesty International placed at the centre of this activists’ conference. While enormously positive work, even Amnesty acknowledges that its work cannot always have the desired impact. Moreover, it can, in fact, put individuals at greater risk because while Amnesty provides important publicity and support for their causes, it consequently increases their profiles to hostile and powerful groups and can put them in greater danger.
The theme of individuals at risk was incorporated in the afternoon plenary session, which focused on campaigning and action. Another round of workshops on ethical activism, children’s rights, political advocacy, and activist self-care highlighted all of the important aspects of Amnesty’s work with individuals at risk. Following this, the floor was opened up to questions to a panel consisting of the chair of Amnesty International UK (AIUK), Eilidh Doulas; the Director of Communications of the Amnesty International Secretariat, Osama Bhutta; the Director of the CEO’s office for AIUK, Tim Hancock; and the Programme Director for Amnesty Scotland, Naomi McAuliffe. In this session, some important issues were addressed, such as the ongoing issues in Israel/Palestine and the current proposal to encourage a boycott to help end the UK arms going to Israel. The posing dangers of artificial intelligence to Human Rights were also discussed along with how Amnesty is tackling it through its growing technology team at the International Secretariat.
In its conclusion, the conference focused on explaining the insights and expectations for Amnesty in 2020. For me, Amnesty continues to serve as an organisation that does vital work in a troubled international system, and while not perfect (but what really is), its crucial work serves to light up the darkest parts of our international system with its yellow glow, highlighting not only human rights violations and individuals at risk but also ways for resolution.
The conference’s coverage of a multitude of complex political, economic, and cultural issues – both in the so-called developing and developed world – demonstrated the global impact and breadth of the organization. Moreover, it encouraged attendees to leave pre- and misconceptions at the door regarding the work that Amnesty carries out. For me, if this conference proved anything, it is in fact that until there are no human rights violations, we really cannot call ourselves, of the so-called ‘developed’ western world, truly ‘developed’. The conference portrayed the raw honesty of the organization that sometimes they don’t get it right in terms of desired outcomes. There are indeed so many ‘risks’ involved in this field of work, but the action is always driven by a bid to protect and to do good and ALWAYS by ethical means.
In yellow, we see you.