Those silenced voices of freedom

Reflections on Amnesty International’s Role

Women protestors marching to Pearl roundabout, Manama, Bahrain, 22 February 2011. Credit: Amnesty International

These days, many Egyptians best remember Amnesty International for being all but absent in Tahrir Square. And they have thanked us for it.

Monday’s morning plenary at the ICM 2011 was an action shot of our response to extraordinary times across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), but also a reminder of who we are and always have been, and why our contribution remains distinct and necessary.

Treading the Sidelines

To be precise: according to panelists, Egyptian civil society has appreciated how we complemented their struggle with our work, and that we gave solidarity but also space to their efforts. While they were busy making history, Diana Eltahawy, researcher in the MENA programme, and other Amnesty International colleagues traveled across the country in all directions, meeting people injured in the protests, the families of those killed, thereby collecting precious evidence. Of course they were also in Tahrir Square. “It was difficult to keep on my Amnesty hat,” Diana admits, herself an Egyptian who grew up under the Mubarak regime and who has worked with several Egyptian human rights organisations. Still, she is glad that Amnesty played an important role during those days by doing what it does best: research. Claudio Cordone, who originally joined Amnesty International in 1985 as MENA researcher, and has been Senior Director for Research and Regional Programmes since 2004, recounted the days, nights and weekends and volunteered by researchers and other staff at the International Secretariat to react swiftly, but cautiously. In fact, as Claudio remarks, the rigor of our work throughout the crisis response sifted out exaggerations on mercenaries and systematic rape, as well as the alleged threat to a Syrian lesbian activist, which turned out to be a fabrication.

AI also intervened swiftly in real situations, and two people were in the plenary to tell the tale: panelist Radhia Nasraoui, a Tunisian human rights lawyer who has dedicated her life to defending political activists says “thank you Amnesty, one of the organizations who are most present, there has not been a moment in which we have felt forgotten. It is thanks to AI that Ben Ali did not dare to arrest me again.” An Amnesty International Tunisia activist told of how in 2010 he was put in prison despite chronic disease: “during those months it was Amnesty that took rapid action for me to be freed.”

The protests sweeping across the MENA region also point to the centrality of economic and social rights in the struggle across the region, and the way in which civil and political repression, for example of protests, cannot be separated from the claims of those protests which stem from economic and social rights violations. Radhia pointed out from the panel that in all the villages of Tunisia, slogans focused their protest against unemployment.  Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director of the Amnesty International MENA Programme said that “this was also a post-fact validation of our approach, and our decision to work on economic social and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights. People simply had had enough of the inequality, 40% people living under the poverty line, millions living in slums.”

Minus the crisis context though, this really is business as usual. The panel’s account of our work in the MENA region is emblematic of how Amnesty International makes a difference more generally. And that’s knowing our role and playing it well: stepping aside, metaphorically, to allow people to speak out for themselves and fight the struggle that is theirs, while tirelessly doing the research we are respected for worldwide.

Staying in the Aftermath

Mind you, ‘stepping aside’ does not lose sight of those which even dissenters are wont to forget. Diana relates how we create space also for the voiceless, for example in Libya. In relation to her research in the country, she recalled that “people were happy for us to document Qaddafi’s violations, but less so regarding documentation of the opposition’s actions,” for example, the lynching of migrant workers mistaken as mercenaries, a misconception which was compounded by the media coverage and endangered some 1.5 million Sub-Saharan migrant workers in the country.

Tomorrow, Diana will begin her travel toward Libya to launch the latest report. “Accountability is for all,” she says. And please don’t call it the ‘Arab spring’ either, Hassiba pointed out already on day one of the ICM. Unless you want to exclude a plethora of minorities (ethnic, religious and others) who have populated the region for centuries.

Finally, back to Tahrir Square. The panel wraps up with a video clip, a song called Sout Al Horeya (Voice of Freedom) with footage of protests and singing in the Square. The band paces the streets and protesters mouth the lyrics: “We made those who couldn’t hear finally listen/we broke down all the barriers”. There are hardly any women, either in the foreground or background, and I only catch two who are actually featured singing when I watch it again later (a small girl and a young woman, both with a man’s arm over their shoulder—a father and a husband respectively, most likely. 8 or so other women and girls appear in the still shots).

Film analysis aside, that triggers the thought of two other testimonies in this plenary room: just yesterday, during the first substantive panel on women’s rights, the chair of Amnesty International Tunisia touchingly remembered the participation and inclusion of women in the protests, some of whom expressed that they had experienced equality and acceptance as human beings for the first time. She then told how they are now being slowly but surely pushed out of the decision-making that has followed. Then, just before today’s plenary, Aïcha Kabore Zoungrana of Amnesty International Burkina Faso cited her status as a woman as one of the reasons she joined the movement. Women in Burkina Faso are second-class citizens in terms of their rights to health, education, development and financial autonomy.

One thing is for sure,” Diana Eltahawy said about the MENA region. “Things will never be the same.” How they will be different, then, is the real struggle underway. Amnesty International has a continued role to play in giving space, but also pushing to make that space for those who risk losing a newfound voice. They are counting on us.

About Catherine Bevilacqua

Catherine Bevilacqua has been an AI activist since 2000. She was regional and then national youth coordinator for AI Italy until 2005. More recently, she interned at AI's office to the UN in Geneva and with AI’s Asia-Pacific Programme. Catherine studied social discrimination and related human rights advocacy in India while at Harvard University, USA and Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. She is completing an LL.M. in International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at the University of Essex, UK. Catherine Bevilacqua est militante d’AI depuis 2000. Elle a été coordonnatrice régionale et puis nationale de la jeunesse pour la section d’Italie jusqu'en 2005. Plus récemment, elle était stagiaire au bureau d'AI à l'ONU à Genève et avec le Programme d’AI pour l’Asie-Pacifique. Catherine a étudié la discrimination sociale et les mouvements des droits humains en Inde, à Harvard University aux Etats-Unis et à l'Université Jawaharlal Nehru à New Delhi. Elle est en train de compléter une maîtrise en droit international spécialisée en droits humains et droit humanitaire à l'Université d'Essex, au Royaume-Uni. Catherine Bevilacqua es activista de AI desde 2000. Fue coordinadora regional y nacional de jóvenes para AI Italia hasta 2005. Más recientemente, hizo una pasantía en la oficina de AI ante la ONU en Ginebra y con el Programa AI sobre Asia-Pacífico. Catherine estudió la discriminación social y los relativos movimientos por derechos humanos en la India, en la Universidad de Harvard, EE.UU. y la Universidad Jawaharlal Nehru en Nueva Delhi. Ahora está terminando una Maestría en Derecho Internacional de los Derechos Humanos y Derecho Humanitario en la Universidad de Essex, Reino Unido.
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