As delegates filed into the plenary room, a song played, subtly reminding them to heed the voices of the people whose human rights they are working to protect.
The music faded, and the session began with a video message from Binayak Sen, an Indian physician and human rights activist who was imprisoned for his advocacy on behalf of some of India’s most marginalized communities. After thanking Amnesty International for helping bring about his release, Sen reminded us that we still have work to do. Around the world, the era of globalization has brought increasing polarization between rich and poor:
“These patterns of oppression… have to be addressed from an international platform. This is an important part of the role that Amnesty can play… in the coming years.”
Fighting the patterns of oppression: Next, Amnesty International sections from around the world reported in on their Demand Dignity campaigns:
- Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK’s Director, shared her section’s work on Corporate Accountability.
- Lawrence Amesu, the Director of Amnesty International Ghana, discussed efforts to ensure that slum dwellers have a voice in projects to improve their living conditions and to stop forced evictions.
- Colm O’Gorman, Amnesty International Ireland’s Director, told of campaigns to urge the Irish government to ratify the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and to improve the treatment conditions for the mentally ill.
An effort to engage rights holders was a common theme across the presentations. Activists around the world are working to empower people, from villagers in the Niger Delta impacted by a Shell oil spill to Ghanaian slum dwellers to Ireland’s mentally ill, to speak up for their own rights.
Throughout their speeches, the Directors also highlighted the power of the media. By staging public demonstrations or providing strong research and reports, Amnesty has been able to influence how struggles for economic, social, and cultural rights are portrayed in the press. Amnesty International Ghana shifted the common portrayal of slum dwellers as criminals to an image of slum dwellers as human beings who deserve rights while numerous global news outlets highlighted Amnesty International UK’s report in media coverage of the impact of the Niger Delta oil spill.
Yet as I reflect on these themes within the context of the ICM, I see some of the challenges facing the global Amnesty International movement as we campaign for economic, social, and cultural rights. How can we weave together the many levels of our work? We are striving to connect so many different worlds: the high-level policy discussions that are the focus of the ICM, campaigns to impact how the media portrays human rights abuses, and efforts to help the world’s poorest citizens raise their voices. Dealing with difficult internal policy decisions and exciting media campaigns, we can easily forget to incorporate the world’s poor and marginalized, the people who are not attending the ICM or cannot access Amnesty International’s website or even the internet and other news sources.
On a more personal level, I am grappling with how to bring together the many threads of Amnesty International within my own work. Having come to the ICM directly from spending two months doing research in psychiatric hospitals in Ghana and soon returning to my Amnesty International student group in the US, I am witnessing these many levels. More than anything else, this morning’s panel inspired me to work to see my activism within the larger context of Amnesty, considering how each of my actions takes the voices of rights holders into account and reflects the priorities and strategies of the movement.
As the session drew to a close, everyone took action, creating Butterflies of Hope to send to Nicaraguan women who, on September 28, will be demonstrating to demand an end to violence against women and girls and the repeal of the total abortion ban.
Taking action in solidarity with these women and girls reflected what Savio Carvalho, the Director of Demand Dignity, noted at the start of the session:
“We must work to frame Amnesty’s work around a commitment to the most marginalized. We strengthen their campaign, their struggle, their fight, making it ours… They don’t support our work. We support theirs.”