Standing with individuals, tackling global problems
2013 year-end message from Amnesty International
– by Alex Neve
Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada
One thing so powerful and important about Amnesty International’s work is that we strive to make a difference in the lives of individuals and communities facing human rights violations; while also campaigning for global change that will protect rights and prevent violations from happening in the first place.
This year has been such a compelling reminder that working at both of those levels is so pressing and necessary. And on each of those fronts – standing with individuals and tackling global problems – we have seen moments of great triumph; and of deep despair.
Responding to human rights violations through Human Rights Missions
I have been involved in two front line missions this year focused on responding to two different human rights crises in Sudan. And the triumph and despair faced by individuals and communities was so apparent.
In January, as part of a mission to the volatile frontier between Sudan and South Sudan and across the border into Sudan’s troubled Southern Kordofan state, I met recently released prisoner of conscience Dr. Bushra Gama, who had been imprisoned by Sudanese authorities because of his efforts to draw attention to human rights violations in Southern Kordofan. Amnesty International had taken up his case, as it was clear he was a prisoner of conscience. And now he is out; and safe.
“While in prison I learned that Amnesty International had taken up my case and right away I knew that I would not be killed.”
• Dr. Bushra Gamar, released prisoner of conscience, Southern Kordofan, Sudan
It was beyond inspiring to hear his certainty that he owed his freedom to Amnesty International and was determined to continue with his important human rights work. Triumph.
In November I was in remote corners of eastern Chad, interviewing refugees who have streamed across the Sudan/Chad border escaping a very worrying surge in violence and human rights violations in Darfur. That is where I met 10 year old Khadija, who talked of the loss of her father, her family’s escape into Chad and her sense of fear; all in a quiet, sorrowful voice. Despair.
But even with Khadija I was able to talk to her about the fact that there were people all around the world who would do everything possible to take away her fear and make it possible for her family to one day return home in safety. And I saw the beginning of a smile, particularly in her eyes.
“My father was shot and killed during the attack. We all ran away. I have never been so afraid in my life. In the past it was my father who made me feel okay when I was afraid, but he couldn’t do that this time.”
• Khadija, 10 year old refugee from Darfur, Sudan
Our work globally this year has also seen both despair and triumph. What could be more despairing than to watch the wrenching crisis in Syria deepen? The numbers killed mount. The numbers displaced within Syria mount. The numbers who have fled across the border as refugees mount. The number of children killed and traumatized by the conflict mount. And the world seems paralyzed and unable to bring this unimaginable crisis to an end. Through our research we continue to bring the nature and scope of the atrocities to the world’s attention.
Through our campaigning we continue to press governments to take the steps necessary to end this tragedy. We will continue; we must.
In April, the world gets an Arms Trade Treaty
But what triumph in April! After years of unrelenting research and campaigning, Amnesty International celebrated the UN’s adoption of a global Arms Trade Treaty. The treaty will, at long last, bring sorely-needed human rights rules to the deadly trade in arms that fuels human rights violations in every corner of the world; including Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Syria. When we first pressed governments to take this step, years ago, we were told that it was naïve and unrealistic to imagine that states would ever agree to limit their trade in weapons. But once again perseverance and determination have won the day.
Not that we close that file by any means. For now we must encourage states to first sign and then legally ratify the new treaty. Over 100 states have taken that first step, which is largely symbolic, including the United States. But Canada has not yet done either.
There have been many sweet moments of triumph to savour this year when it comes to our work with individuals.
Hamid Ghassemi-Shall’s safe return to Canada
What joy to welcome Canadian citizen Hamid Ghassemi-Shall back to Canada after more than 5 years of wrongful imprisonment in Iran, much of that time spent in solitary confinement and under a sentence of death. Over the years we have worked closely with his wife Antonella Mega in her tireless campaign to save his life and win his freedom. We embraced her stirring mantra of ‘I’m not giving up’; and we will take that same spirit with us as we continue with effort s to free other prisoners in Iran and elsewhere and to stave off executions in the ever smaller number of countries that hang on to the death penalty. Among others it certainly will inspire our campaigning on behalf of Canadian citizens Huseyin Celil and Bashir Makhtal, serving life sentences in China and Ethiopia; and Ron Smith, on death row in Montana.
A remarkable string of releases
Other prisoners of conscience whose cases were taken up by Amnesty International were freed this year as well. In August Chinese human rights activist Shi Tao was released, 15 months before the end of his ten year sentence. He had been convicted after Yahoo provided Chinese authorities access to his email account. In September courageous Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was freed, and wasted no time in reminding the world that there is still much to be done in the effort to protect human rights in Iran.
Our global effort on the world’s most pressing human rights fronts
Our global efforts have continued on many fronts. We have made it a priority to draw attention to the terrible crisis faced by Indigenous peoples in Colombia, where 1/3 of the country’s Indigenous nations face physical or cultural extermination. Canada has an ever closer relationship with Colombia, including through a new trade deal, and we are increasingly concerned that Canada is not doing all we can and should to stand up for the rights of Indigenous peoples in that context.
• The ups and downs of change and turmoil in Egypt.
• The attention brought to Sri Lanka’s grim human rights record when the country hosted an important Commonwealth Summit.
• Watching and responding to protest and crackdown in Turkey, Ukraine and Thailand.
• Continuing to speak out about entrenched human rights violations in Israel.
• Highlighting that important human rights protections are at stake in high profile cases such as Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks, dealing with surveillance, secrecy and access to information in the digital age.
• Pressing for human rights not to take a back seat to trade and investment in China.
• And, at year’s end, mobilizing quickly in the face of a spiralling human rights nightmare in the Central African Republic.
Amnesty International was and is active on all of those fronts: documenting the violations, standing with survivors, supporting front line activists, speaking to the media, and campaigning for change.
And we stay vigilant as well with respect to pressing human rights concerns closer to home.
Human rights priorities in Canada
Our campaigning to end violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada is nearing the ten year mark; and with that approaching milestone this was a year of remarkable activity and progress. All provincial and territorial premiers have spoken out. All provincial, territorial and national human rights commissions have spoken out. Three missions to Canada this year by UN and Inter-American human rights experts examined this grave human rights problem. And in October more Canadians participated in ‘Stolen Sisters’ vigils than ever before.
We have actively drawn attention to other pressing human rights concerns facing Indigenous peoples in Canada as well, including failure to uphold important land and resource rights and to ensure equal respect for Indigenous peoples of such crucial rights as access to safe water, education and child protection.
And we have taken action with respect to other concerns about women’s human rights, such as the consistent refusal of the Canadian government to recognize how important sexual and reproductive rights are in addressing such serious human rights challenges as maternal mortality, sexual violence in armed conflict and the practice of early and forced marriage.
We continued to highlight the need for greater accountability for Canadian mining, oil and gas companies operating around the world, very often at the frontlines of armed conflict, grave human rights violations and extreme poverty. Over the course of this year we have drawn particular attention to concerns associated with Canadian mining companies in Guatemala.
We have highlighted that Quebec’s proposed Charter of Values infringes key international human rights norms. We have spoken out about failings in Canadian refugee laws and policy, such as the shameful decision to cutback funding for refugee healthcare. And we have continued to push Canada to ensure that human rights are not trumped by national security, such as the guidelines allowing information obtained under torture to be used by Canadian intelligence agencies and the continuing failure to recognize that Omar Khadr’s rights as a child soldier must be respected.
Working together for a better world
We have pursued all of this work and more in so many different ways. We have promoted petitions and letter writing through our web-sites, Facebook and Twitter. Volunteer lawyers have intervened on our behalf in important court cases, including three times this year at the Supreme Court of Canada. We have organized public events such as film festivals, concerts and talks. We have been out in the street; in schools; and at summer fairs. We have been in MPs’ offices; before Parliamentary Committees; and on the evening news. We have spoken to family and friends, co-workers and strangers. We have travelled to the frontlines in Africa and in Canada; to the UN in New York and Geneva; and to lecture halls and shopping malls just down the street. And at the end of the year we have again gathered in such impressive numbers across the country at events as part of our annual Write for Rights campaign marking International Human Rights Day.
We carry on into 2014, with you
All of that energy and determination lies behind the many moments of triumph. All of that energy and determination is what gives us the resolve to dig down deep and confront the continuing situations of despair.
And it all is possible only because of you. Your support through activism and through generous financial support is what helps to unlock the prison doors for Hamid Ghassemi-Shall and Bushra Gamar; stand with Khadija and her family in a Darfuri refugee camp; convince states to adopt the wonderful new Arms Trade Treaty; and insist, ever louder, that the crisis in Syria come to an end.
Thank you. I hope we can count on your continued – and even increased – support in 2014.
Amnesty International Canada