Human rights in 2014: Standing together and speaking out for human rights


Don’t Let Down Your Guard:  Standing together and speaking out for human rights

– Year end message to Amnesty International supporters from Alex Neve, Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada

There were so many reminders during 2014 of how deeply important solidarity is in our human rights work.  The solidarity Amnesty offers is made possible only through your support.  That solidarity makes a tremendous difference in defending human rights, everywhere.  It bolsters, protects and inspires.  It is the very essence of universal human rights.

It is about standing alongside individuals and communities; and doing so over the long term.  It means bearing witness when the world looks away; and joining our voices to frontline demands for justice.  Supporting women, men and young people everywhere in the struggle for human rights is at the very heart of Amnesty International. 

Around the world and here in Canada, so many times this year I saw and heard just how valuable that is.

The solidarity shown by Amnesty supporters bolsters, protects, and inspires


The inspiring story of Ángel Colón

  From investigation into his wrongful imprisonment to freedom – YOU helped give him back his life

As part of our global campaign to Stop Torture, I joined an Amnesty delegation in a visit to prisoner of conscience and torture survivor Ángel Colón in a maximum security prison in the mountains of the Mexican state of Nayarit.  Ángel was a migrant from the Afro-Caribbean Garífuna community in Honduras, where he was a human rights and environmental activist.  When his young son was diagnosed with cancer he set off to reach the United States and earn money to afford better treatments.  But when he was arrested at a safe house in Tijuana while waiting to cross the border, racism took hold.  Mexican authorities refused to believe that a black man could be anything other than a criminal.  First the police and then the military tortured him relentlessly until he broke and “confessed” to being part of a criminal gang. 

For five years he was not charged or brought to trial. He was not given access to a lawyer, his family or consular visits.  Authorities paid no attention to his protests about having been tortured.  Finally he got word out through the family of another prisoner, asking them to contact Amnesty International.  That led to referral to a human rights lawyer and then Amnesty’s decision earlier this year to take up his case and campaign for his release. 

Sadly, his son died from the cancer that Ángel had been hoping could be beaten. Having been through so much injustice and sadness, I was ready to meet an embittered man behind those prison walls.  But instead we met a man full of hope and grace.  A man who was moved to tears to learn of the thousands of people who had been campaigning for his release.  A man whose parting words to us were, ‘do not let down your guard’.  It was a powerful reminder that the struggle for human rights requires tenacity and perseverance.

Amnesty activists in Canada and around the world took his words to heart.   They most certainly did not let down their guard.  There were more letters, more petitions, more Facebook messages and tweets, more media interviews and more embassy visits.  And less than six weeks after our visit, Ángel Colón was indeed once again a free man!

His words will inspire our activism for a long time.  Do not let down your guard. 


You helped us rally support for kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria

  Our report just prior to the kidnapping spoke of the danger of Boko Haram. Vulnerable women and girls still need our help

We reached out in solidarity to help the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls

We saw such incredible solidarity this year when women and girls were targeted and punished in Nigeria and Sudan.  Amnesty researchers worked hard to uncover as much background as possible when 273 schoolgirls were abducted by Nigeria’s notorious Boko Haram in April.  Amnesty supporters everywhere quickly joined the resounding global call to #BringBackOurGirls, a call that must continue to be heard loudly in 2015.

One million spoke out and helped bring the release of Meriam, a woman sentenced to death in Sudan while pregnant

Amnesty responded quickly when Meriam Ibrahim was sentenced to death in Sudan in May, accused of adultery after she married a Christian man.  Shackled in prison, she gave birth to a daughter shortly after her death sentence had been imposed.  Solidarity with Meriam and her family was monumental, much of it led by Amnesty International.  The Sudanese government had no choice but to relent.  Meriam was freed and was able to leave Sudan in July.

100,000 spoke out in solidarity with a mining activist who was shot for protecting her community in Guatemala

This year we released an important report on human rights and mining in Guatemala, where communities have struggled for their rights to be protected amidst an influx of mining companies.  Individuals who speak out about mining have been vilified, attacked and killed.  Yolanda Oquelí, a courageous mining activist, was almost killed for taking a stand for rights. 

When we shared the news that over 100,000 people worldwide spoke out for her safety, she said that made her feel she was part of a ‘family in all parts of the world’ which gave her a ‘force she could not describe.’ Our solidarity with Yolanda and communities across Guatemala in the campaign to ensure the country’s mining laws respect human rights is so crucial, particularly given that the majority of foreign mining interests in the country are Canadian.


With your help people in South Sudan’s conflict were not forgotten

  An elder in South Sudan tells us: “When everyone else has forgotten; Amnesty is always there

You helped me say “Amnesty International is always there” to people displaced in South Sudan 

In a South Sudanese displaced persons camp this summer I met with a camp elder, Simon Luk.  He and his family suffered a great deal in the horrifying wave of violence that devastated South Sudan this year.  He also shared with me the deeper tragedy of sacrifice and loss that his family has endured over several decades of war, liberation, war, independence and, once again, war.  But he wanted me to know what a constant Amnesty International had been throughout.  As he put it: ‘I know Amnesty International very well.  When everyone else has forgotten; Amnesty International is always there.  You have always been there for us. And now here you are today.’

You helped us bring protection to Indigenous leaders and activists who received death threats in Colombia

We have responded quickly and forcefully when human rights defenders we have worked with in Colombia have come under attack.  Amnesty supporters across the country responded immediately when we learned that Indigenous leader Flaminio Onogama Gutiérrez, who has spoken at Amnesty events in Canada, had received death threats.  As a result of that pressure the Colombian government agreed to provide him with a bodyguard and other protection.

We mobilized quickly as well when Juan Pablo Gutiérrez, a photographer and activist who works closely with endangered Indigenous communities in Colombia, was threatened with death.   His evocative photos have brought Amnesty’s campaign to protect Colombia’s Indigenous peoples to life.  Now he was the one at risk.  Thousands of Canadian spoke out and the Colombian government responded, assigning the country’s National Protection Unit to keep him safe.


We were there on the front line as the Ebola crisis struck West Africa

And we demonstrated solidarity with people throughout West Africa during the unprecedented Ebola crisis. Amnesty International staff and members in Sierra Leone and elsewhere in the region have experienced and confronted the tragedy directly. They have emphasized the human rights dimensions of this massive public health emergency; trying to prevent discrimination against specific groups and promote safety for health workers.


And for murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada, you helped put this on the national agenda

Our solidarity is important here at home as well.  In 2004 we marked ten years since the launch of our Stolen Sisters report, bringing our solidarity to the struggle to address violence against Indigenous women in Canada.  Central to a decade of work has been standing with survivors, families and frontline activists, whose demands for justice have been ignored for far too long.    Their courage and determination has inspired our activism.  In turn, Amnesty’s activism has given them hope and strength. While the Canadian government has not agreed to launch a public inquiry leading to a national action plan; we are closer to that goal than ever. The tragic cases of two Cree teenage girls in Winnipeg this year – the murder of Tina Fontaine and brutal attack against Rinelle Harper – starkly reminded us why that matters so very much.

You helped ensure that Amnesty researchers were on the ground to provide independent, impartial reporting and research during some of the most tragic crises of 2014, from Syria to the Ukraine 


You helped us speak up for civilians  

  The scale of the crisis in Syria is staggering – unparalleled in recent history

Thank you!

The world has certainly needed considerable solidarity on the human rights front in 2014. 

Armed conflict and massive human rights violations claimed the lives of untold thousands of people and displaced millions, in Syria, northern Iraq, Ukraine, Gaza/Israel, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.  Amnesty was there. 

Our researchers gathered firsthand testimonies and documented the truth about what was happening. We issued reports highlighting violations and abuses committed by both sides to the fighting.  We mobilized, across Canada and around the world. We called for arms embargos to keep weapons out of the hands of violators.  We pressed for justice, to break the impunity that protects war criminals.  We demanded protection, to keep refugees, the internally displaced and vulnerable civilians safe.  And we pushed Canada to take a consistent stand for human rights, expressing dismay about the government’s unwillingness to criticize human rights violations committed by Israeli forces in Gaza.    

Amnesty’s candle has burned bright in many dark corners this year. Your support made that possible.


With your support, we’re helping to stop the horrific, inhumane practice of torture – you’ve helped make this our global priority


Your solidarity gives torture survivors the courage to speak up 

  Marina Nemat was tortured in Iran when she was 16 years old

Our Stop Torture campaign is shining a light on a deeply-entrenched human rights crisis.  Six months into a two year campaign and we are already making a difference, such as when Ángel Colón walked free from his Mexican jail.  The release of the jarring US Senate Committee report documenting the brutal torture carried out by the US government during the so-called ‘war on terror’ was a stark reminder that our campaign is timely.  We will focus domestically also, including a push to convince Canada to ratify an important torture prevention treaty, the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture.  Fifty other Canadian organizations have joined us in a call to the Canadian government to do so within a year.

You’ve helped make business accountable for human rights impacts 

Much of our human rights work has highlighted the ways that irresponsible business practices, short-sighted trade policies and lack of government regulation imperil human rights in Canada and around the world.  We continue to press for the land rights of Indigenous peoples to be protected amidst the influx of mining, pipeline, oil, gas and forestry companies into their territories.  We have taken that message to boardrooms, government offices, Parliament Hill, the Supreme Court and the United Nations. 

We played a role in two ground-breaking decisions upholding the rights of the Tsilhqot’in people in BC this year.  But there were also ample reminders that there is still far to go.  The crucial right of ‘free, prior and informed consent’ was disregarded in the conditional approval granted for the Northern Gateway pipeline. And the annual Canada/Colombia free trade agreement human rights assessment ignored the grave crisis faced by Colombia’s Indigenous peoples. 

And for some of the most vulnerable people – you’ve helped give them a voice

It has, been a difficult year for refugees.  But Amnesty members joined with concerned Canadians across the country in pressing for a recent spate of mean-spirited and restrictive measures to be repealed.  We enthusiastically welcomed a Federal Court ruling overturning punitive cuts to refugee health care and our volunteer lawyers are now preparing to intervene in the government’s appeal of that decision.

Our voice has also been loud and clear in urging Canada to make a generous commitment to resettle Syrian refugees to Canada. The UN has appealed for urgent assistance to ensure that vulnerable refugees receive the protection they require and the load is lightened for Syria’s overwhelmed neighbours, now sheltering 3.8 million refugees.  As the year ends we await word as to what the government will pledge.

We have spoken out for the rights of other groups too often left at the margins of Canadian society and for whom solidarity is so vital.  We were before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal supporting a discrimination complaint brought on behalf of First Nations children living on reserves.  We were in Parliament, pushing for adoption of laws to protect transgender individuals.   And we were in an Ontario court, backing up a call for a human rights approach to tackling homelessness.  Those legal pushes have been reinforced by letters, petitions and messages of solidarity, all of which will continue in 2015.

We will always speak up for your rights – for security, for free speech – rights we all share

National security is back on the public agenda following the October attacks in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa.  Amnesty International has reminded the government that before rushing ahead with increased powers for security agencies, it is crucial to finally address Canada’s very worrying national security oversight gap.  Coming out of the 2006 public inquiry into Maher Arar’s case, the government has a well-developed proposal for national security review which has languished for years.  Joining together with a range of groups across the country Amnesty will push for action on this front in 2015.

Notably, there has been greater need than ever for solidarity among Canadian human rights groups and activists over the past year.  Concern mounts about various government measures that have targeted and punished organizations who disagree with laws and policies dealing with a number of issues, including environmental protection, the rights of Palestinians and gender equality.  With a growing number of groups hesitant to speak out because they worry about reprisal, solidarity is essential.


Standing together and speaking out for solidarity

  Over 1.4 million actions during Write for Rights … and counting

THANK YOU for all we accomplished together in 2014!

Thank you for your solidarity and for standing strong for human rights this year.

Thank you for writing letters during our annual Write for Rights, gathering signatures on petitions at your school , retweeting and liking our Facebook and Twitter actions, organizing vigils alongside the families of murdered and missing Indigenous women, and sponsoring film nights.  Thank you for the countless other ways you have creatively and passionately spoken out for human rights.

Thank you also for your essential financial support.  Your donations have allowed us to send research teams into war-torn northern Iraq, displaced persons camps in South Sudan, and Mexican prison cells. Your generosity has made it possible for us to bring that research to life through campaigns and activism demanding change.   Your support is the very foundation of our human rights work; to live up to Ángel Colón’s challenge to us: don’t let down your guard.