Human Rights Campaigning: What’s the point?

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One of the first things I ask someone when we in the Amnesty International (AI) Society do an action of solidarity around University is “Do you know what Amnesty International is?”. The number of students who reply “I don’t know” is surprisingly high. Others reply “I don’t know anything about this particular campaign”, “I don’t believe signing a petition will work” or, simply, “I don’t care”. It is clear to us, then, that raising the awareness regarding human rights issues and organisations among fellow students is very important.

AI is one of the world’s largest human rights organisations. It has over 3 million supporters and is present in over 150 countries and territories.[1] It all started when, in 1961, Peter Benenson wrote an article entitled ‘The Forgotten Prisoners’ in The Observer defending two students in Portugal who had been imprisoned simply for raising a toast to freedom. They were the first prisoners of conscience adopted by what later that year became AI.[2] What started off as a very small organisation has grown to become a global movement during its 52 years in existence. Benenson’s main, overarching idea was that if people act together in solidarity, we can make an impact: indeed, that we can protect basic human rights around the world.

Sometimes, a person says that we cannot change the world simply by signing a petition. It is understandable that it can feel like an insignificant act – signing a petition on the concourse of Sheffield University, simply sending a text message or writing a letter asking for a government to stop violating human rights. However, it is important to remember that we are not the only ones signing that petition. Across the whole world, human rights organisations mobilise in order to get as many signatures as possible. In many instances this works, and the goal of the petition is obtained.

A point in case is Hafez Ibrahim from Yemen who was released from prison in 2007 after he was adopted as a prisoner of conscience by AI.[3] Being part of the AI UK Pocket Protesters, sending text messages to support urgent actions, is another great way of, for instance, pressuring a government to reveal the whereabouts of someone who has “disappeared”.[4] Letter writing is very much the core of Amnesty’s work. We send letters to governments in order to pressurise them to respect and uphold human rights and dignity. Letters sent to MPs has meant that Amnesty’s campaign regarding women’s rights in Afghanistan has strong support in Parliament.[5] We also send letters to prisoners of conscience which, they say, fill their days in prison with hope. Not only do they see that there are many people around the world who think of them, but, moreover, it can directly affect their security and well-being as many prisoners report being treated better by the guards due to all the public attention. Jenni Williams from Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) has stated that: “Phoning the police, faxing a protest, signing a postcard – all these things make a difference because they send a clear message… I believe that the phone calls to the police in Zimbabwe during my arrest saved me from torture and rape…”[6] It is evident, then, that caring can make a difference. That is not to say that every petition will always achieve its goal. Many petitions can, however, have a real, positive impact upon someone’s life and it is therefore worth doing.

Sometimes, people question our campaign focus by arguing that there are other human rights violations that are worse than the one we focus on in a specific campaign. In response to that I would maintain that doing something is better than doing nothing. It is unlikely that we can end all human rights abuses, but we need to start somewhere. I particularly liked the metaphor used by Lucy-Anne Holmes, the founder of the ‘No More Page 3’ campaign, when talking about why she chose to start with The Sun’s Page 3 and not something else which, according to some, is more sexist. She said that not starting anywhere because there is always something else that is worse, is a bit like looking at a messy room and say that you are not going to tidy it at all because you aren’t sure about where you should start.

Why is human rights campaigning important, then? Can we not just sit back and say “this doesn’t concern me”? Or think “it is more important to fix problems in Britain”? I would uphold that we can’t do that because, as AI Switzerland made clear in their striking advertisement campaign: although a human rights violation does not happen right here, it is happening somewhere else right now. [7] In my view, knowing that human rights violations take place but doing nothing at all to stop such abuses, is a shame. Particularly when we know that campaigning can and does work. Personally, I believe that we should all care about human rights as it is something which transcends national borders, laws and customs: we all have human rights simply because we are human. Caring is the first step in the right direction; acting upon such issues is the next. Together we can make a difference. Therefore, I encourage all my fellow students to be involved human rights campaigning.