The candle burns not for us, but for all those whom we failed to rescue from prison, who were shot on the way to prison, who were tortured, who were kidnapped, who “disappeared”. That’s what the candle is for.
Peter Benenson, founder of Amnesty International
Thank you, Mr Cohen, for choosing Amnesty for your weekly article on The Observer. You really seemed deeply concerned with the current situation and the future of this organisation. I joined Amnesty when I was 15 and I am still a (proud) member of this movement. Therefore, I should say, before anything else, that I am at least as worried as you are with the lack of confidence between Amnesty staff and the leadership team in London and elsewhere. Like thousands of other AI activists all over the world, I was also very upset with the mismanagement of the Irene Khan scandal a couple of years ago. It was definitely the worst crisis of Amnesty in many years, one of the worst ones in the whole history of this organisation.
If you don´t mind me saying, I think you put too many things in your mixer: the growth of the scope of action of Amnesty over time, the economic crisis and its impact on Amnesty’s resources, the decision to open up regional hubs around the world, the secretary general’s words in a recent interview for Al Jazeera… Steve Hynd, a blogger and an Amnesty member in the UK, has made an effort to reply to some of your points one by one. He’s done a good job, better than what I could do myself, so if you´re interested I´d refer you to his blog.
Mr Cohen, I read your article online last night. I normally read the paper early in the morning, but yesterday was different. I spent the whole weekend in Madrid sharing ideas with about 150 other activists of AI Spain, many of whom, I’m happy to say, have become good friends of mine. We discussed to what extent the economic crisis is having a negative impact over our resources. We talked about how to increase the number of youth activists in the local groups. We spoke about the need for better accountability both in the Global South and in the North. We also had the chance to share best practices of action: We watched a wonderful video made by kids from primary and secondary school with a human rights theme. I’m sure you´ll love it! (Fyi, it took 3 months and it cost €200; sometimes Amnesty doesn´t spend half a million GBP, you see?)
We also heard from a young student who had suffered ill-treatment from police in a recent demonstration (you can read more about the issue in this report). And, yes, we also spent two hours talking about the project to create more regional offices, its impact on our staff and their very understandable concerns. It was a weekend full of insightful exchange of ideas and exciting moments. It was also a very emotional weekend, quite sad at times.
I came back home (200 miles north from Madrid), turned on my computer, opened the browser, looked for The Observer and suddenly… your article. There you told me that “at times it appears as if they (Amnesty leaders) have crossed over to the enemy”. I would ask you who the enemy is. I would perhaps comment on it, but the problem is that you finished your paragraph with that phrase. That’s it: Amnesty (leaders) equals “the enemy”. Case closed. It seems quite empty to me, one of those things one can say in a pub between one sip and the next of the fourth pint. You know what I mean: The kind of empty collection of words one doesn´t expect reading on The Observer.
“Many people out there are counting on you”. These are not your words, obviously. That’s what Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, a LGBT Rights activist from Uganda, said in the last world meeting of Amnesty, held in The Netherlands in August 2011. I mention it and leave her speech here because I believe it is relevant, but also because “those who support (human rights) know little of the global south”, according to your well-informed appraisal. Therefore, I think it´s better to let her speak for herself.
There is something else I wouldn´t like to miss, Mr Cohen: You imply that Amnesty started losing its way when it began to “support a hodgepodge of “progressive” ideas”, starting with the opposition to the death penalty. I never thought that such a position was so progressive, but if that’s the case, I´m happy to be lost.
Mr Cohen, in your last paragraph you invite The Observer readers to make Amnesty get back on track: “Organise, occupy, vote out the current board and elect a better one”. Great plan, Mr Cohen! That´s actually one of the things I am most proud about: The democratic governance of this movement, where thousands of activists discuss issues before they get approved (or not) by democratically elected bodies. The world can change but it won´t change by itself. Amnesty needs more people, more hands and more brains. Actually, do you know why I think Amnesty is not fit to fight on anyone’s behalf? I´ll give you the answer: Because we need you, Mr Cohen! Who knows? You may even be the one who makes all the difference fulfilling Amnesty’s vision of a world where all human rights are respected for all.
PS: Mr Cohen, in case you’re running out of ideas for your weekly articles, you may want to write something about Hakamada Iwao. This 77-year-old man from Japan is the world’s longest serving death row inmate. He has spent 44 years in prison under the threat of execution for a crime he says he did not commit. (Find out more about Hakamada here). Volunteer activists of Amnesty groups all over the world are working tirelessly to get him out of the death corridor. Your contribution would be highly appreciated.