Why Amnesty International Matters

Excerpt from August 10, 2020 blog post

Shine a light on human rights

Amnesty International first captured my heart and mind and imagination at a booth at Granville Island in Vancouver, British Columbia just after graduation from UBC. I saw the possibility of working with people committed to human rights to create a fairer and more equitable world. I was young, optimistic and newly empowered with a university degree. I was in education and believed with all my heart that if people knew better, then they would do better.

The premise behind Amnesty International is to “shine a light on human rights” and reveal the facts of imprisonment, abuse, miscarriage of justice, and extrajudicial killings to a wider audience.  The gold standard of social justice is the Declaration of Human Rights and Freedoms signed December 10th, 1948.  The goal of Amnesty International research is for it to document the facts.  It is checked with three reliable sources before it is published.  In most cases, people do not work on cases in their own countries to avoid reprisals.  Exceptions are made for Americans working to stop capital punishment and Canadians working against abuses of Indigenous People.

The most affirming part of Amnesty work has been meeting prisoners who had been released by their governments once letters from Amnesty members around the world started to arrive.  These governments still believed in the currency of truth and did not want to be embarrassed on the world stage by overtly ignoring human rights.  It was encouraging to work with community members and students who were fully engaged in learning about human rights and ready to work towards their vision of how they wanted the world to be.  Amnesty International training is also excellent.  I learned about “Unpacking White Privilege” with activities that were respectful of the different starting points into the conversation with people in my community and from around Canada and just as relevant today.

The most frustrating part of Amnesty work for me is writing on behalf of extra-judicial killings, capital punishment in the United States, and Indigenous Rights in Canada.  The same painstaking work to collect facts and triangulation was done.  The Declaration of Rights and Freedoms was still a reference point.  However, there was a vested interest in secrecy and skewing facts.  The investment in maintaining the status quo seems to over-rule truth in too many cases.  Governments did not step up to admit that a person had not been granted a fair trial.  They did not look at the systemic racism that put, too frequently a black man, on death row.  They did not expeditiously address the land claims issues or practice of dumping the drunk Indigenous person outside of city limits in the snow or address the question of why so many Indigenous women were missing and killed. 

Today the work has become harder because too many politicians seem to have traded the reliance on the currency of truth, in favour of the belief that they can garner votes by fueling people’s fears to intensify biases and racism in society. I was encouraged when the book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson was released as a movie and an audiobook. And yet, this same story has been told by other people who have been unjustly accused or penalized far beyond what is just. And money is still directed to systems of punishment rather than required support systems.

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