The world’s most famous human rights organisation, Amnesty International, celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year. Founded in 1961, following the publication of an article entitled ‘The Forgotten Prisoners’, by British lawyer Peter Benenson in The Observer newspaper, the organisation has changed the way the world sees human rights, saving countless lives in the process. Five decades after Benenson expressed his outrage at the imprisonment of two Portuguese students for raising a toast to freedom, Amnesty International now boasts upwards of three million members, with chapters in more than 150 countries. As a direct result of its work, considerations about human rights have become central to public life throughout the world, and civilians everywhere are increasingly aware of what rights they should be able to take for granted. However, the need to constantly monitor, raise awareness of and insist on human rights persists, as campaigners at Amnesty point out.
The recent wave of revolutionary fervour that has swept through North Africa and the Middle East has catapulted human rights in the region onto the international agenda. Many Arab countries have long been ruled by repressive one-party states, governments or monarchies which have consistently suppressed human rights and freedoms in the name of ‘national’ interests that are in fact their own. Thankfully, with the advent of free elections in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, human rights issues that had been banned from public discourse under previous regimes are finally being aired.
The role of women in society in these countries has come into particular focus, given the prominent role that women’s groups played in organising and demonstrating during the uprisings. Poonam Joshi, Gender Policy Advisor at Amnesty International UK, observed firsthand how these groups – which had organised as union campaigners for workers’ rights and sexual equality – successfully demonstrated against the Egyptian regime alongside other, predominantly male, opposition groups, and as such were accorded respect as equals for the first time in their society. ‘There was a real sense of hope that the revolution had created a dynamic that these [gender] relations could be transformed,’ she recalls. ‘It was so dramatic that it was hoped that the uprising could bring about profound social as well as political change.’
Ms Joshi has been developing Amnesty’s strategy in respect of forthcoming elections in both Tunisia and Egypt. She reports that her organisation is paying careful attention to political reform measures being implemented during the run-up to the elections, in the hope that they will provide a blueprint for the appropriate course of action for other countries in the region, providing full access for female candidates at all stages of the political process. ‘Sexual equality is absolutely paramount if human rights are going to become part of the DNA of the whole country, and if the commitment isn’t going to be temporary,’ she says. ‘Human rights have to extend across the board, not just in terms of what is acceptable for the new group in power. When you have the measure of how pluralistic they really are, then you have a litmus test for their commitment to human rights as a whole.’
Unfortunately, as Ms Joshi points out, in Egypt there have been reports by women’s groups that shortly after the successful uprising in Tahrir Square a group of female demonstrators was harassed and physically attacked by an unidentified group of men. It was reported that 18 of these women were arrested and that some of them were stripped naked, photographed and subjected to ‘virginity testing’ (the allegation being that if they weren’t virgins then they must be prostitutes). ‘The implicit idea here is that they were being told to “get back in the box” of political engagement now that the uprising was over and a new group have assumed the reins of power,’ observes Ms Joshi.
Amnesty is now asking local embassies throughout the Arab world to support women’s political participation and to contact, keep an eye on, and if necessary, protect campaigners for women’s rights. Ms Joshi speaks approvingly of Tunisia as a vision for what is possible in the spectrum of gender parity, citing the active involvement of women there in civil society. ‘It’s all about seeing women not just as victims of human rights violations but as agents of change,’ she says.
In other areas of the world, Amnesty’s work continues to involve activities with which it is more traditionally associated: tracking those who have been arrested and detained without trial and campaigning for their release. At the incipient flowering of democracy in the Arab world, Chinese authorities have pre-emptively conducted one of the biggest roundups of dissidents, bloggers and human rights campaigners in recent years, in an attempt to stave off any unrest being formally organised by such groups and individuals.
The arrest and detention of the celebrated artist Ai Weiwei may have garnered much international media attention, but the Chinese authorities’ targeting of lawyers who have previously defended human rights campaigners is also causing concern. ‘It seems China not only wants to silence potential critics, but also to render them utterly defenseless. This is not behaviour we should accept from a modern world power,’ says Sam Zafiri, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director. ‘China is abandoning the rule of law. The government is trying to systematically break the will of the country’s lawyers. It is giving its security forces free rein to pervert the course of justice and deny activists and critics the right to a legal defence.’
Extreme examples of repression often overshadow other, less overt abuses of human rights in areas of the world traditionally associated with upholding, and even setting an example on, human rights. The past decade has seen various human rights abuses perpetrated as part of the US-led ‘War on Terror’: the detention without trial of ‘enemy combatants’ by the US government in its infamous Guantanamo Bay prison facility, where 172 detainees remain today; ‘extraordinary rendition,’ a euphemism for state-sponsored kidnap and illegal deportation through third party countries, in Europe; and ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ such as ‘waterboarding’, or water torture, in both.
Tara Lyle, a policy advisor at Amnesty International UK, regularly advises the UK government on its activities with respect to counter-terrorism and civil liberties. Ten years ago, she says, ‘you wouldn’t have expected a serving US President to speak out publicly in defence of torture.’ Yet George W Bush did just that, thus, in her estimation, regressing the dialogue on state-sponsored torture by a matter of 50 years. Ms Lyle observes that several governments – among them Germany, Lithuania and Poland –have now undertaken reports into human rights abuses during the past decade in connection with the War on Terror, and that Amnesty is monitoring the development of the UK’s investigation into extraordinary rendition. She observes that with the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the dialogue about counter-terrorism is moving forward again, and that some of the emergency measures enacted in legislation in Western countries – such as control orders in the UK – are finally being repealed.
However, she also points to the language of counter-terrorism being employed in states such as Libya and Swaziland as justification for crackdowns on dissent – and the lack of moral authority that the UK and US are now able to claim when asking other countries to get their houses in order. ‘I think that the last 10 years has shown that we can’t be complacent [about human rights], and that even in areas where we thought the argument had been carried there is still a lot of work to do.’ Even half a century after its foundation, Amnesty’s work is far from over. Yet as Ms Lyle notes, ‘everyone that works at Amnesty would love to see the day when our work wasn’t necessary any more, and that we were all out of a job!’