After a serious consideration of my limited graduate student budget, I eventually decided to attend the Amnesty International Annual General Meeting here in Denver over this past weekend. The event included conversations and discussions on some of the signature issues AI focuses on: immigrants’rights, abolition of the death penalty, and maternal health, but what grabbed my attention were the variety of new issues considered and the level of professionalism and strong activism each of the presenters on these brought with them. I, of course, could not physically attend all sessions and hence have provided comments only on the events I actually was present to.
The first day of the conference for me started with the opening ceremony and the various awards given to deserving current and future activists. One such award was granted to the winners of the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation High School Essay Competition. What I would have really enjoyed and appreciated is to hear the high school students read brief excerpts from their winning essays and possibly elaborate on what prompted them to write on the subject. I believe the above would have allowed the attendees to develop a better idea of the level of understanding of human rights and the importance of targeting violations among these young activists. It is certainly important to hear the speeches of established in the field dignitaries, but it is also just as important to learn about the views of the future generation.
A great highlight of the first day of the conference was the Forever Young social that took place in the evening once the opening ceremonies had concluded. A poet, Big Poppa E, and a musician, Michelle Shocked, successfully grabbed the attendees’ attention with works that rang relevant, important, and most of all personal. By expressing strong feelings, both were able to inspire the audience members and to acknowledge their humanity, all in the matter of a couple of hours. I strongly recommend both artists to anyone interested in literary works and music that serve a purpose beyond that to entertain.
I began the second day of the conference with the opening remarks provided by Suzanne Nossel, the new Executive Director of AIUSA, and a keynote address by the American Hikers imprisoned in Iran in 2009, Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal, and Sarah Shourd. In her speech, Suzanne made several statements that made an impression on me and prompted me to investigate further the issues highlighted. One such statement was that currently, bananas are apparently more heavily regulated than conventional weapons. Sitting in the Colorado Ballroom II, I wondered how many people would actually agree that bananas are more dangerous than weapons. In addition, she briefly mentioned a topic about which I shall write a post in the future, and that was the role of technology in the fight against human rights violations. Without dismissing its strong impact, she emphasized that no social media would ever be a substitute for foot soldiers, but it could certainly assist in multiplying and uniting activists across borders, cultures, and circumstances.
The focus of the three speeches delivered by Sarah, Shane, and Josh was the fact that their ordeal was nothing more than a strategic move in a complicated game of politics. The personal stories of interactions with their interrogators reveal that it was clear they were not considered spies, or a threat; they simply happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and came to be considered an important factor in the game of politics. Moreover, as Shane stressed, their greatest fear during the imprisonment was that Israel or the US would attack Iran and that would lead to dire consequences for him and his friends. It was a surprise for me to hear all three of them point out the role of US foreign policy in the spreading hate around the world and warn that a military attack on Iran is not a solution; rather, it would create more and severe problems. Ultimately, instead of contributing to the increasing hate toward the region and people from that region, the hikers remain supportive of them and strongly encourage international cooperation.
By far, one of the more interesting sessions at the conference happened to be the panel discussion on the topic of the closing of Guantanamo. Participants in the debate were Ken Gude (the Chief of Staff and Vice President at the Center of American Progress), Colonel Morris Davis (an attorney and retired Air Force colonel), and Joseph Margulies (an attorney with the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center and a Clinical Professor at Northwestern University Law School in Chicago). Gude stressed that the reason for not closing Guantanamo lies in existing bipartisan political opposition and Colonel Davis highlighted the role the opinion of the general public plays in the debate. As he argued, a large percentage of Americans approve of the institution and believe it is a great way to target those threatening peaceful existence. The only solution is then education. And as far as I am concerned, education is what Margulies provided. He warned about focusing on a global idea, such as closing Guantanamo, without taking into consideration the consequences and stressed that activists should instead target more specific issues such as the transfer of the 89 prisoners who have already been cleared for transfer but are still held in detention.
A new subject presented at this year’s conference is the one dealing with forced evictions taking place in a variety of nations around the world. I could not express the magnitude of the issue any better than this statement uttered by a Nigerian victim of forced eviction: “Do we want to be refugees in our own land?”
Another quite interesting session I had the opportunity to attend presented a dialogue on the advancement of women’s human rights with a specific focus on Indigenous women. Participants included Sarah Deer (an Assistant Professor at the William Mitchell College of Law and a citizen of the Muscogee Nation) and Halima Kazem (a research and journalist working in Afghanistan). It once again became clear that while a multitude of social, economic and political changes have increased the vulnerability of millions of men, women and children in the developing world, of these, women hold a special place and regularly, without effort, find themselves in a position of extreme defenselessness and the victims of physical and sexual abuse.
Before I end this post, there is one more comment that I just have to make. It is in reference to one particular statement mentioned by activists throughout the conference. While Jenni Williams was accepting her award, at the end of her speech she mentioned that she hopes her organization is successful in reaching its 50th anniversary, similar to Amnesty International, and that AI reaches another 50 years of accomplishments. I, of course, know exactly what she meant by that. However, doesn’t the statement also mean that we are wishing for severe human rights violations to continue for at least another fifty years? Personally, I prefer to wish that the wide-spread disregard for human rights subsides and the services of so many activists are no longer needed. That could mean that I would no longer be able to function as a human rights activists, but I would most certainly enjoy living in a world in which I don’t need to be a human rights activist than a world in which I must be one.