There is an antidote to the weariness, cynicism and paralysis perpetuated by the heartless churn of our 24-hour news cycle: Just listen to the voices of those who walk the razor’s edge each day as they fight to change the world. Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi addressed Amnesty activists by phone at the end of Day 2 of our 50th anniversary conference, graciously acknowledging the role of grassroots activism in her release after 15 years of detention by the military junta and encouraging us not to forget the 2,000-plus political prisoners who remain locked up in Burma.
Her brief address was followed by a riveting speech by Jenni Williams, co-founder of Women of Zimbabwe Arise, a group of women who have been jailed, tortured and persecuted for their non-violent demonstrations to demand social justice. Williams recalled one August night when police abducted seven WOZA members. “The phone calls started at 3 a.m. We heard our members had been arrested in suburbs, so we called Amnesty International. By 12 noon, all seven members were delivered back to their homes by the same police officers who had abducted them,” said Williams.
Earlier in the day, I spotted New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof listening to similarly harrowing tales at the well-attended panel discussion, “Muzzling the Watchdogs,” featuring Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho, Sri Lankan journalist J.S. Tissainayagam and Iranian American journalist Roxana Saberi. All three had been arrested, imprisoned and persecuted for their work to expose injustice, and each was the subject of Amnesty International urgent actions and/or international letter campaigns demanding their freedom.
Lydia Cacho, the woman Mother Jones called “Mexico’s most wanted journalist,” thanked Amnesty International members for throwing her a lifeline time and time again. From the beginning of her career in journalism, Cacho focused on women’s and children’s rights—”before they were called human rights.” She fought editors to get her stories published and even opened a shelter for women and children fleeing violence—a move that put her life in peril repeatedly. The danger of Cacho’s work intensified after she published The Demons of Eden, her 2004 book exposing a Cancun child pornography ring involving prominent businessmen with connections to high-level government officials. Since then, she has been hunted and persecuted by powerful forces within Mexico’s government and criminal underworld.
Cacho, who has survived kidnap, torture, multiple assassination attempts and judicial persecution, emphasized how grassroots human rights work reinforces our interdependence. “Every time you take a stand for anyone—and you have saved the lives of everyone at this table in some way—you are being a true defender of free expression,” Cacho told the large audience who attended the panel. “Your voice is so powerful. It not only makes your rights valuable, it makes our rights valuable.”
I had the immense privilege of interviewing Cacho earlier in the day, and her account of her 2005 kidnapping at the behest of the governor of the state of Puebla was chilling. Her response to my question of how she kept herself from unraveling during that ordeal of torture and threats is something I wish every activist here could have heard. “When you have looked into the eyes of an eight-year-old girl who tells you about being raped and tortured repeatedly on videotape—not to save herself but solely in order to save other girls from ever having to live through such unspeakable horror—there is nothing else you can do but continue the fight. She gave me strength.”
After spending nearly two full days interviewing human rights defenders I have admired for years, I have come away with this observation: These people who dedicate their lives to fight seemingly insurmountable odds share in common a luminous sense of purpose that comes from the surrender of the individual to the collective. This connection with a larger purpose has sustained them through unspeakable hardships most of us cannot imagine. And while most of us may not be cut out for the kind of danger or hardship they face on a daily basis, each and every one of us can offer an act of solidarity that may, at that critical moment, tip the scales in favor of life over death.