Fall is my favorite time of year: the air is cooler, the leaves are pretty, Amnesty International student groups are back together again, and people start signing up for the Write for Rights Global Write-a-thon.
In this—the world’s largest human rights event—we use letters, cards and more to demand the human rights of individuals are respected, protected and fulfilled. We show solidarity with those suffering abuses and work to improve people’s lives.
By Laura Kagel, Georgia Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator for Amnesty International USA
When I spoke with Troy Davis in Jackson prison in March, he talked about what he would do if the evidentiary hearing led to his release. One thing was sure, that he would add his energy to the movement to abolish the death penalty, but he also talked about how he would like to work with young people, to inspire them to lead good lives and stay out of trouble with the law. I have only spent time with this man on that one day, and a metal grate window separated us, but in his presence I had no doubts that he was someone who could have a positive impact on people’s lives.
In fact I knew that he already had. It is not just that he gave his younger sister the courage to walk again after suffering paralysis or that he has inspired his older sister to travel the world and talk herself hoarse campaigning for human rights. I keep meeting people who tell me how they heard about Troy’s case and felt moved to write to him, unsure what to expect. These people end up devoted to Troy, not because they are taking sides in a legal battle in which they have a vested interest, but because they are fascinated by the radiance and good will he projects and because he offers them true friendship.
The relationships they enter into with him, both constrained and enhanced by the old-fashioned mode of communication — letter writing — are real, and the correspondents speak of the benefits of knowing him. Troy is not someone who manipulates people outside the prison in order to advance his case. He gives a piece of himself in a sincere and remarkable manner, offering advice, thoughts, ideas, and gratitude.
Those of us who work in the Individuals at Risk Campaign get this question a lot, especially from people who are considering joining the Urgent Action Network, in which people can sign up to receive a certain number of Urgent Actions per month, and in turn commit to writing letters to government officials on behalf of those affected individuals.
It’s a valid question. Certainly, when I sit down at my kitchen table with my pad of stationery in front of me and my cat on my lap, it’s easy to feel both very removed from the issues, and very insignificant in the face of such grave human rights abuses. It’s a doubt that surely arises in every activist’s mind at some point or another: What difference can one person really make?
But that’s just it–it’s not just one person. With tens of thousands of people writing letters on behalf of the same individuals at risk, we’re no longer talking about just “lil ol’ me”. We’re talking about a movement. You’d be surprised how many letter-writers actually receive responses from the governments they write to. We ask them to share the responses with us, and they come in from every corner of the globe. True, just because the government writes back to you doesn’t automatically mean that they’re going to make the changes you’ve urged them to make, but it does mean they’re paying attention, and that they care what the world thinks. Governments caring what the world thinks means we have leverage. And that leverage can be turned into positive outcomes for individual people suffering human rights abuses.
So next time you think “Oh, I can’t really make a difference by writing this letter,” take a look at some of these successes, and ask yourself if those individuals would have been freed–or their executions stayed, or their protection assured, or their medical needs met–if everyone had decided not to bother writing a letter because it wouldn’t really matter. It does matter, and it does make a difference.
Action for Human Rights. Hope for Humanity.