How Do You Defeat a Dictator When He Gets to Write the Rules?

NO_ecard_AmnestyI didn’t think it was possible. As a student at Rutgers in 1988, I sarcastically asked my friends, “Who do you think is going to win the referendum in Chile? Pinochet or Pinochet?”

Following his bloody overthrow of the democratically elected Allende Government in 1973, Pinochet murdered thousands of dissidents and outlawed opposition parties. Like many dictators, he legitimated his rule by holding a plebiscite on a “constitution” that gave him unchecked power in 1980. He was able to do so, of course, because the climate of fear and impunity guaranteed his victory.

Facing growing international pressure to step down, General Pinochet tried to pull this same trick again in 1988, by offering a pseudo-election in which Chileans could vote to either let Pinochet remain in office for another eight years or hold a presidential election the following year. Given that he was writing the rules again, how could human rights activists and other opposition groups possibly win? It seemed hopeless.

But it wasn’t! No!, an Oscar-nominated film, tells the story of the brave and creative Chileans who helped their fellow citizens stand up and say, “NO!” to repression. This movie opens in New York and Los Angeles on February 15. You can find a list of theatres and dates for other cities by clicking here.

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What We Can Learn From 'My Cousin Vinny' About The Death Penalty

joe pesci my cousin vinny

In a recent, pre-Oscars blog post, I asked you all to name your favorite death penalty themed movies. We got lots of responses, from the obvious, to the more obscure, to the somewhat off-topic. One film that did not get mentioned at all is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year: My Cousin Vinny.

Lawyers love My Cousin Vinny. It recently ranked third on the American Bar Association Journal’s list of top 25 movies. For many folks it’s an entertaining fish-out-of-water comedy about New Yorkers in Alabama, with classic (and in one case Oscar-worthy) performances by Joe Pesci, Marisa Tomei and Herman Munster.

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5 Oscar Winning Films that Stood on the Side of Justice

It’s Oscar season! In honor of the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary on the death penalty, Paradise Lost 3, we thought it was a good time to look back at past Oscar winners that have also helped broaden our understanding of a range of human rights issues.

Movies can be a powerful tool for raising awareness about an issue, or even inspiring people to take action. And in our everyday work at Amnesty International, we aspire to do the same.

With a rich 84 year history of great films, we started looking at Best Picture winners from 1980 and onwards. Here are 5 Best Picture Winning films that not only continue to influence generations of filmmakers but also address social injustices still relevant in our world today.  Read on then let us know what films have inspired you.

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Best Death Penalty Movie? You Decide

paradise lost 3It’s Oscar season.  And that’s great, because I like movies.  I’m not a buff or anything, which is why I wrote “movies” and not “film” or “cinema”.  But I enjoy a good flick.  As someone who campaigns for death penalty abolition, I’m especially interested this year because there is a death penalty film, Paradise Lost 3, nominated for Best Documentary.

Movies can be a powerful tool for raising awareness about an issue, or even inspiring people to take action.  In our death penalty abolition work, we have tried to promote movies we think will do that.

But what do we know?

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Tune in to PBS tonight to watch a great documentary about justice

Tonight, PBS will premiere The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court. This documentary film was produced by Skylight Pictures, an outstanding team of filmmakers who collaborated with AIUSA on our 2007 documentary Justice Without Borders.  Click here for local listings, as times vary.

The broadcast date is significant, in that it marks the week eleven years ago that more than 160 governments came together to negotiate the treaty creating the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The Reckoning follows the ICC’s Prosecutor as he and his team confront the most challenging of armed conflict situations, compiling evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in order to build cases against leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, militia leaders in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the President of Sudan.

I’ve had the privilege of viewing and commenting on various stages of the film as it was being developed.  It’s a great piece of work.  With each viewing, something new strikes me.  I wanted to share with you some of the themes in the film that resonate with me today.

First, The Reckoning builds to what feels like a “Law and Order: War Crimes”- style finale, with the Prosecutor and his team closing in on a target – a sitting head of state — considered by many to be out of reach.   The crime thriller analogy is actually very appropriate, because some of the footage we see in the film is, when you think about it, crime scene footage.  It’s easy to forget that.  Mass rapes, murders, mutilations and starvation are often treated as the tragic and inevitable consequences of war, instead of as crimes which are planned — which actually require planning to implement on a mass scale — and for which specific individuals are responsible and can be held accountable.

Secondly, The Reckoning is very much a ”David and Goliath” story.  Critics of the ICC’s work try to portray the Court as a big, Western-dominated bully out to get Africa.  I think you will come away from The Reckoning struck by how small the Prosecutor’s team really is in comparison with the massive crimes they are confronting.  I think you will also be struck by how relentless they are in pursuing justice for the victims, who they stress are the millions of Africans subjected to human rights abuses, instead of the few who try to obscure their culpability by hiding behind the mantle of nationalism.

Finally, The Reckoning tells the story of what is essentially an unfinished revolution.  The film explores both the breakthroughs in the advancement of human rights and the rule of law that made the ICC possible, as well as the lack of political to make enforcement a reality.  Former Nuremberg prosecutor (and one of my heroes) Benjamin Ferencz recalls how the entire body of human rights law that we take for granted today came to be in his lifetime, demonstrating how much is possible in what is essentially a blink of the eye in historical time.  Yet most of the world’s governments – some of whose representatives we see celebrating the ICC treaty at the start of the film — continue to fail to give any meaningful support the ICC in apprehending indicted war criminals.  We may still have a long way to go, but it’s possible to get there.

I encourage you to tune into PBS tonight, and if you’re as moved as I was, please take action.  Write to Secretary of State Clinton and U.N. Ambassador Rice and urge them to support the ICC’s work on Darfur.