Meet Salil Shetty, Amnesty International's New Secretary General

Amnesty is pleased to welcome its new Secretary General, Salil Shetty.

We are thrilled to introduce –albeit somewhat belatedly– Salil Shetty who joined Amnesty International as its eighth Secretary General in July 2010!

Growing up in an activist family in India, Shetty moved on to lead the international anti-poverty NGO ActionAid and later became the Director of the United Nations Millennium Campaign. When he joined Amnesty International as the new Secretary General, he sat down and shared some of his thoughts about his lifelong dedication to human rights.

Q: What made you become an activist? Was there a pivotal moment in your life that motivated you?

A: Given my family background, doing anything else would have been very odd! My mother was a lawyer and very active in the women’s movement and my father is a journalist and very active in the Dalit movement. My home was a movement headquarters, a space for a lot of activists. Our phone lines were always being tapped, we had police lurking outside the house and my dad was arrested several times. It was a very tumultuous time when I was growing up in India. In 1976 a state of emergency was declared, rights were curtailed and that created an intense level of activism among journalists and students, artists and many others in the country. People who don’t know my background might think that I come from an economic, social and cultural rights background because I’ve done work on poverty, but that actually came to me much later. My entry point into this kind of work was much more to do with civil and political rights.

Q: In 2003, you were appointed Director of the U.N. Millennium Campaign, which aimed to inspire people and institutions around the world to support the Millennium Development Goals. What were your biggest challenges and achievements?

A: I believe that the work the campaign has done to catalyze people to take action collectively on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has made a big difference. There have been some real achievements—for example, rich countries saw record increases in foreign aid between

2003 and 2008, and about 35 countries have seen debt cancellation. Not all of this can be credited to the campaign—the anti-debt movement, for example, has a long history—but cumulatively the campaign has helped. Most importantly, we have seen some very real, concrete achievements in the lives of poor people in developing countries—a big reduction in extreme poverty, increased access to water and about 40 million more kids going to school.


UN names war crimes panel on Sri Lanka

A spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said today that the Secretary-General has appointed a three-member panel of experts to advise him on the issue of war crimes reportedly committed in Sri Lanka during the war between the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels.  Is this the international investigation that Amnesty International has been calling for?  No, unfortunately.  According to the spokesperson’s statement, the UN panel will look into “modalities, applicable international standards and comparative experience” on how to provide accountability for reported violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.  While the panel is to advise the UN Secretary-General, it hopes to cooperate with Sri Lankan officials and is supposed to be available as a resource to the Sri Lankan government.

The Sri Lankan government, for its part, is reportedly not happy with the Secretary-General naming the panel.  One Sri Lankan official yesterday, in anticipation of the panel being named today, said that it amounted to “an attempt to provide oxygen” to the Tamil Tigers (who were militarily defeated a year ago).  Another Sri Lankan official called the move by the UN “unwarranted” as the Sri Lankan government had recently appointed its own reconciliation commission to look into events during the war.

But as Amnesty International’s report, “Twenty Years of Make-Believe:  Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry,” documents, the Sri Lankan government has a poor record of holding its own forces accountable for violations of human rights and war crimes.  One of the prior commissions of inquiry described in our report was a 2006 commission set up by the Sri Lankan government to investigate several high-profile cases of human rights violations.  That commission’s activities were observed, at the Sri Lankan’s government’s request, by an “International Independent Group of Eminent Persons” (known as IIGEP).  After a little more than a year in operation, IIGEP quit in protest, saying that the commission’s proceedings didn’t satisfy basic international standards for such commissions.

As it happens, Mr. Marzuki Darusman, the Chair of the new UN panel, was also a member of IIGEP.  This fact has already been used by a Sri Lankan official to criticize the new UN panel.  I hope Mr. Darusman’s experience on the new panel will turn out more positively than the IIGEP experience, but judging from the Sri Lankan government’s reactions so far, I’m not very optimistic.  I do hope that the UN panel will help lead to an independent international investigation into war crimes and human rights abuses committed by both sides during the war in Sri Lanka, sooner rather than later.

Red Cross: Sri Lankan war zone a "humanitarian catastrophe"

The International Committee of the Red Cross today described the Sri Lankan war zone as “an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe.”  For the third consecutive day, the ICRC has been unable to evacuate seriously wounded or ill patients and deliver desperately needed food, due to ongoing combat in the area.  The U.N. reported today that fighting between government forces and the opposition Tamil Tigers was continuing with heavy casualties in the war zone, which is about the size of Central Park in New York.  The U.N. has continued its high-level involvement; it was announced that Secretary-General’s chief of staff would be sent to Sri Lanka to try to help resolve the humanitarian situation.

Despite statements by President Obama and the UN Security Council yesterday on the crisis, neither the Sri Lankan government nor the Tigers have agreed to a pause in the fighting in order to allow civilians to leave the war zone safely and to allow aid into the area.  Instead, both the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers appeared to welcome the parts of the statements that criticized the other side without agreeing to the commitments being asked of them.  The only good news I saw was a statement by the Sri Lankan government that over 3,300 civilians had escaped from the war zone today.

The Sri Lankan government has been engaged in a military offensive to reconquer territory held by the Tigers, which has been fighting for an independent state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island.  The military has now confined the Tigers to a small pocket of land in northeastern Sri Lanka.  Trapped with the Tigers are an estimated 50,000 or more civilians, who are being used by the Tigers as human shields and not allowed to leave the conflict area.

AI has called for an international commission of inquiry to investigate violations of international law by both sides.  The British government today supported that call.

We urgently need both the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers to halt the fighting, in order to allow civilians to leave the war zone and aid to get into the area.  Both sides should understand that the world is watching and they’ll be held to account for their actions.