This post is the second in a three-part blog series commemorating the launch of Amnesty USA’s redesigned Urgent Action Network. Read on for how this updated tool will help activists make a stronger impact.
Even now, twenty-seven years later, Ann Burroughs can remember what it felt like to go to prison.
I’ll never forget my anger as the door shut behind me for the first time. But I did not for a moment question my commitment to opposing injustice and the government’s repressive policies of discrimination and segregation.
‘Thank you for your solidarity’ from the Civic Council of the Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) (Photo Credit: COPINH).
Last week, Amnesty issued an urgent action ahead of the September 12 hearing in Honduras against three indigenous leaders working on environmental issues: Bertha Cáceres, Tomás Gómez and Aureliano Molina.
They are all members of the Civic Council of the Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). Cáceres is the general coordinator of COPINH, and both Gómez and Molina work at a community radio station, Lencas’ Voice (La Voz Lenca). Amnesty has called the government’s charges of usurpation, coercion and continued damages against these Human Rights Defenders (HRDs)“unfounded.” These accusations are connected to COPINH’s opposition to a hydro-electric project on indigenous land.
The Dalai Lama and Annette Lantos in front of a projection of the late U.S. Representative Tom Lantos. The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) was one of the creators of the Defending Freedoms Project (Photo Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images).
Last week, the Defending Freedoms project launched a Week of Action in which U.S. Representatives nationwide spoke out to highlight and give voice to political prisoners being held or detained around the world for expressing their views.
These individuals have been imprisoned because of who they are, what they believe, and how they have chosen to express their convictions. As a result, they are prevented from enjoying the most fundamental human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards.
The Defending Freedoms project was kick-started by Representatives Wolf and McGovern adopting the initiative’s first two prisoners of conscience – Gao Zhisheng of Chinaand Bahrain’s Nabeel Rajab. In late 2012, Congress’ nonpartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) joined the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and Amnesty International USA to create the Defending Freedoms initiative as a way to raise awareness and support for human rights and religious freedom by focusing on human rights defenders, political prisoners, and those who have been unjustly imprisoned around the world.
Lydia Cacho, a journalist and human rights defender based in Cancún, Mexico, received new death threats last month by email and telephone.
On June 14, Cacho received a death threat by email, which was sent to the Lydia Cacho Foundation (Fundación Lydia Cacho) based in Spain. Three days later on June 17, she received another death threat by telephone from an unknown man. Both threats referred to her work as a journalist and warned her to shut her mouth or she would be killed.
As complaints were filed with the Police both in Mexico and in Spain, Amnesty International released an Urgent Action asking members to write to the Mexican authorities to provide adequate protection to Lydia Cacho. Take online action for Lydia right now.
“Please act as quickly as possible. This may be crucial in locating Professor Rossi, or even in helping to save his life. Others have disappeared in this manner, and never been found again…We must do all we can to prevent another similar case.”
Professor Luiz Basilio Rossi
Those were the closing words of a brief but urgent message received by Amnesty International supporters on March 19, 1973. It was the first-ever Urgent Action, issued on behalf of Professor Luiz Basilio Rossi, who had disappeared after his arrest on February 15th, 1973 in São Paulo, Brazil.
A prisoner of conscience in Brazil under the military regime, then a human rights activist – his story has set a powerful model for the tens of thousands of Urgent Actions that have followed. It was not until the letters started to pour in that Rossi’s relatives were allowed to visit him. Although many people taken into police custody were never seen again, Rossi was eventually freed in October 1973.
Amnesty International and many others called on the Ugandan parliament to reject the bill, and we all felt great relief today when the parliament dissolved without debating or voting on the bill. It’s entirely possible that the bill could be reintroduced when new members of parliament are sworn in next week, but at least it wasn’t passed today, as had been feared.
But the feeling of relief is mixed with sadness, because LGBT people continue to be killed because of who they are in many countries, regardless of what the laws say. On May 4th, Quetzalcoatl Leija Herrera, an outspoken advocate of LGBT rights in Mexico, was attacked and killed when he was walking home in the evening, in what appears to have been a homophobic attack. Police are investigating, but as so often happens in these kinds of cases, their inquiries are strangely focused almost exclusively on Herrera’s friends in the LGBT community.
This isn’t the first instance of police being less than sympathetic toward LGBT people that Amnesty International has documented: in 2009 we issued an Urgent Action on three transgender women in Honduras, two of whom were killed, and one of whom was beaten by police.
So while it’s great that we can celebrate progress like the legalization of same-sex unions in Brazil, it’s clear there’s a long way to go, and a lot more action needed, before the world will truly be a safe place to be LGBT.
Earlier this week, Amnesty issued an urgent action calling on the Salvadoran government to protect journalists at Radio Victoria, a community station in rural Cabañas, and to fully investigate threats against them from a self-proclaimed death squad (grupo de extermino).
Unfortunately, this was not Amnesty’s first urgent action concerning Radio Victoria. In the summer of 2009, journalists were threatened after calling for justice in the abduction, torture, and murder of anti-mining activist Gustavo Marcelo Rivera.
While the police were quick to blame Rivera’s death on youth gangs (mareros), Radio Victoria and others believed that he was killed in retaliation for his leadership in the movement against Pacific Rim’s plan to mine gold in the area. Rivera and other activists argued that these operations would divert water from poor farmers, poison the water supply with cyanide, and fail to produce economic development. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights echoed Amnesty’s call for a thorough investigation and protective measures.
Officers of Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) have arrested six doctors and attacked protesting medical students and doctors in the last two weeks. This is worrisome for several reasons, including that the arrests are warranted by Sudan’s 2010 National Security Act.
NISS officers are arresting doctors simply for participating in the Doctors’ Strike Committee, which has been pressuring authorities to keep their promises to improve the working conditions and salaries of Sudanese doctors. The government has neglected its promises to doctors, and instead is using an unjust law to arrest, detain, and intimidate protesting doctors.
Amnesty International is calling on the Sudanese government to reform its unjust laws and to protect the rights of its citizens. The government has granted itself the power to detain without charge for up to four and a half months, and NISS agents are essentially free to violate human rights as long as they do it as part of their work. This means that the government can arrest people like Dr. Bahkit and Dr. Aldin, who, as prisoners of conscience, are simply advocating peacefully for better treatment from the government. Even worse, NISS officers can beat and torture those they arrest without a single worry of future prosecution.
Members of the Urgent Action Network provide an effective and rapid response by sending letters, e-mails, and faxes directly to those who have the power to stop the violations. For more information visit: www.amnestyusa.org/uan
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.