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.
Q: The efforts to tackle poverty have been at the heart of your work for at least three decades. What do you think Amnesty International can bring to the anti-poverty campaign?
A: All the development organizations have started talking about rights-based development, but somewhat loosely. Amnesty International is already there and it has the reverse challenge of trying to understand how rights can be applied to development. The distinction between economic, social and cultural rights on the one hand and political and civil rights on the other is not very helpful in a practical sense. It’s the same people whose rights—of all types—are being abused. You often have a serious overlap, and those affected are the majority of the world’s population. For example, if you take the areas I’m very familiar with—poverty, education, health and water—very often we find that the main constraint or blockage to people actually claiming their rights is lack of information, and the right to information is classified as a civil and political right. Amnesty International could focus on those aspects that may not technically be social and economic rights, but have a very direct bearing on the achievement of those rights. I think we have to find ways of connecting these two areas much more systematically. But we also need to work from Amnesty International’s strengths and approach the issues from those areas where we know more, like the right to information or the justiciability of rights—that’s a massive area where Amnesty International can contribute.
Q: What do you think of the criticism that human rights need to be addressed in the context of security needs, such as the threat of terrorism?
A: At the 2005 summit of world leaders, Kofi Annan said that you can’t have peace without sustainable development, and you can’t have sustainable development without peace—and you can’t have either without human rights. These are the legs of the U.N. Charter and the core of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If you look at the causes of terrorism, you find the same issues. When you go back to the root causes, you find human rights are being abused, people are living in extreme poverty or natural resources are being degraded.
Q: How do you see the role of non-governmental organizations and activists?
A: In the work I’m doing there is no question that those who really make a difference are the ordinary people who push for something to happen. Most of the constraints on dealing with any of these issues are normally not technical but political, and the only way you get political change is by people getting organized and raising their voices and creating pressure. One of the biggest attractions that drew me to come into the Amnesty International fold is the membership of 2.8 million members, who are able to push from the bottom. If that didn’t exist, then one of the most powerful rationales for Amnesty International’s legitimacy would be weakened, so that is at the heart of my interest.