35 years ago, on a wintry evening in early 1985, I attended my first Amnesty International meeting.
I had just begun studying law at Dalhousie University in Halifax, with an entirely unformed notion of becoming a lawyer pursuing social change. I had seen an intriguing notice on a bulletin board giving details about the monthly meeting of the Halifax Amnesty group. I went, and never looked back.
I remember three things about that evening. First, the inspiring and welcoming Amnesty members I met were of all ages, backgrounds and interests, and from many different corners of the world; but were all united in a common sense of purpose and possibility. It was the evening I first heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and our shared responsibility to uphold it.
Second, as a young activist I was energized by Amnesty’s “be the change” message. Yes, it is a world full of deeply entrenched cruelty and injustice, which can readily seem insurmountable. But here is one step to take, one letter to write – right now – to begin to make a difference. It was empowering in 1985 and certainly has powerful and necessary resonance in 2020. I wrote my first Amnesty letter that night, on behalf of a law student named Beatriz who had been forcibly disappeared in El Salvador.
And finally, the student who aspired to be a different sort of lawyer was hooked as well. For human rights violations are rooted in many things and human rights protection requires deep change and transformation; but law – bad law, good law, the absence of law, the misuse of law, the repressiveness of law, the inadequacy of law, the rule of law, and the potential of law – is clearly at the heart of both the injustice that prevails and the justice that must triumph.
I never would have imagined the remarkable journey that began that night. And it never occurred to me it would lead to the humbling honour of serving as Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada for more than twenty years.
As I move on and hand the candle to the brilliant and inspiring Ketty Nivyabandi, I am filled with gratitude, memories and reflection.
First, for the gift of learning and the responsibility to change.
Every moment of every day has made it clear. There is so much to learn and unlearn about human rights. Why they matter. What they offer. Who they lift up and who they leave behind. The roots of injustice. My own part in those realities. I have learned from hundreds of people who have so generously shared their experience and wisdom with me. My teachers have been everywhere.
The overarching lesson? That as a white, male lawyer living in the Global North, a settler in Canada, I enjoy immense privilege that challenges me to come to the human rights struggle with humility and honesty, and to acknowledge that working to change the world must include constantly working to change myself and my place in the world. And I still have far to travel.
That holds true for our movement. Demands and long overdue need to address systemic racism, white supremacy and colonialism across society have become increasingly urgent and pressing. That means not only looking to the outside world; but looking within Amnesty and within ourselves as well.
This is learning and change that can never stop.
Second, for courage and conviction at the frontlines of struggle.
There has been no greater gift over these two decades than to find common cause with and be led by incredible human rights defenders, survivors and families at the frontlines of repression and struggle around the world and across our country; in particular, the strength and vision of women and young people.
For anyone who doubts that change is possible, for anyone who feels deflated by apathy or defeated by the powerful interests blocking progress, that is where hope, fueled by necessity, outrage and determination, has its home. More than anything else, it is their voices – often reassuring, sometimes enraged, frequently challenging, always clarion – that will stay with me.
Third, for the power of the collective.
I have often been asked: why don’t you give up, why shouldn’t we all give up? And there have certainly been moments when that has been tempting. But whenever my spirits have flagged, I have immediately sensed the energy from colleagues down the hall, out in the street or half-way around the world. Whenever a friend has felt dispirited, others have come to the fore. I am forever awed by the power of people coming together, close to home and across the globe, and what an unstoppable force for change can be unleashed.
That is what is so uplifting and remarkable about Amnesty International. That I have dear friends, close colleagues and fellow travelers on this path to universal human rights – from Moose Jaw to Nairobi, St. John’s to Mexico City, Montreal to Beirut, Victoria to Lima, Edmonton to Brussels, Yellowknife to Hong Kong, Windsor to Chicago, Ottawa to London, Kanehsatà:ke to Dakar – has forged for me a world of connection and common cause beyond anything I imagined at that first meeting in 1985.
And what is particularly rich is that everyone brings their own skills, perspective, and experience to the human rights struggle. Fastidious researchers, dynamic mobilizers, quiet workhorses, incredible pro bono lawyers, imaginative campaigners, eloquent communicators, loyal letter-writers, generous donors, and so much more. What you bring and who we are together; I will never leave behind.
Fourth, for all that has been achieved.
It would take a book to review these past two decades and celebrate the many remarkable moments of triumph, or at least of significant progress. It is too easy to dwell on all that is grim and despairing. We must not forget that there has been much to celebrate; always made possible by people who insisted it be so.
I think of the very many prisoners of conscience freed, refugees protected, and executions stayed. Rarely were those victories forged in a few days. Rather they were long struggles, fueled by perseverance, and marked by considerable sacrifice by the individuals, families, and communities whose rights were on the line.
Indigenous women, their families and communities across Canada have led a struggle that began with little recognition of the crisis of violence and discrimination that has long been their daily reality. We joined them in solidarity with our 2004 Stolen Sisters report and at countless vigils over many years. That truth can no longer be denied, following release of the historic report last year from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Now, for action.
The ground-breaking UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was at long last adopted in 2007. To our eternal shame, Canada stood in opposition at the time, but has now embraced the Declaration and intends to enact legislation to implement it at home.
We stood alongside the formidable Cindy Blackstock as she mobilized youth across the country in pursuit of equality for First Nations children. And though equality remains elusive, at every turn – before courts and tribunals, at the United Nations, on Parliament Hill, and in the hearts and minds of people across the country – human rights have prevailed.
We were told that states would never tackle impunity or agree to limits on the global arms trade, but the International Criminal Court has been established and the Arms Trade Treaty agreed. That does not mean those responsible for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity consistently face justice, far from it. Nor does that mean weapons no longer cavalierly find their way into the hands of human rights violators, just look at Canada’s deal with Saudi Arabia. But what was once deemed impossible has been proven to be absolutely possible.
I stand in awe of the immense progress in the march to end discrimination that has been led by LGBTIQ2S campaigners. In these 20 years, we have seen marriage equality across Canada and in more and more countries around the world, important steps forward in securing stronger standards at the UN, and at long last, gender identity and gender expression protections are now enshrined in federal law. Not a struggle that is over, particularly globally, but we have come so very far.
Canadian mining companies span the globe, often on the edge of war zones or in the midst of widespread human rights abuse. They initially looked away when we talked to them of their human rights responsibilities and insisted that was a matter for governments alone. But many have come to at least recognize this is and must be part of doing business. We now face the tough challenge of translating their easy rhetoric into concrete reality.
It seemed impossible to imagine there could be justice in the face of the torture and other human rights violations that became the mainstay of the ‘war on terror’ and a source of unrelenting discrimination and violence against Muslim communities around the world. But Maher Arar, Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Elmaati, Muayyed Nureddin and Omar Khadr were released and came home to Canada from Syria, Egypt and Guantánamo Bay. And they were compensated and received an apology for Canada’s role in the grave violations they suffered. Now, long denied justice must also prevail for Hassan Diab and Abousfian Abdelrazik.
There has been a steady march towards abolition of the death penalty, across the United States and around the world. The momentum is clear. More US states repeal capital punishment, more countries abandon executions. Just last week Kazakhstan took one step closer toward abolition.
Women’s sexual and reproductive rights are more widely recognized and protected in more countries. Ireland’s abortion ban was overturned and movements to follow suit in a number of Latin American countries continue to gather force.
And women so powerfully lead local, national and global movements for human rights. Four remarkable women, including Canada’s Louise Arbour, have served as UN High Commissioners for Human Rights, standing up to human rights abusers everywhere. Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, Autumn Peltier and countless others certainly show the bedrock strength of young women.
Women human rights defenders were locked up but not at all silenced, in Iran, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. And women and girls lead the way in the streets and in the digital world, catalyzing incredible human rights movements everywhere, including Indigenous women and girls in Canada who sparked Sisters in Spirit, #IdleNoMore, Shannen’s Dream and the Red Dress Campaign, the women at the heart of #BlackLivesMatter, women who came forward to declare #MeToo, the women who were the backbone of Egypt’s courageous Tahrir Square protests, women who stood up to the brutality of the Bashir regime in Sudan, Argentinian women who have launched an unstoppable campaign for abortion rights, and the women of Belarus who today are courageously unmasking secret service thugs in the streets of Minsk.
Fifth, for all that was lost and all that remains.
As far as we have come, there is still so very far to go.
Twenty years haunted by scorched earth in Darfur, anguished devastation in Syria, staggering atrocities against the Rohingya, the crushed hopes of independence for South Sudan, a politicized war that unleashed untold suffering in Iraq, an ever-deepening human rights and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, and a colossal campaign of repression against Uyghurs in China.
Twenty years during which the rights of Palestinians continued to be trammeled, Afghanistan endured new chapters of conflict and displacement, and hope of ending decades of violence and injustice in Colombia rose and sank.
Twenty years marked by numerous national and provincial inquiries and inquests that have put an urgent change agenda in front of Canadians to uphold the rights of Indigenous peoples. Governments talk of change, yet in 2020 protests to uphold land rights, in Wet’suwet’en territory and elsewhere, continued; First Nations children are still denied equality; and police violence, including killings, against Indigenous people in all corners of the country does not abate.
Powerful movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo have brought essential focus to the violence and injustice caused by systemic anti-Black racism, racist police violence, colonialism, Islamophobia, and the deep roots of sexism. Around the world, however, an array of leaders instead champion agendas of racism, misogyny, fear, hate and division. And remembering and honouring Regis Korchinski-Paquet, D’Andre Campbell, Chantel Moore, Rodney Levi, Ejaz Ahmed Choudry and Mohamed-Aslim Zafis: we know that we face those currents of racist indifference, intolerance, and violence in Canada as well.
These twenty years have witnessed a crushing global assault on the rights and safety of refugees, everywhere. That includes here at home, for despite much talk of welcoming refugees, Canada refuses to recognize the assault on the rights of refugees and migrants by the Trump Administration and suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States. The federal government instead shamefully chose to appeal, rather than embrace, a recent Federal Court ruling that the Agreement violates the Charter of Rights.
Steps forward that should have been so straight-forward remain stalled or blocked. A deep frustration as I move on is that Canada has yet to join the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, a crucial treaty for the prevention of torture. Eighteen years to take this obvious step, more than four years since a public promise to do so was made. But nothing. Similarly, a failure of political leadership and imagination continues to thwart efforts by federal, provincial, and territorial governments to collectively coordinate meaningful nation-wide implementation of the country’s international human rights obligations. These should be easy wins, but stand instead as disheartening disappointments.
Overarching all of this, the global climate crisis poses perhaps the greatest threat to human rights that the world has ever faced. The global movement for climate justice grows daily, led by young people around the world. Yet concrete action to avert this crisis is slow, often stymied by lack of political will and by far too many leaders in government and business who deny the science and play politics with humanity’s very survival.
Sixth, for all that is both necessary and possible.
Amidst uncertainty and despair, we must hold strong to the power of the people, the power of the street, the power of protest. In the past few years alone – Santiago, Khartoum, Hong Kong, Washington, Tehran, Beirut, Tyendinaga and so many public squares, alleyways, railway crossings and roadways in communities large and small, everywhere – that is where dreams are borne and change ignited. From near and far, distanced or linking arms, when we come together injustice does give way.
Never would I have imagined wrapping up my time as Secretary General amidst the turmoil and anxiety of the COVID-19 pandemic. I am so grateful for my own and my family’s well-being and deeply aware that this has been a time of fear, illness and death for so many. We must now all commit to the opportunity and responsibility to address all that has been laid bare by the pandemic. If this not be the time when we tackle the deep inequalities and glaring inequity that permeate society, then when? This is an unprecedented moment and opportunity for transformative change, which each of us must both demand and create.
Transformation must, at its very core, be about reconciliation in Canada with Indigenous peoples. Because that is what justice, humanity and history demands. Because that is both the vision and the pathway to a sustainable nation and world. And because now is the time. The urgency, the necessity, the understanding, and the possibility for reconciliation – guided by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – has never been greater. It requires all of us to learn more, dig deeper and go further.
We look ahead and move forward in a time when truth is both on the march and in retreat, so much of which plays out in an ever-encroaching digital universe that is at the same time liberating and toxic. Misinformation abounds and fuels hate and fear. Truth is declared to be fake news, and established facts and proven science dismissed as lies and opinions. The struggle for human rights is at its heart a struggle for truth. For Amnesty International, truth is our mantra and our brand. Our candle is truth. We seek to expose the truth and we strive to realize universal truths of equality and justice. We simply cannot and will not let truth be sold short.
And this future of street power, transformative change and truth is a future that must and will be entirely feminist, fully and intersectionally so! There is no other way ahead that will bring climate justice, root out systemic racism, and end conflict. And despite the ugly backlash and the virulent misogyny, feminism’s march is all around us. Look for it in yourself, embrace it in each other and demand it of our institutions and our leaders.
And finally, gratitude.
I cannot begin to express how deep lies my appreciation and admiration for the incredible people – staff, members and supporters – who make up the Amnesty International movement, in Canada and everywhere. I have climbed upon your shoulders. I have followed in your footsteps. We have held each other’s hands. I have been propelled by your generosity. I have been encouraged, energized, challenged and bolstered by you, no matter what has come at us. I think of dear Amnesty friends and mentors who have, sadly, left us over the years; your example and legacy are lodged in my soul.
These are not easy times for human rights. But just as I did at that first Amnesty meeting 35 years ago, I look around our movement and I see nothing but hope and possibility. That will take us far. As it must.