What you see depends on where you sit. There are the pessimists who see President-elect Donald Trump who said in his tweet about the need to engage in a new arms race. There are the optimists, sitting on the other side of the room, who believe the kind words uttered by President Vladimir Putin and Trump to each other mean that there well could be a new agreement on reducing their nuclear armories. 2017 will be a lot better than 2016.
When I wrote my history of Amnesty International (“Like Water on Stone”, Penguin, 2002) I was struck both by the staff and activists how positive they were, despite dealing with some of the worst horrors in the world.
Amnesty staff would not be in their jobs if they did not possess above-average resilience. The wear and tear of constant failure- as it often seems- of dealing with intransigent authorities, the bereaved and the seriously distressed on a daily basis is not a way most of us would choose to earn our daily bread. It is, indeed, surprising that the turnover in staff is about normal for an organization of this size.
Ask a staff member what keeps them going and they certainly don’t say elections in Guatemala, once effectively ruled by death squads, or the death of the child-killer, the Emperor Bokassa of the Central African Republic. They say: “Look, it’s because I had this letter from so and so’s wife.” or “Did you hear what so and so said last week when he came into the office to thank us?”
Amnesty’s weekly case load is made up of hundreds of cases: keeping up the spirits of a Mexican army officer imprisoned after publicly accusing his superiors of sadistic behavior; encouraging local groups to write letters to a prisoner in South Korea who had been incarcerated for 43 years before his release; or pursuing into court the off-duty policemen who opened fire on a group of 50 street children sleeping rough in Rio de Janeiro, killing five; or writing an endless stream of letters to heads of governments and the prison services demanding that a political prisoner be released.
Half an hour spent on the Amnesty website is an antidote to depression. In a recent press release to its members the headline was, “It seems like wherever you look people have written off 2016 as a terrible year but we’ve found a lot to be positive about, too. This year you have helped us free more than 650 people- that’s nearly two each day-from unfair and often abusive treatment. Together we helped change laws in 40 countries. We helped convict war criminals”.
Amnesty gives the example of the American, Albert Woodfox, who spent 44 years in solitary confinement in Louisiana state prison. “I can’t emphasize enough how important getting letters from people round the world is”, said Albert. “It gave me a sense of worth. It gave me strength- convinced me that what I was doing was right”.
Mazen Mohammed Abdallah was freed from detention from an Egyptian jail in February. The 14-year-old boy had been raped by security officers bent on extracting a confession. Amnesty was the first to break the story, sparking broad media coverage that embarrassed the Egyptian government and prompted them to free Mazen. “There are no words that could be said to express my gratitude and thanks to Amnesty International for getting my son back to me” said Mazen’s mother.
Kostyantyn Beskorovaynyi of Ukraine was released in February thanks to pressure from Amnesty. Twelve more men and one woman were released in July and August, following intense advocacy meetings with the authorities. All had been kept in a secret detention facility in Kharkiv, northern Ukraine. During meetings Amnesty repeatedly handed a list of names to Ukrainian officials. “Thank you for the work you are doing”, Konstyantyn, said later, “I thought I’d never be free.”
Mahmoud Hussein, incarcerated in an Egyptian jail, was released having spent two years detained without trial after being arrested at the age of eighteen in 2014 for wearing a “Nation Without Torture” T-shirt. “Amnesty activists gave me such hope and I felt really supported, although I was locked away from people, in a graveyard for the living, I was still alive in other people’s minds”. 145,00 people around the world took action for his release as part of Amnesty’s Stop Torture campaign”.
The campaign to free this year Fred Bauma and Yves Makwamba of the Democratic Republic of Congo involved 170,000 Amnesty members taking action. “Every letter, every visit, every word, has strengthened us and reinforced our determination in this long but just struggle for freedom and democracy”, wrote Yves.
Well, I’m sitting in a far corner of the world. But I can see clearly one of the world’s most positive things. May 2017 be better!