Interview with an Amnesty International Activist

by JoHarrington

There are roughly 150,000 people registered in the AI Urgent Action Network. I am one of them; and Page Ferguson has asked me all about it.

Yesterday, I had the honor of receiving a lovely email from Page Ferguson, a young lady from South Dakota, in the USA.

She has been reading my articles, thus had learned that I'm an Urgent Action activist for Amnesty International. This organization is probably the biggest independent human rights advocate in the world; and I have been a member of it for nearly thirty years.

The questions have been posed by Ms Ferguson. I have done my best to answer them all.

50 Years of Amnesty International Video

What do you do, in your opinion, for Amnesty?

I respond to Urgent Action alerts, raise awareness and donate money, amongst other things.

I've been a member of Amnesty International for the best part of three decades, therefore what I've done has matured along with myself.

My most important role, I believe, is being part of the Urgent Action Network. Generally these alerts relate to people in immediate danger of being killed, or already being tortured.

There might be other reasons for them being on the list though. It could be that they've disappeared after being taken into custody or a deadline is closing in. What they will all have in common is that there's no time to lose. If action isn't taken right now, then it really will be too late.

My job is to contact their country's leader and/or whichever official can give the order to stop. It's up to me how I do that. I might send an e-mail, letter, telegram or fax, or I could 'phone them. I will always post a copy to their embassy in my own country.

Say, for example, something terrible was happening to Page. Under the banner of Amnesty International, I would write to South Dakota's Governor Dennis Daugaard, President Barack Obama and whoever was directly in control of the institution holding her. The US Embassy in Hyde Park, London, would receive copies of each of those letters.

In isolation, this would easily be ignored and nothing would happen to save her.

Fortunately, I would not be writing alone. Urgent Action activists, like me, all over the world would also be getting in touch. It would be the sheer volume of letters that shines a light on the case. The glare of such actual and potential publicity forces many regimes to prove that the individual in question is alright.

Naturally, for that to happen, the individual has to be alright.

Amnesty International Human Rights Ornament

Fundraising for Amnesty International

As a charity, this human rights organization always needs the means to finance sending telegrams to world leaders etc.

Other things that I do involve fundraising. That's not my forte though. I hate bothering people for money, even when it's a good cause.

For a few years, when the Amnesty raffle books came through the post in December, I used to just buy them all myself. Then I'd rip off the sheets and insert one each into every Winter Solstice and Christmas card that I wrote!

I figured that everyone was a winner there. AI had the funds, while my family and friends had the chance to win a lovely prize. It also gave me the opportunity to raise awareness, on the extremely unlikely off-chance that any of my loved ones had never heard of Amnesty International.

Every month, AI receive £10 out of my bank account. It was set up as a direct debit years ago and it has never been cancelled. When I signed to do that, I was working in a decent job. I've since been made redundant twice, so money has been a bit of an issue, but I refuse to stop the donation.

It's too hard to do, when you're part of the Urgent Action Network. There are constant reminders there that my circumstances still aren't as dire as the people who'd benefit from my monthly contribution.

I've also got an Amnesty International credit card. For every £100 that I spend, £1 gets sent to AI by the issuer. Not that they're getting particularly rich off that right now!

Oh! And I own this t-shirt and an AI Bag for Life. But I can't find that on-line to show you.

Finally, of course, I'm a writer. The evidence that this can be used to raise awareness is in the very fact of these questions from Page. That's precisely how she knew what I did and why it was important.

Some of my human rights articles

The mere fact of being born into our species entitles you to human rights; but do you know what they actually are?
The death penalty for children has been stamped out in the majority of countries. Where it remains, kids as young as 13 are being killed.
Documentary film-makers are set to launch an anti-death penalty campaign. They will travel across the USA interviewing those exonerated of all crimes.
I consider judicial execution to be a 'cruel and unusual punishment', which is contrary to international human rights laws.

Amnesty International T-shirt

Why did you get involved with Amnesty?

I was twelve. I was young and foolish. I've never regretted a second of that decision.

Being a child in a mining area, during 1984-85, was a terrifying and confusing place to be. This was the Miners' Strike, when everything got turned upside down.

Just about every adult male for miles around was a miner. All of my Dad's buddies, all of my friends' fathers, wore the little blue scars that come from coal-dust getting into cuts.

Suddenly they were all being demonized on the television and in the newspapers. Things that I witnessed with my own eyes were edited out of all recognition on the evening news.

I recall being in the back-room of a Working Men's Club with all of the other children. One of the older girls was in tears. Her mother had just committed suicide under the pressure of feeding her family with no wage.

I was shocked to the core. I asked who had done this and I was told, Margaret Thatcher. There was an anger which rose in me then, which has never been extinguished. I wanted to do something. I wanted to make everything alright again.

Of course, being only twelve and newly politicized limits your options somewhat, especially since this was in the days before the internet. I flailed around for a bit in a kind of impotent rage. Then, like many pre-teens in the same situation, I turned to music.

At that time, music and politics meant one band: U2. I was listening to them at my friend Serena's house, as they performed a live concert.  Memory tells me that it was Red Rocks, Colorado, in 1983, but I've since listened to that and I can't find what I'm looking for.

That was Bono screaming into a microphone, "... the work of Amnesty International!"

Even now, I can hear him saying it in my head. I heard him telling that live audience (and us) all about them. AI sounded like precisely the people to put a stop to Margaret Thatcher and to end the Miners' Strike, so I joined them. They weren't targeting her at all. Though perhaps they should have been!

But even if I had picked the wrong organization for my cause, I was there to stay. If you step back and look at it, what had just happened was me awakening a passion for fighting human rights abuses. By that measure, then I was in totally the right place.

Amnesty International 'Projection' Video

Amnesty International Books

Read these collections to learn more about the human rights issues challenged by AI.
Freedom: Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Sixty years ago, the United Nations took a moral stand against human rights crimes and adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a proclamation of thirty rights that ...

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Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International

"If one organization is synonymous with keeping hope alive, even as a faint glimmer in the darkness of a prison, it is Amnesty International. Amnesty has been the light, and ...

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Free?: Stories About Human Rights

What does it mean to be free? Top authors donate their talents to explore the question in a compelling collection to benefit Amnesty International.A boy who thinks that school ...

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What was your first encounter with Amnesty?

Newsletters for years, before I got really active. Then it was Urgent Action all the way.

I honestly can't remember my first real encounter with Amnesty.

I know that I used to receive newsletters three or four times a year, which caused some consternation with my parents. Not least because I didn't shut up about the contents for weeks afterwards.

Beyond that, it's all a blur of telling everyone I knew about Amnesty International; and decorating lots of school notebooks with a U2 flag with the AI logo on it. Nothing overly substantial!

I do remember meeting opposition. When I waffled on and on about Nelson Mandela, I was given anti-African National Congress literature. It very graphically described people being burned alive with petrol filled tyres around their necks. I was told that this was what I was supporting. I hated not being educated enough to answer that charge.

The ridicule also nearly scared me off being interested in human rights. It's the memory of this which prompted me to defend those attacked over Kony 2012 recently.  What kept me on track were those AI newsletters. Each one that arrived really did keep the flame burning in my mind.

I only really started letter-writing when I was a little older. My big entrance should really be seen as the early '90s. The atrocities being committed in Yugoslavia were huge news and it was against that backdrop that I joined the Urgent Action Network.

Amnesty International Pins and Accessories

What are some of your most memorable experiences with Amnesty?

Sitting alone in your room, writing letters and receiving alerts doesn't lead to many big stories. But the small ones stick in your head.

I'll give you a funny one to start. It was 2000 and I'd just got my first computer. This revolutionized everything!

Instead of Urgent Actions coming, eight at a time, through the post, I could now receive them as e-mails.

Exploring my inbox, I discovered that it was possible to send faxes through the computer. "zOMG!" I thought and promptly did just that.

All was well right up until my parents got their itemized 'phone bill. Suddenly my mother is yelling up the stairs, "Why are you faxing the President of Serbia?!!"

I tried explaining that Mr Milošević wasn't a very nice man and I had views about some of his policies, that needed to be urgently shared with him. This cut no ice with my mother. I think that it finally came home to her exactly what I was doing with Amnesty International. She was worried sick that we'd end up arrested by MI5 or something.

She calmed down, but I never did send any more faxes through her 'phone line. (I sent them from the University's fax machine instead.) Besides, I was quickly realizing that sending e-mails was much faster and much more efficient.

Another memorable moment was actually meeting the sister of someone saved by the Urgent Action Network. We'd just got chatting, after she'd seen my AI Bag for Life. When I mentioned what I did, she became really emotional and started thanking me. That's when her own story came out.

I won't retell it here, as it was personal, but the outline was that her brother nearly became one of the Disappeared. He was finally released from prison when over 5,000 letters poured in from all over the world. His sister credits Amnesty with saving his life. I felt very proud that day.

By and large, most of my experiences are more prosaic. It's sitting here, reading information, writing e-mails and trying to keep detached. You can't help anyone if you're burned out with upset and fury. But occasionally one pops into my inbox which just takes me funny. I cry for them, so that I don't have to cry for all of the others.

Then you just dry your tears and get on with it.

Amnesty International Benefit Music

Buy these albums, on DVD, CD or MP3 download, to help raise funds for AI.
Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan

2012 four CD collection containing music from Patty Smith, Rise Against, Pete Townshend, Diana Krall, My Morning Jacket, Sting, Lenny Kravitz, Jackson Browne, Sugarland, Joan ...

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Make Some Noise: the Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur

Import pressing includes three additional tracks over the US edition. 27 tracks in all. Featuring songs by the iconic John Lennon newly recorded by some of today’s biggest as ...

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Released: The Human Rights Concerts 1986-1998 (6 DVD Set)

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization Amnesty International presented the legendary Human Rights Concerts between 1986 and 1998 to raise consciousness and funds for the wor...

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Paris Concert for Amnesty International

Paris Concert For Amnesty InternationalOne of rock's nobler dividends has been a legacy of ambitious fund-raising concerts that carry on the social consciousness that first ente...

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Who do you admire?

On 28 May, 1961, Peter Benenson wrote an article about human rights. It lit a candle around the world.

I'd be really remiss if I didn't choose Peter Benenson here.

He is the man who founded Amnesty International.

In 1961, he read a newspaper report about two Portuguese students, who were arrested and imprisoned for seven years. All that they'd done was raise their glasses of wine to toast liberty.

Mr Benenson wrote about it for The Observer newspaper, which was published on May 28th, 1961. Entitled The Forgotten Prisoners, it began:

OPEN your newspaper any day of the week and you will find a report from somewhere in the world of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government. There are several million such people in prison—by no means all of them behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains—and their numbers are growing. The newspaper reader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if these feelings of disgust all over the world could be united into common action, something effective could be done.

That 'something effective' turned out to be the Appeal for Amnesty, later renamed Amnesty International.

How could I not admire him? Peter Benenson gave me an outlet for that screaming feeling inside that something has to be done. He created my favorite organization, which has done so much to combat human rights abuses. He did that by writing!

Because of him, I can do my bit to save the world from my bedroom.

Amnesty International Polo Shirt

Amnesty Website Links

Amnesty International Home
Use this site to gain an overview, then select the portal to your own country.

Amnesty International USA
This is a direct link to the American branch of AI.

Amnesty International UK
The British site is where I hang out and do all of the Urgent Actions from the update.

Peter Benenson was an English lawyer and the founder of human rights group Amnesty International. In 2001, Benenson received the Pride of Britain Award for Lifetime Achievement.

What are your goals in life?

Currently? To go and get a nice cup of tea. Or did you mean long-term?

I'm guessing that my main goals in life are the same as any other Amnesty activist:

To make certain that no Urgent Action alert is left in the hope that someone else will do it.

To keep fighting for human rights to be adopted in practice and not just principle by our world's governments.

To not let anger, frustration and despair rob me of my compassion.

To never be told that one person, writing a letter or sending an e-mail, can't change the world.

To ensure that, as long as we are living, Peter Benenson's candle will never, ever go out.

I hope that answered all of your questions, Page, and thank you very much for asking them.

Amnesty International 50th Anniversary Candle

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

More Human Rights Articles on Wizzley

When brave LGBT people gathered in Riga on June 2nd for a pride march, it was against a background of violent persecution.
Activists are trying to clear the name of the youngest person to be killed in America's electric chair. They have the blessing of his family.
Have you ever really imagined what it would be like? You or a loved one given that date and watching it draw near. Knowing that you will be killed.
Examining the murky history and gruesome use of death by needle as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.
Updated: 03/18/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 04/30/2012

:D I'm glad to have amused you. <3

EMK Events on 04/30/2012

"Suddenly my mother is yelling up the stairs, "Why are you faxing the President of Serbia?!!"

I tried explaining that Mr Milošević wasn't a very nice man..."

Knowing you both, I can just imagine this happening. Hilarious.

JoHarrington on 03/15/2012

Awww, gracias.

You've just made me really blush. <3

I think that humanity is equally good and evil, as a whole. It just depends which part of our character we're going to run with. Let's hope it's the good.

Skitten on 03/15/2012

You're an incredibly kind person.
I'm afraid I don't have the kind of faith you have in humanity, but that doesn't mean I think you're any less awesome.

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