AGM '09: Voices from the frontline (#9)

This session is chaired by James Savage, manager of AIUK's programme for individuals at risk, and presents an opportunity to hear directly from and to speak to some of those overseas human rights defenders on whose behalf and with whom we work.

For the introductory remarks, Jenni Williams is first to her feet. Jenni is the national coordinator of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) and has been arrested more than thirty times. She tells us that she spent nine weeks in prison last year. She and another activist were branded 'incorrigible and unrepentant criminals'. When she discovered that Amnesty had adopted them as prisoners of conscience their morale soared, knowing that 'big sister Amnesty' would help secure their release. She acknowledged the many AI members and supporters who had sent her letters, even from places she says she didn't know how to pronounce.

Ignatius Mahendra Kusuma Wardhana is a student activist from Indonesia. He has spent over two years as a prisoner of conscience, after a demonstration in January 2003. He received 4,000 messages of solidarity from Amnesty supporters – and he is clear that this helped his situation. Mahendra says 'Amnesty is quite famous in Indonesia'. He reckons this first happened in the mid-1990s when Amnesty intervened after a government crackdown on student protestors. He tells us that the letters he received from AI supporters lifted his spirits and helped give him hope for his freedom which finally came in August 2005.

Nyamalo is a member of the Deep Sea 'slum' community in Nairobi. AI will be working closely with this community during its upcoming Demand Dignity campaign. In a previous campaign, Nyamalo tells us that over 3,000 messages of support were received by the community and that this has helped to offer a measure of safety from attacks.

Odindo James Obiata is a campaigner with Hakijamii, a social and economic rights NGO in Nairobi which works with the Deep Sea community. Having met him last night at the reception, I know that Obiata is a seasoned campaigner and expert on housing rights. Indeed, he came to Belfast a couple of years ago as guest of the Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR) Project, which is using a human rights based approach to improve housing and social conditions in Northern Ireland. On that occasion, he had served on a panel of international experts taking part in NGO public hearings into housing conditions in a deprived area of north Belfast. Obiata explains that he wants "a very principled relationship, on negotiated terms" with Amnesty to work against forced evictions and for improved rights for the Deep Sea community.

Asked how they thought Amnesty should seek to work with them and others in similar positions in the future, Mahendra suggests that it is now time for Amnesty to establish an Indonesian Section or permanent presence. He acknowledged that conditions were not ideal for Amnesty in Indonesia, but that the conditions would never be perfect.

Obiata reckons AI should better appreciate its comparative advantages compared to local NGOs and should maximise those advantages: for instance AI representatives can fly in to Nairobi and request – and immediately get – appointments with key national and international agencies or figures. He reckons that the current target of the Amnesty campaign on behalf of Deep Sea, the Minister for Lands, James Orengo, was probably an Amnesty prisoner of conscience in previous years and that we should use this leverage to help bring change. At the same time, AI must recognise the comparative advantages of local groups. Some things Amnesty can do better, some things local groups can do better.

Jenni pleads with Amnesty not to make the same mistake as some other groups in offering too much leeway or forgiveness to President Robert Mugabe on the back of the recent power-sharing agreement with Morgan Tsvangirai. She says WOZA will judge the politicians on their actions, not on their words.

Obiata says that Amnesty has gone about things the correct way in Kenya in developing and negotiating the upcoming campaign for and with the Deep Sea community. He says the way in which we have gone about the campaign development is admired by all the local partners to the campaign. So the process is right, he reckons, although no-one knows if the campaign will ultimately deliver 'product', in terms of a successful outcome. 

We never know either, Obiata.

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