Speaking up for human rights: what does solidarity mean?
by Patrick Cash for the 'Write for Rights' campaign.
When I ask myself why I’ve got involved with a campaign at Amnesty International, I have two answers: firstly, that I’ve always admired from afar the organisation’s ethos and work. And secondly, that I’ve directly experienced affect an infringement upon my own rights from British law. I came of age as a gay man in a school system that had Section 28, Margaret Thatcher’s 1988 indictment that ‘forbade the promotion of homosexuality.’ No one talked about being gay.
This meant my teenage years were a time of deep repression, and anxiety-inducing coping mechanisms, with no signposts out of the confusing gloom; at least not in the way that my heterosexual peers would have had in being able to talk to their teachers, counsellor or head of year. I had no experience of solidarity. I remember clearly sitting at age 15 on a bench on Bristol’s harbourside, and wishing I just had somebody to talk to and listen. I felt very alone.
But I did have books. Great, literary writers like Edmund White, Jamie O’Neill and Alan Hollinghurst became my lighthouses. The power of words displayed a new meaning: of enabling you to feel connected to another human being’s thoughts and feelings, across oceans and time periods, when you are at your most isolated. Until I tentatively began to come out to my friends, and realised they were not going to abandon me after all, it was words that gave me solidarity.
The Write for Rights campaign features many who have spoken out alone: Sakris Kupila has been threatened with enforced sterilisation, and the Finnish government want him to sign a form declaring he’s mentally ill. Shackelia Jackson’s brother was murdered by Jamaican police in 2014 and she still hasn’t got justice. Xulhaz Mannan in Bangladesh answered the door to a ‘delivery man’, who hacked him to death for running a LGBTQ blog. No one has been prosecuted.
We are covering 11 other human rights abuses in 2017. They include people around the world who have been literally imprisoned by the authorities, such as Azza Soliman, a women’s rights defender in Egypt, or who simply find themselves isolated for standing up in what they believe is right. With the Write for Rights campaign, we provide the strength of human solidarity through letters to remind people they are not alone. Last year we sent over 152,000 letters.
It can be a terrifying experience to speak truth to power, against the status quo. Challenging the very codified law of your country can seem like an insurmountable task. But all laws are only thoughts, and all thoughts can be changed. Dr Mudawi Ibrahim Adam was made a prisoner of conscience in Sudan for his human rights work, charged with ‘undermining the constitutional system.’ When states work against freedom, we write to show humanity transcending nations.
Solidarity works to let states know the world is watching, too: Dr Mudawi was released on 29 August this year. ‘Human rights defenders are messengers for social change, advocates for equality and justice,’ he said. And thanks to LGBTI human rights defenders in the UK, Section 28 was repealed by the Labour government in 2003. Although there’s so much longer to go, groups like Stonewall and Diversity Role Models now educate in schools: unimaginable in my time.
But that’s not to say the UK has achieved a perfect status in human rights. One of the troubling cases in Write for Rights 2017 is the tens of thousands of people held in UK immigration detention centres. As the political philosopher Hannah Arendt famously wrote, being stateless can often equate to being rightless. Almost all these people have no fixed time limit to their imprisonment, alone in a hostile state. We advise you to start your letter with ‘Dear Friend…’
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.