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Human Rights – A weapon of mass instruction?

Guest post by Pauline Kelly, Media and Campaigns Officer at Amnesty International Scotland.


Since joining Amnesty a few months ago, I have realised there are situations where the mention of human rights can feel like a thought grenade has been dropped into the conversation. Whether it goes off depends on the circumstances.

In a taxi on the way to BBC Scotland very early one Saturday morning to discuss the death penalty…

“You off to read the news?”

“No I am being interviewed on behalf of the organisation I work for.”

“Which one?”

“Amnesty International”

“What will you be talking about?”

“The death penalty”

“Not very cheery, is it?”

“No, it really isn’t”

“It’s not up to us to say who lives or dies right enough.”

Phew. Debate avoided. That conversation could have taken a very different turn and some days I wonder whether it’s worth the risk to answer the question about what I do for a living, but then the strange events of life happen to remind me it is worth the risk.

Recently, I was on a train which I (and several other passengers) thought was the Edinburgh to Glasgow commuter train. Suddenly, there was an announcement that this was NOT the train we thought we were on and, around 20 seconds later, all of the doors on the train were closed and locked.

There was a real sense of panic and a collective sense of being trapped. A couple of bewildered tourists banged on the glass and we all watched as Network Rail staff walked up and down the platform seemingly ignoring us. Then the questions started.  “Are they allowed to do this?”

“How can we escape?” (Yes, escape!)

And finally “Is this against our human rights?”

On this occasion, I resisted the urge to say that it could be in contravention of Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement.” I was much more focused on getting us off the train.

We were eventually freed and, of course, had missed our train but otherwise no harm done? It amazed me how quickly something which seems so trivial made us feel as though our human rights were being denied.

The most inspiring question I have been asked about human rights recently was during a visit to Dundee College. A student approached me and tentatively asked “Is this for me? Can I do anything about human rights?”

My answer was “Of course!”

One of our amazing Amnesty Speakers – Elspeth MacGregor – who has been spreading the word about human rights for more than 10 years, allowed me to accompany her on this visit. We met Social Sciences lecturer Susan McAvoy whose students are keen to set up an Amnesty Student group. We thought we were there to give them a talk on Amnesty and were pleasantly surprised to see a display on human rights around the theme Open Our Eyes.

After Elspeth completed her informative talk, we were very pleased to discover the students had also decided to go ahead and host a fundraising AmnesTea! It was the perfect end to a day that allowed us to meet some inspiring students who were keen to get involved and showed a real passion for human rights.  They shared their stories with us and also allowed us to view impressive presentations they had created on the theme of human rights.

On the train journey back to the office, a fellow passenger noticed my Amnesty Death Penalty sticker and asked me what it was about. I was pleased to tell him…

It is easy to train to become an Amnesty Speaker


About Amnesty UK Blogs
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.
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