As 2020 draws to a close, I have been reflecting on how different this year has been for us.
The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that the vast majority – all but one – of the Board’s meetings have been virtual. And whilst I cannot say I am sad to have foregone the long journeys from Edinburgh to London, I do sorely miss the sense of purpose and togetherness that comes with being around a meeting table with my Board colleagues.
I know many of you will have keenly felt these same feelings, as this year’s Annual General Meeting, formally held on 10 October, took place with such little fanfare. Instead of hundreds of us gathering in person for a weekend of activism, friendship, and good-spirited debate, just a handful of us ‘met’ virtually to complete the legal necessity of recording the AGM’s decisions.
I am profoundly grateful for your forbearance as we did our best to adapt the AGM to the situation in which we found ourselves. In the lead-up to the AGM, we experimented with an online resolution discussion day; we also trialled a Q&A session for the Board, with answers to written questions being published on the website. My thanks go out to all who participated. Thank you also to everyone who submitted a proxy vote. Our highest polling resolution recorded 1252 votes – about 90% of the voting level that we recorded last year. While I am sorry that we were unable to debate, question, and vote together in person, I am proud that Amnesty UK’s vibrant democracy has continued, even in this most difficult year.
The international Amnesty movement has also had to adapt. Last year, I reported back from a joyous, inspiring Global Assembly in Johannesburg, South Africa. This year, a reduced-size delegation – Kate Allen and me – attended a pared-back Global Assembly on 7-8 November from our respective homes. As with our own AGM, the focus for these limited meetings was on statutory and internal accountability processes.
We also had the privilege of hearing from two speakers: Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II, a life-long US civil rights activist; and Amnesty’s new Secretary General, Agnes Callamard. Dr Callamard rejoins us (having worked at the International Secretariat from 1995 to 2001) in March 2021, bringing with her not only the experience of a long and distinguished career in the furtherance of human rights, but the values which our movement must embody. One line of Dr Callamard’s speech particularly struck me in this regard: “it dawns on me, how much we need to find tenderness in our combat; compassion in our dedication.” Hard as we may work, we must always be kind to ourselves and to each other.
Student Conference and Amnesty UK’s Youth Strategy
As some of you may know, I first joined Amnesty as a fresh-faced student at Edinburgh University; that was over a decade ago now, so it was a pleasure to be welcomed back by our Student Action Network to say a few words to this year’s Student Conference. Again, this year’s event was a little different – but also showcased what is possible online, with hundreds participating in a whole week of workshops and panel discussions.
The first panel discussion was with Melike and Özgür, two brave Turkish human rights defenders featured in this year’s Write for Rights campaign . Against a backdrop of increasing homophobia and restrictions on freedom of expression in their country, Melike and Özgür consistently stood up for LGBT rights – until the annual Pride march was cancelled, and they organised a sit-in instead. The authorities responded with excessive force, tear gas, and arrests. If Melike and Özgür are found guilty at trial, they could face three years in prison.
Melike and Özgür are human rights defenders – they are also students. And as I said in my opening words to the Student Conference, they give the lie to what is often said about students and young people: that they are “the future”. While true, in a sense, it is also deeply patronising. Because they have shown themselves more than capable of making change to our present.
That’s why, at our last meeting in September, the Board was proud to approve a new Youth Strategy for Amnesty UK. The development of this strategy has been led by a steering group of young people, some of whom joined our Board meeting to present the strategy and explain its development.
Importantly, in developing the strategy the steering group not only spoke to our existing activists, but also listened to young people who aren’t engaged with Amnesty, or who don’t know us at all. In this, I recognised how differently my own Amnesty journey could have been: coming from a working-class area, there was no Amnesty group at my school, and it was only by attending a Russell Group university that I was really able to get involved in a community of like-minded activists. Yet it doesn’t need to – and mustn’t – be that way. That’s why the Board wholeheartedly supports the strategy: it paves the way to empower not only our existing young activists, but more people, from all backgrounds and communities, to play a leading role in creating human rights change.
However, I cannot possibly put it better than the steering group did themselves, in their message to the Board shortly after the meeting. So I shall let them have the final word:
We, the Amnesty Youth Strategy Steering Group, were delighted that the board enthusiastically approved Amnesty UK’s new youth strategy. The strategy sets out a vision for genuine, meaningful change - changes to the culture at Amnesty International UK, changes in Amnesty’s approach, changes in Amnesty’s structures.
At this time of international unpredictability, we have the opportunity to make a change in our world and our environment. We believe Amnesty UK and this strategy will lead the way, in creating a more equal, conscientious and inclusive world, where all people, and all young people, are given a voice.
It is vital that a movement like Amnesty International UK gives us, young people, a voice. Without it the organisation cannot move forward. Against a backdrop of growing intolerance, authoritarianism and the climate crisis it is more important than ever to show young people that we can and we must challenge the injustices and wrongs we see playing out across the UK and the world.
Amnesty International UK must not just listen to young people, but instead, support us in creating the change we wish to see.
With best wishes,
Chair, Amnesty International UK Section