Chair's letter - July 2015

Dear Colleagues,

Those of you who were able to attend our AGM in April will remember that we interrupted the normal running order to announce that an appalling incident in the Mediterranean had cost the lives of more than a thousand migrants who were attempting to cross to Europe. It exposed the shocking human cost of Europe’s policies and reinforced the importance of Amnesty International’s campaign for governments to reintroduce search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea.

Shamed by the appalling death toll and spurred on by the vigorous campaigning of Amnesty International and others around Europe, the governments did set up a new search and rescue operation and, as a result, I can report that thousands of lives have been saved. In the first four months of this year, one in 16 people attempting the crossing lost their lives trying to get to Europe. This figure has fallen to one in 427 in the last two months, as the increased search and rescue operations have come into effect. Thank you for all of your steadfast campaigning – you have literally helped to make the difference between life and death for very many people.

Whilst the Board of Amnesty International UK was delighted to hear this news when we met on Saturday 11 July, it was outraged by another piece of news. We have received confirmation from the secretive Investigatory Powers Tribunal that the UK’s intelligence services have been spying on Amnesty's International Secretariat's communications. This only came to light because they were holding onto information for longer than their policies allow.

We are deeply concerned by this and believe it to be an outrageous and unwarranted interference with our legitimate activities as human rights defenders. Amnesty International UK’s Director, Kate Allen, and the global movement’s Secretary-General, Salil Shetty, have requested a meeting with the Prime Minister and we have called for a public inquiry. At the moment, we do not know whether the spying was limited to the International Secretariat's communications or also included Amnesty International UK's communications. We will be asking groups and other activists to take action and hope that you will show your support for the work.

The Board also received a briefing from Amnesty International UK’s management on actions taken in response to recent negative news coverage about fundraising - and telephone fundraising in particular - by charities. Amnesty International UK’s Board and management are of one mind in our determination to ensure that Amnesty International UK’s fundraising continues to meet ethical standards and responds to changing best practice codes and legislation. We therefore support management’s decision to suspend the use of external telephone fundraising agencies until we have determined what steps we need to take in response to revelations of the use of inappropriate pressure tactics. Amnesty International UK requires agencies to follow our code of conduct but clearly greater controls are needed to ensure that this is respected. We will continue to call supporters using our in-house team.

Amnesty International relies on the financial support of individuals to carry out its work – perhaps more than most, as we don’t take government money for our core research and campaigning work, only some human rights education work, and have tough restrictions on corporate donations. We therefore should not be shy about asking people to contribute to our work but we reject any tactics that target vulnerable people with high pressure techniques. The Board will continue to closely monitor this situation.

As part of our more routine business, the Board discussed Amnesty International UK’s strategic priorities for the period 2016 - 2020. We are pleased that the Senior Management Team and staff are making good progress and we will be sharing our thoughts with you during the Autumn.

We also discussed the ongoing review of Amnesty International UK’s constitution (its Articles of Association and AGM Standing Orders). We have identified a range of questions for membership consultation, which we discussed with the Governance Task Force on 18 July. A consultation paper will be coming to you in September's Magazine. Whilst many of the proposed changes are, we think, of a relatively technical nature, designed to bring Amnesty International UK’s constitution in line with good practice models used in the UK charity sector, there will be some proposals in respect of which there is likely to be a difference of opinion in Amnesty International UK and which should be considered separately. Your opinion is very important in helping us to decide what proposals to take to next year’s Annual General Meeting. We really hope for strong engagement by all of our groups and members and I ask that you take the time to respond please.

This was the Governance Task Force's last meeting and I would like to take this opportunity to again thank the Governance Task Force for its hard work, commitment and constructive advice and in particular to thank its chair, Sheila Banks, for her skilful chairing.

The Board also considered the resolutions that will be considered by the International Council Meeting (ICM), which takes place in Dublin on 7-11 August. We are pleased to see positive changes being proposed to the global movement’s system of financing and also look forward to engaging in debates to continue to shape the movement’s new set of strategic goals. These are likely to be the two major issues discussed by the ICM, although there are also a number of other resolutions concerning the movement’s organisation and governance, potential policy research on the human rights impact of austerity measures and, as noted my previous emails, there is a resolution on a proposed policy relating to sex work, which our AGM discussed in 2013 without agreeing a position. ICM Circulars are available in the Documents area on Amnesty International UK's website.

The ICM is a busy event and once we have caught our breath, we look forward to letting you know what happened. We will be providing a delegate report and we will be available to provide feedback at the many regional conferences and other activist meetings that take place during the autumn and winter.

Finally, I’m delighted to say that Board appointed Eilidh Douglas to Chair its Activism Sub-Committee and Hugh Whitby to Chair its International Issues Sub-Committee. My very grateful thanks go out to Hannah Perry and Harrison Littler who have been excellent Chairs, provided such solid advice and laid great foundations on which Eilidh and Hugh can build.

Important Notice – response by 31 July please

I’d like to make a final request to any groups who need to inform us of reportable expenditure during the general election period, please. If you undertook any public campaigning activities concerning the Human Rights Act up until the general election, then you need to provide us with a list of expenses please – date of expenditure, purpose of expenditure, your group details and a contact email and phone number. In the unlikely event that any item of expense cost £200 or more, then you need to send us a receipt or invoice (telling us when it was paid).

We do not need to know about communications or meetings that only involved your local group. We do not need to know about the private meetings that you held with candidates. We do not need to know about letters to the press and press releases. We do not need to know about any hustings meetings that you had, providing you followed the guidance issued in our general election campaign briefing. We do need to know about other public meetings or media stunts that you might have held or public information that you might have produced – concerning the Human Rights Act.

It is important that you need to send this information, by 31 July please, to tim.hancock@amnesty.org.uk to enable Amnesty International UK to comply with the new law. Remember if you didn’t spend money in the ways indicated, you don’t need to report anything to us. If you have any questions, please contact allan.hogarth@amnesty.org.uk until 24 July and Tim Hancock after this date.

I hope that you have a warm and relaxing summer and, if you haven’t already, then I urge you to go along to a Pride event near you. I was proud to take part in London Pride a couple of weeks ago with a big and amazing Amnesty International contingent. It's important that we should our express our solidarity – it’s also fantastic fun!

With best wishes

Sarah O’Grady

Chair, Amnesty International UK

Read previous Chair's letters