Chair's letter - March 2016

Dear colleagues,

February brought us welcome news. Albert Woodfox is free. He has finally been released from his jail in Louisiana, after spending more than four decades in solitary confinement and despite his conviction being repeatedly overturned. This was an injustice that persisted for far too long and I am grateful to everyone in AIUK who took action on Albert’s behalf and contributed to this fantastic but long-delayed outcome.

It’s also been great to see so much media coverage of the global Amnesty International Annual Report, which sets out the state of the world’s human rights in 2015. It makes for grim reading. Sixty-one countries locked up prisoners of conscience. At least 30 states illegally forced refugees to return to countries where they would be in danger. At least 156 human rights defenders died in detention or were killed. Our ongoing work for individuals at risk and the forthcoming global campaigns on refugees and human rights defenders are clearly needed. Read more information and inspiration

I am writing at the mid-point between two Board meetings and with just over a month to go until our next Annual General Meeting and National Conference, which takes place on 9-10 April, in Nottingham.

Participation in our democracy

We are trying really hard to make it easier for AIUK’s Members to participate in the decision-making at the AGM, either by attending in person or by exercising their right to vote by proxy. This year we are making the whole event free to attend (apart from accommodation costs) but we do of course recognise that attending the AGM and National Conference requires a significant time commitment and some expense. The right of all Members, Groups and Affiliates to vote by proxy is not new, and we are trialling an online voting platform that we hope will make it much easier for Members to cast their proxy votes. Over 4000 Members responded to each of the two Member consultations regarding constitutional reform, the overwhelming majority of who had never attended an AGM, but by their participation have shown a clear wish to participate in the democratic decision-making.

The online proxy voting service is being provided by Electoral Reform Services, the independent organisation that is facilitating and overseeing our voting. They will have supplied you with unique codes to enable you to vote. Those of you who are Individual Members and also holding votes as the Representative of a Group or Affiliate should have received an email from Electoral Reform Services clarifying which code you need to use for your group vote and which you should use for yourselves. However, please do contact our Supporter Care Team if you do need any assistance. You can reach them on 020 7033 1777 (or sct@amnesty.org.uk).

Constitutional and Governance Reform

This is an important AGM, as it marks the culmination of the recent process of constitutional reform. You should have received your AGM Notice and have seen that there are twelve Special Resolutions from the Board and one from an Individual Member. All seek to amend AIUK’s Articles of Association.

There is a huge emphasis on the effective governance of charities and not-for-profit organisations right now – and rightly so. We know that effective governance is not achieved by amendments to the Articles of Association by themselves, but they are a key part. Indeed, over the past two years or so we have instituted a number of changes to the way we work as a Board. These measures include making clear the roles and responsibilities of Board members, establishing improved processes of induction, training and support for Board members, consolidating our governance documentation, improving the governance pages of our website and working with AIUK’s staff and Sub-Committees to develop a clearer set of strategic priorities and decision-making processes. I have attached a paper to this email, which sets out some of the work that we have been doing to improve governance at AIUK. It is work that will continue in the years ahead. I am grateful to Kate Allen and the staff for their support in this.

The Articles of Association - our Constitution – provide a framework for governance. In proposing these Special Resolutions, we believe they will help ensure a more effective, efficient and accountable governance. We obviously hope that you will support our proposals but we also know that not everyone agrees. An alternative Special Resolution has been proposed and three Members have set out their thoughts on the proposals, which differ (in some instances) from the Board’s position. Chris Ramsey, Malcolm Dingwall-Smith and Clive Briscoe all served with me (and several others) on the Governance Task Force. As they note, they are not representing the many diverse views of the members of the GTF but I know that they have spent a lot of time thinking about these issues. I am grateful for their contribution to the debate and am attaching their paper.

In addition to the Special Resolutions, the AGM will also consider a range of Ordinary Resolutions. These are available to view on the website. We have also made some changes to the agenda. For example, we are running parallel workshops where you can discuss our current and forthcoming campaigns if you prefer not to attend working parties where Resolutions will be discussed ahead of the plenary debates. I’m confident that it will be another interesting and exciting event. If you want to find out more, please visit www.amnesty.org.uk/agm.

February Board Meeting

Unfortunately, I was not able to attend February’s Board meeting as it clashed with a meeting of the Chairs of Amnesty’s European Sections. I am most grateful to Ruth Breddal, our Vice-Chair, who presided over the meeting in my absence.

In addition to discussing the AGM preparations, the Board meeting in February was also pleased to welcome Rune Arctander, who joined by videoconference from his home in Norway. As well as being Vice-Chair of the International Board, Rune chairs its Governance Committee, which is leading the movement through a complex process of reforming our international governance structures.

About one month ago, Rune circulated a long document that set out the Governance Committee’s thinking so far (available in the members-only documents area of AIUK’s website) and the Board was pleased to be able to explore some of the issues with him.

The consultation paper is a mixture of thoughts, options and some concrete proposals, perhaps the most eye-catching being the suggestion that we replace the two-yearly International Council Meeting with a smaller but annual Global Assembly.

Many of the proposals are positive and we can see the case for reform. That’s not to say that we don’t have concerns and we note that the international Governance Committee has so far avoided making proposals on the thorny question of section voting rights. Votes at the ICM are currently weighted (in a limited way) to reflect the size of a Section. However, there is a body of opinion within the movement, particularly amongst our colleagues in Central and South America, that Amnesty’s democracy should be based on “one Section, one vote”. Hitherto, AIUK has opposed this proposal but we look forward to learning the thoughts of others and seeing what the International Board proposes later in the year.

We know that this is going to be a significant issue for next year’s International Council Meeting. As the proposals develop, we look forward to wider discussions within AIUK. In the meantime, if you are interested, please look out for updates in the documents area, including the initial response from AIUK submitted this week, and keep an eye on the minutes of our International Issues Sub-Committee.

European Chairs Meeting

The European Chairs Meeting that I attended on 13-14 February is a new initiative. Twenty Sections were represented and Daniel Genberg, Governance Director at the International Secretariat, also attended. To clarify, it is not an additional layer of governance or decision-making forum, hence being called a ”meeting”. The primary purpose of the meeting and future meetings (to be held on the margins of the global Chairs Assembly) is to build a structure for coordination and cooperation between the European Chairs. Other purposes include the exchange of views and experience and for discussion of relevant international strategic issues from a European perspective amongst Chairs and build relationships at the governance level. As a member of the PrepCom I helped to establish the agenda and draft Terms of Reference which were agreed at the meeting, a copy of which is in the Documents area of the website.

As ever, it was a privilege and inspiration listening to different perspectives, hearing about the various challenges and opportunities that Sections and Boards are grappling with across the continent as well as sharing those faced by AIUK. It was felt very worthwhile by those attending even the timing wasn't ideal, as it took place in Paris on Valentine's weekend.

I will write again shortly after our next Board meeting on 19 March and am looking forward to our AGM next month. In the meantime, keep an eye out for a new website that AIUK is launching that will highlight the destruction that has been wrought in Syria. We are launching this, ahead of the fifth anniversary of the start of the Syrian uprising (on 15 March), to draw attention to the human rights abuses and suffering that so many millions have since endured.

With best wishes

Sarah O’Grady

Chair