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2014: A year without hope?

By Salil Shetty London,
Salil Shetty (centre), Amnesty International’s Secretary General, visits the now derelict former Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, November 30, 2014. © Amnesty International / Abdul Moeed Faruqui

Judging by the seemingly endless stories of death, suffering and injustice we have seen in the news this year, there was little cause to celebrate in 2014.

Thousands of lives were lost in conflicts across all corners of the globe – from the Central African Republic, to Syria, to Ukraine.

Thousands of people were executed by their own governments in countries which have yet to abolish the death penalty. And millions of others continued to be persecuted and discriminated against.

The situation in Nigeria has deteriorated with war crimes being committed by both Boko Haram and the military. And in Mexico, we have seen a terrifying 600% rise in the number of reported cases of torture and ill-treatment.

2014 has been a worrying year for human rights. But it would be wrong to conclude that this was a year without hope.

Historic successes

Good news stories don’t always make the headlines in the same way crises do, but at Amnesty International we know that – thanks to the work of the world’s huge movement of human rights activists – some historic successes have been achieved.

In September, for example, after more than two decades of tireless campaigning by our movement and its partners, an international treaty to control the irresponsible flow of arms reached its 50th ratification at the United Nations.

It is estimated that roughly half a million people are killed every year by armed violence, often as a result of state repression and by criminal gangs.

The Arms Trade Treaty will now become international law this December, helping to block the flow of arms to governments that would use them to commit atrocities. This is the first-ever legally binding treaty of its kind and it is a true testament to the hard work and commitment of more than one million activists who have fought for it.

Elsewhere this year a positive development came in July, when the European Court of Human Rights issued a historic judgment on the Polish government’s complicity with the CIA’s infamous detention programme running secret centres in the country.

When I visited Poland four years ago in one of my first trips as Amnesty International’s Secretary General, this kind of outcome was impossible to imagine, yet the determination of activists has indeed brought us one step closer to the truth. I hope that the latest revelations from the US Senate report add further weight to our calls that the full truth is disclosed, perpetrators are held accountable and victims are given reparations, including justice.

Another significant step in the right direction came with the European Commission’s announcement that it will be opening infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic for violating anti-discrimination legislation over segregation of education for Roma schoolchildren. Again, this is an issue which Amnesty International’s activists have campaigned hard for.

And perhaps one of the most joyous human rights victories of the year was achieved in Paraguay, where the Senate passed a bill which will allow the Sawhoyamaxa people full rights over their land. This has been a key goal of our advocacy in recent years and it is a triumph for an indigenous community which has fought for more than two decades on the issue.

Speaking truth to power

Amnesty International plays a unique role in speaking truth to power.

We bring together the voices of many through powerful campaigns like Write for Rights, which topped 2 million actions in recent weeks. When I speak to leaders about their country’s human rights records, they know that our movement is watching them and will hold them to account on their next move. So there is no doubt our voices are heard by decision makers around the world.

Authorities in Mozambique this year struck down a proposed law which would have enabled rapists to escape prosecution by marrying their victims, due to pressure from human rights activists around the world.

Dozens of unfairly imprisoned activists were also released, including Belarusian Ales Bialiatski, SudaneseMeriam Yehya Ibrahim, and Ángel Colón who was being held in Mexico.

Back in February I met Mexico’s President to talk about the failing human rights situation and impunity. The authorities’ shameful response to the horrific disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero State in September was a sad testimony of the government not heeding our calls early on.

Just a few weeks ago, the Philippine Senate decided to open an inquiry into the widespread use of torture by police in the country. A sickening and pervasive culture of impunity has allowed torture by police to go entirely unchecked in the Philippines. I hope the Senate’s announcement is a sign the government is finally ready to take seriously its responsibility to tackle torture head on.

We should also be proud of how we are introducing technology to the fight for human rights. Amnesty International has worked with our partners to produce an excellent new tool to help human rights defenders to carry out their work. The innovative Panic Button app transforms a user’s smart phone into a secret alarm which can be activated in the event to alert their colleagues in the event of an emergency.

Along with partner NGOs, we have also taken legal action against UK intelligence agencies, to challenge their mass communications surveillance activities.

There are then, some important successes from 2014 which the human rights world can and should celebrate. Each success is a reminder that change is possible when people are determined.

Brave activists and survivors

I feel especially fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet many remarkable people this year.

From the dozens of brave women unfairly imprisoned in El Salvador, a country that jails women who have miscarried their pregnancies, accusing them of breaking the country’s strict anti-abortion laws; to the generations of survivors from the Bhopal toxic disaster in India continuing, in solidarity, their long fight for justice and reparations. From the lawyers working on behalf of prisoners of conscience; to the campaigners and activists pushing our legislators for change; to the human rights defenders who are fundamental to so much of what we do.

As the year comes to a close, we are very proud to now have our researchers, campaigners and movement builders on the ground in Africa and Asia-Pacific and are set to do so with new regional offices in Latin America and the Middle East and North Africa in 2015.
On behalf of Amnesty International, I would like to say thank you to the millions of members, supporters, activists and well-wishers who have given their time to our shared cause.

Justice is possible

Together, we have sent a powerful message that justice is possible when enough people are determined to achieve it.

Given the seemingly insurmountable scale of the problems the world faces in the years to come, the fight against human rights violations is more needed than ever. I am heartened, though, by the strength and resilience of the activists we have in our corner.

Read more:
24 of your biggest moments in 2014 (Blog, 22 December 2014)