Not Security or Human Rights, but Security for Human Rights


Thank you to the host for organizing this important event today – the National Institute for Human Rights and Peace, University of Dakar and Amnesty International Senegal. It’s a pleasure to be back in Dakar.

Amnesty International

Amnesty International is the world’s oldest and largest global human rights organisation.  We are in fact more of a people’s movement powered by over 7 million people, when I say people, I mean people just like all of you who are here today.  This allows us to remain independent and impartial. 

We take no money from governments or companies for our human rights research and campaigning.

Senegal context

The people of Senegal have always been at the heart of creating positive change in West Africa and the continent as a whole. 

Senegal has therefore been a strategic priority for Amnesty International, and for the wider human rights movement for a long time. There is no surprise therefore that Amnesty Senegal is Africa’s largest and most vibrant national chapter or section as we call it led by Seydi Gassama, who is well known to many of you as somebody who speaks truth to power. It has thousands of supporters in all regions of the country, including many past and current students of this university.

Given the power of civil society and the people of Senegal, we thought it was very appropriate to move all our operations for West and Central Africa Region to Dakar. 

The Regional Office was, established about two years ago and is led by Alioune Tine – a long time professor and human rights activist in this very University.  So all our work for the region is now done from Dakar and we have a great team of about 20 staff here.

Senegal has a long and proudculture of tolerance and human rights that must be cherished and defended.  The people of Senegal have always welcomed people from neighbouring countries fleeing from war and persecution.

On Monday the verdict in the trial of Hissene Habré, the former Chadian President whose regime saw thousands tortured and killed, will be announced here in Dakar. Whatever the verdict of that trial, the first time a former Head of State of one African country is tried in another, is a huge victory for Habré’s victims and mark of pride for Senegal.

Amnesty International documented Habré’s crimes back in the 1980s, and when the country’s Truth Commission looked through the former regime’s archives, they found 50,000 letters of Amnesty International members calling for prisoners’ releases.

An important reminder that justice can take time, but eventually the truth prevails.

Insecurity and human rights

But a culture of respect for human rights cannot be taken for granted. Eternal vigilance is indeed the price of liberty. It must always be fought for, especially in the face of new challenges that the world throws at us.

One of those challenges is the theme I will talk about today. That is the challenge of insecurity and so-called “terrorism” posed by armed groups and radicalized individuals – and the way states respond to that challenge.

Let us not underestimate this: it is challenge and a global one.

And we see it here in West Africa. The people living around Lake Chad have been confronted with the horrific atrocities of Boko Haram.

Those across the Sahel have faced the grave threat of groups linked to Al Qaida and others.

And recently we have all seen that threat move from the marginalized peripheries of this region, where poverty and illiteracy provides fertile ground for such groups, to the region’s great cities, whether they be Bamako, Ouagadougou or tourist areas near Abidjan.

What started as peaceful protests of young people in Nigeria against the neglect of the North East of the country and the perceived discrimination behind it, has now ended up in a protracted armed conflict.

Sadly, Amnesty has been touched too: two amazing individuals on assignment with us, Mahamadi Ouédraogo & Leila Alaoui, died in January this year in the Ouagadougou attack.

States absolutely have the right – indeed the obligation – to take measures to protect their citizens, and their life and freedoms. That is clear.

But the way that they do it is a true test of the character of a state.

Do they sacrifice our freedoms at the altar of security? Do they respond to injustices with more injustices, creating a downward spiral that leads to worse and worse? History teaches us that freedoms lost are not easily reclaimed.

States responses to insecurity

The uncomfortable truth is that in many parts of the world faced with a new and compelling security threat, this is exactly what has happened.

  • When I was in Iraq three weeks ago, I visited a truly shocking makeshift detention facility run by the security forces in Anbar, where we found more than six hundred young men and even some children detained in horrific conditions in a disused warehouse – all suspected Sunni “terrorists” but not even one formally charged.  But that is just the tip of a much bigger array of problems. Security forces and militias have committed serious abuses including extra judicial executions without accountability for years.
  • Just last week in south-east Turkey, I visited areas under curfew around Diyabakir, where ordinary Kurdish civilians have borne the brunt of harsh, sweeping measures – cutting off their access to food and medical supplies while under fire and an estimated half a million women, children and men are now displaced.
  • Then there is the United States, which took very little time to create a shameful human rights vacuum at Guantanamo, and is taking a long time to dismantle it. More than 7 years have passed since President Obama signed an executive order for its closure, yet it remains an enduring international symbol of torture, rendition and indefinite detention without charge or trial.
  • In France, the state of emergency imposed after the November 2015 Paris attacks and which is still in force, has catalyzed thousands of raids and house searches, leaving people traumatized and stigmatized – especially Muslims who have been targeted on the basis of their beliefs and religious practices rather than any evidence of criminal behavior.
  • In Nigeria, Amnesty International last year exposed some of the shocking human rights violations being carried out against civilians in the name of fighting Boko Haram. The figures are staggering. 7,000 people died in detention in four years from starvation, thirst, torture and illness; 1,200 extrajudicial executions, and 20,000 people arrested arbitrarily with scant evidence.
  • The US, UK and other western powers also deployed invasive mass surveillance of people’s phones, emails and social media, without any legal basis or process. We recently discovered that the British govt is spying on Amnesty International and we have taken them to the European Court asking for an explanation.  Is Amnesty International also a terrorist organisation now?

Why it matters

Why does all this matter? Is it simply the price that has to be paid for governments guaranteeing our security?

People sometimes roll their eyes when Amnesty International talks about these issues, and wonder why we are “defending terrorists”.

Our answer is simple – we are defending the rights of everyone who risks becoming a victim of weakened human rights protections. Once the erosion of rights begins, once we accept its legitimacy, we open the door to an unravelling that we will not be able to control.

There are more than 1,000 people in Cameroon’s prisons accused, often on scant evidence and no due process, of supporting Boko Haram – you can be fairly confident that large numbers of them have little to do with Boko Haram. The same is likely to be true for many who died in Nigeria’s prisons.

Locking up innocent people and subjecting them to ill-treatment is both a violation of human rights, and an ineffective protection against armed violence. It risks alienating people whose support the authorities need if they are to build truly effective bulwarks against violence

Far too many leaders have used the so-called “war on terror” and “national security” as the pretext to arrest, intimidate and even kill not just their political opponents or human rights activists but dissenting journalists and even ordinary people who have been critical of the head of state or the government.

We have seen in countries like Cameroon and Chad that laws aimed at fighting Boko Haram have been drawn so broadly that they can also easily used to silence legitimate criticism of, or protest against, government policy more broadly.

We have seen that they remove many of the safeguards, such as the right to be brought before a court within a reasonable time, that help to prevent arbitrary detentions and torture. We have seen them use military courts to try civilians, providing little opportunity for a fair trial, and seen the imposition of the death sentence return with a vengeance.

In Cameroon our researchers met a student in prison who has now been detained for more than 18 months because he sent a joke on WhatsApp to his friends (saying now he had his degree, Boko Haram might try and recruit him). For making this joke, he faces terrorist charges.

If someone read all of your jokes, how many of you would be at risk of the same?

Fighting for our rights

There are ways of combating violence and extremism while protecting our human rights. But we must fight for them, and the role of activists and human rights defenders – including students like yourselves – could never be more important.

It is something that demands courage, and there can be consequences.

Across the world, people pay a heavy price for their work defending the rights of others. And we see it in West Africa too.

In Niger, civil society leaders including Moussa Tchangari were locked up and threatened last year because they had criticized the practice of arbitrary arrests conducted by the security forces in the name of fighting Boko Haram.

In Cameroon, three journalists currently find themselves in front of a military court for daring to investigate allegations of collusion and corruption in the security forces.  This is a daily reality for many in The Gambia.

The work of Amnesty International in fighting for human rights is not abstract. It is very concrete and yields real results. I just arrived yesterday from a short visit in Mauritania, where I met two of the leaders of the anti-slavery movement who had been imprisoned for nearly 18 months for protesting peacefully about the practice of slavery in the country. Amnesty International members across the world campaigned for their release, and last week they were freed.

This year alone, we have seen unjustly held prisoners released from Myanmar to Bahrain, from China to Iran. We have seen police held accountable for torture, and important steps forward in the quest for justice for mass crimes. And we expect to see more.

From Hong Kong, to Tunisia, to Brazil, today people are standing up to injustice and demanding their rights. Now more than ever, we have new technological tools, new ways of building global solidarity, new ways to learn about our rights and lay claim to them.

We have inspirations we can look to. Tomorrow night Amnesty has the pleasure of hosting our annual Ambassador of Conscience ceremony. We will be presenting awards not only to Angelique Kidjo – who has promoted human rights and social causes for years through her music and activism – but also to three youth groups who have also stood up for their rights, and shown that when young people organize and speak out they can be powerful.

  • The first is Y’en a Marre, who of course you will know and many of you will be part of. We admire how they stood up peacefully, how they promote citizens’ engagement in public life, and how they will not stand down.
  • The second is Lucha, from the DRC, who have aimed to mobilise youth ahead of the country’s elections and who have seen their members arrested and detained.
  • The third is Le Balai Citoyen from Burkina Faso, a movement who inspired many of us in the way they fought for their cause. Even when the army fired on those protesting in Burkina to protect their democracy, they responded with messages of peaceful resistance and demands for justice.

Amnesty International exists to defend the rights of all those defending human rights. But Amnesty International is itself a people’s movement. 

You are Amnesty International.  Which is why we need you to join us as members and activists, take actions and write to governments around the world who imprison those who speak out. You don’t have to wait till injustice hits you.  It might be too late. Take injustice personally and join the global movement now.

Thank you.