Salil Shetty speech to IAVE World Volunteer Conference

Making Change: The Challenge and the Potential

Amnesty International’s Secretary General Salil Shetty addresses the 24th IAVE World Volunteer Conference in Mexico City on 10 November 2016

FULL TEXT:

At the outset, I want to thank IAVE and our local hosts Cemefi and Amevol.

The world is spinning out of its axis

The world is spinning out of its axis, or so it feels, and this is even before we heard the outcome of the US elections.

The world is spinning out of its axis, or so it feels, and this is even before we heard the outcome of the US elections.
Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International

From Syria to South Sudan, from Yemen to Afghanistan, conflict is proliferating and worsening. Conflicts marked by deliberate attacks on civilians, use of banned cluster or chemical weapons, targeting of hospitals and more. Norms that have been put in place over decades are being treated with utter contempt. We don't have to look that far to see war-like conditions - Central America, Venezuela and parts of Mexico are living with it. The suffering of people living in conflict zones is indescribable whether it is those caught between NATO or Russian bombing on the one side and the brutality of the so-called Islamic State or Boko Haram on the other or between criminal drug gangs and state security forces in Central America or here in Mexico. Tens of thousands of people have lost their lives, millions are suffering untold pain and uncertainty, many of whom are women and children.

The drivers of these conflicts are the same everywhere: a lack of accountability of leaders, corrupt governance, and a colossal disregard for human rights. We then have the knee-jerk reactions of government dealing with insecurity casting aside justice and dignity of people in the name of security. President Obama still hasn't shut down Guantanamo Bay – promised 8 years ago! From Egypt to Ethiopia to Burundi to Myanmar and even Iraq and Syria, virtually every full-scale conflict has clear early warning signs, signs of the state carrying out or turning a blind eye to serious human rights violations against one section of the population.

The consequences of this are huge. We are facing the gravest refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War with 21 million refugees, thousands having died while trying to get to the borders of the EU from drowning. A daunting number yes, but only 0.03% of the world’s population that could be resettled if all countries take their fair share. Yet leaders choose to speak not of solutions but of borders, fences and walls.

Meanwhile, institutions everywhere are letting us down. We now see leaders elected on the back of fear-mongering, who embark on brutal crusades against their own people like President Duterte who has killed over 2000 lives in a span of a few months in his so-called war on drugs in the Philippines. We also have long-standing authoritarian regimes committing on-going atrocities for example President Kim Jong-un, in North Korea. The values of human dignity and human rights are being disdainfully cast aside everywhere.

We see the UN Security Council again and again vetoing action to stop mass atrocity crimes – especially in Syria. African states, bizarrely led by South Africa, a country built on the foundation of human rights, are on the brink of pulling out of the International Criminal Court, the only global mechanism that can hold governments and other actors to account for mass atrocities.
And we see sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers – the very people who are supposed to be protecting local populations have grossly abused their trust. This is on top of the daily dehumanising reality of living in extreme poverty for hundreds of millions of people - mostly those who are excluded from society, including women and minorities. The Damocles sword of climate change hangs above us as the planet hurtles down a course that will not meet even the modest Paris targets.

Yes, there are good reasons why we are feeling the world is spinning out of its axis. The challenges are many and daunting.

But actions of ordinary people brings huge hope

Thankfully, where governments or non-state actors and companies have failed societies, again and again we see ordinary people rising to the challenges. In many different contexts, with amazing tenacity and creativity. And that is exactly what we are celebrating at this conference.

Let us remind ourselves of why there is hope looking at some more recent examples. As thousands of asylum seekers and migrants embarked on a 100-mile march from Budapest to the Austrian border, because of the unlawful and inhumane actions of the current Hungarian government, so many Hungarian people lined the motorway handing out water, food, and baby strollers to the refugees fleeing from war and persecution. After numerous medical facilities have been hit by air strikes in Syria, putting many of them out of service and doctors have been struggling to cope with an influx of large numbers of casualties in need of emergency medical treatment, volunteer doctors and paramedics continue to put their lives at risk and service those in need. Right here in Mexico after the disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa in 2014 it was the families of the disappeared and ordinary people who mobilised on the streets to challenge the government’s inaction and cover-ups.

Thanks to the exponential growth of media, internet and mobile technology, there is no place to hide for governments or corporations denying people their rights. People, particularly the young, have become much more aware of their rights and are claiming it through collective action that often takes incredibly creative and effective forms - from the national to the local.

You could call it charity or social justice, volunteering or entrepreneurship, scouts and guides or Rotarians, company executives giving their time pro bono to causes, philanthropy or activism. The taxonomy of what constitutes people’s actions for common good is rich and complex - just as it should be.

Let us celebrate that diversity. I could be accused of being naïve or simplistic but I have increasingly come to the view that there is so much to be done to improve the well-being of particularly those who have been left behind that in the eco system of social good, there is room for every type of approach. As long as we all share some common values and are working towards positive social good.

I have personally travelled to over 100 countries in the world and I know there are many others in the room who have had the same privilege of learning so much from different contexts. I have not been to a single country or community over three decades now and not found heroes. Individuals who don't just complain about injustice or problems but take action and galvanise others to join.

Amnesty: the global movement of volunteers for human rights

I am not sure why Amnesty International was never seen as a part of the volunteering ‘sector’ so to speak. I hope I am able to persuade you otherwise. Volunteerism is the basis on which Amnesty International was formed and 55 years later is a global people’s movement of nearly 8 million people in every region of the world. A movement that accepts no money from companies or governments for our research and campaigning. An independent movement of people who take injustice personally, who refuse to accept the status quo and believe that better is possible. People whose action – generous and optimistic – stands in stark contrast to the darkness of the times. We refuse to curse the darkness, we light the iconic Amnesty candle. The candle which shines a light on human rights abuses and brings hope every day to individuals languishing in lonely desolate prisons because the government of the day did not like their views. In communities facing forced evictions, or violence and injustice of one form or another in so many parts of the world. Some of these political prisoners and what we call prisoners of conscience went on to become Presidents and icons from Mandela to Aung Sun Suu Kyi to Václav Havel. But the majority of them are unsung heroes. The heroes who show that when ordinary people come together to demand better, extraordinary change can happen.

The heroes who show that when ordinary people come together to demand better, extraordinary change can happen.
Salil Shetty



Today, we have about 3,000 staff but about 2,000 are offering their skills and time not just to our offices around the world but significantly more at the grassroots level. As a membership governed movement, we have large number of individuals who volunteer on governance structures across the globe. We also have specialist volunteers who give us their expertise in interpretation.

Our human rights education work in schools, universities, villages and slums attracts thousands of students and teachers on a voluntary basis. We are currently offering a Massive Open Online Course about refugee rights which has had great take up. In countries such as Sierra Leone, our human rights education programme has been so successful that whole villages have labelled themselves as human rights friendly villages. The village as whole - men, women, youth, local authorities, traditional leaders - work together to address local human rights issues. Very positive results have been achieved in these communities for example in terms of significant reduction in domestic violence, or awareness and action against female genital mutilation.

But above all we have our membership – the eight million people who take action for human rights in one form or the other each year. Around the world there are literally thousands of Amnesty groups, small clusters of people who take creative and collective action. And their collective action yields results – real change for real people. Through our massive annual Write for Rights campaign in 2015 alone, Amnesty supporters across the world wrote 3.7 million letters, messages, emails and tweets to governments - campaigning and showing solidarity actions: Albert Woodfox in the USA was freed in February 2016 after 200,000 people took action for him; student activist Phyoe Phyoe Aung was freed from jail in Myanmar in April 2016 after almost 400,000 letters, emails & tweets in support of her; and Yecenia Armenta Graciano was released in June after being arbitrarily detained in northern Mexico, when she was beaten, near-asphyxiated and raped during 15 hours of torture until she was forced to “confess” to her husband’s murder. She had received 8,000 letters of support from around the world. Through our urgent action network,10 year old Syrian girl Ghina Ahmad Wadi, who was shot by a government sniper in Madaya was evacuated after mass pressure, and has since recovered from surgery.

In Brazil, before the Rio Olympics, we developed a network of organizations in Rio’s most violent favelas and gave them an app called Fogo Cruzado (Cross Fire) to report gun violence in their communities. The app got more than 50,000 downloads and reported over a thousand violent incidents in one month, giving more visibility to the problem and urging authorities to take action. Recently, when we put out our Decode Darfur call online for people with relevant expertise to help us validate satellite imagery data, we were pleasantly surprised that over 16,000 volunteers from across the globe joined us and helped decode 150,000 square kms in less than10 days – something that we thought would take many months to complete.

So in the face of huge crisis, confronted by government and institutional failures the world over, we must not lose hope but hold on to the power of solidarity and mass mobilisation – the power that well-directed volunteerism can unleash on a world that badly needs hope. As we gather here today to strategise on how we can scale up our impact - individually and collectively, we have to recognise that the potential for volunteers and people taking action can outstrip the challenges we face.

Civic space under attack

In part because of the success of many of the organisations and individuals gathered here to challenge the status quo, it is a fact that around the globe we are seeing an unprecedented assault on the civic freedoms that are the foundation for volunteerism. If we do not have the basic freedoms of expression, association and assembly, how do we expect to have civic action?

It is there wherever we look. In the name of national identity and sovereignty, or protecting national security, or safeguarding their definition of development, governments are ferociously clamping down on the space we operate in.

In Turkey, the past few months have seen an astonishing attack on journalists, academics and NGOs. Amnesty has been in the line of fire too. In recent days, more journalists have been arrested (adding to more than 100 in pre-trial detention) and news outlets shut down, opposition voices have been silenced. The space for critique, creativity, and voicing alternatives is slowly being squeezed.

In Russia, the notorious Foreign Agents law is used to delegitimise and attack civil society.

Honduras, where I visited recently, along with El Salvador and Guatemala, has a phenomenal rate of targeted violence against those defending environmental rights in the face of major so-called development projects. Berta Caceres, whose story will be known to many here, was killed earlier this year for her efforts to protect the rights of those whose land was threatened by construction of dams. Even in the past month, more activists have been killed. There are many more examples I could cite: from Egypt to China, to Saudi Arabia, people standing up to injustice are coming under ever greater attack.

It is important to recognise that this is not just a phenomenon in poor or developing countries. It is happening in the richest countries in the world. Note how Snowden is being hounded by the U.S. Government for challenging the unlawful practice of mass surveillance. We were shocked a year ago to discover that Amnesty International itself was being spied on by the U.K. government.

It is not only the more dramatic things – across the world, getting visas has become more difficult for volunteerism. Several people have been prevented from attending this conference, often because they can’t get a visa to even simply transit a U.S. airport. Organisations have struggled with ever more onerous regulations for registration and receiving funding. This is about trying to squeeze the life out of civil society.

If you think that your organisation or work is not likely to be affected, I can assure you that you are mistaken. You will be affected directly or indirectly.

Being smart and effective

In light of the assault on civic space, we have to get much smarter and more effective in how we go about our work. Let me suggest three pathways to this.

First, for organisations from the global North who are often facing the accusation of being foreign or western driven, many of whom are in this room, it is very important for us to acknowledge that there are important internal changes we need to make to address this. Within Amnesty, we have gone through a big internal change process over the last few years of changing our governance and operations to make them much more global.

This has included moving our teams on the ground from London to Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. To significantly increase our partnership with and accountability to local partners and communities. We have a clear programme to increase our rootedness in the global South. This comes with some short-term pain but huge long-term gain.

Second, in order to remain relevant and resonant, we need to critically evaluate our methods of engaging with people – particularly younger demographics. There is huge interest among them to be more involved but our offerings are often not very smart and thought through. I reject the notion that today’s youth are less interested in social issues and that they are shallow and only interested in clicktivism. Quite the opposite, they want to engage in deeper ways. They want to not just be followers, but also leaders. We need to devise new ways of engaging people in powerful ways. People who can, through their actions, see themselves as part of the story of change. I talked earlier about our Decode Darfur initiative. We have also launched Alt-Click – alternative to clicktivism, which is gaining good traction.

Third, is to challenge the mainstream negative narrative by using accessible language and new forms of positive story telling. Even in Europe and North America and as far away as Australia, places where we once thought the battles for civic freedoms had been won, a new malaise has taken hold. Xenophobic narratives are on the rise, newspapers are pitting an internationalist elite against the ordinary people. Division and fear are brewing; who knows where it will lead? The US election campaign and the Brexit vote were both marked by an ugly and troubling tendency to pin the blame for everything on the foreigner, the outsider. Elections campaigns coming up in France, Germany and the Netherlands may well have the same flavour. But our job in the face of this is not to lose hope, it is to subvert the negative narratives. Too often we hear populations painted with the same brush; yet everywhere the seeds of resistance are there.

Our job is to counter division and violence with solidarity.
Salil Shetty

Our job is to counter division and violence with solidarity. To meet suspicion and hostility with human connection. The power of solidarity is always greater than division.

In the face of appalling negativity in Europe about the portion of the global refugee crisis which has confronted that continent, I want to show you a powerful example of this - a video from Amnesty Poland. You may be among the 30 million people who have seen it already. I challenge you to watch it and tell me that hatred is more powerful than solidarity. On 18 November, we will be doing this on Facebook Live in four cities. Please do join us if you can.

Call to action

In closing, I want to end with a call to action. It is time for all of us to come together – to call for a new kind of future. As I said earlier, we are all different. Different organisations, different priorities, different approaches. The list of differences could be long and we could focus on that. But I believe we are all united in our strong belief that the only way to make the world a better place and keep it that way is through people taking voluntary action. This is the golden thread that binds us together. Our acts of kindness, our philanthropy, let us not let go of that.

Edmund Burke has famously said “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing about it”.

We are the optimists who will confront the wall of pessimism. We are the ones who will not accept that the future is darker than the present. This is our fightback against the state of the world.

We must seize hold of our right – and our responsibility – to participate and shape the societies we live in. We must not let go of our demand, we must be tenacious in the face of ever growing threats. We must be creative, not yielding to the pressure but rising to the challenge.

In Amnesty, our goal is to reach 25 million people joining our global movement to take action for human rights. We do this through global and local campaigns. Our first global ‘I Welcome’ campaign to ensure refugees are protected and enjoy their human rights through strengthened global responsibility-sharing and international cooperation was launched recently.

Our second major global campaign is about protecting those who defend human rights. This will benefit many of your organisations, staff and volunteers who are working in difficult contexts. I hope you will join in one or both of these campaigns and that we together can make the right to participation real for all. We will join you as Amnesty in your efforts in whatever way that we can.

Let me close with Martin Luther King’s powerful call: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice”. Let us stay on the right side of history.

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