SA's human rights record disappoints Amnesty leader

Amnesty International's secretary general speaks to Verashni Pillay on his disappointment with SA's human rights record. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

Amnesty International's secretary general speaks to Verashni Pillay on his disappointment with SA's human rights record. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

It’s not every day the head of Amnesty International, the world’s venerable human rights organisation, decides to visit South Africa.

Amnesty’s secretary general, Salil Shetty, was due to fly into Johannesburg to open the 53-year-old organisation’s new regional office. It’s part of the organisation’s larger push for a more global engagement beyond its historical roots in the Western world. He chose October, the month where South Africa has the distinction of hosting a large gathering of Nobel laureates.

But the cancelling of the event because South Africa bowed to pressure from China and did not grant the Dalai Lama a visa has saddened Shetty, given the country’s rich history.

“You would expect South Africa to be a leader for human rights, not just in the country, but in the region and in the world.
This, unfortunately, is not what we’re seeing on the ground,” said Shetty, in an interview with the Mail & Guardian on Wednesday.

Shetty has led Amnesty for the past four years, and described how his home country of India looked up to South Africa. Issues like the Dalai Lama’s treatment and xenophobia didn’t fit in with the reputation the country had built.

“I come from India. We’ve looked up to SA as a country, which stands up for equality, for non-discrimination for treating everybody as equals … so it’s very strange when you hear from South Africans saying that we don’t want to accept people from outside because they belong to a different country, they’re different colour, or whatever.”

Justice evaded
Increasingly, South Africa’s strong record in human rights is being undone by poor decisions by the country’s leaders.

The Marikana massacre, where dozens of striking miners were shot dead by the police, also proved to be a “cognitive dissonance” for a country with a strong labour movement tradition, said Shetty.

“It’s one thing about what happened. What’s more shocking is the impunity around it,” he said, referring to how the Farlam Commission of Inquiry into the shootings has dragged on with few real answers from those in power. “How long are we going to wait? What’s going to happen to these people? I think it’s a blot on the country that something like this could have happened and that they got away with it – at least until now.”

Amnesty International is working closely with families and victims of the massacre and with other local organisations.

It’s part of a new model for the world’s reputable, but largely Western, organisation founded in 1961 by an English lawyer.

“Our membership base is large but it’s largely in Europe and North America, which is where human rights was historically a big thing,” said Shetty.

But the world has changed since 1961, and it’s no longer the sole preserve of Western nations to campaign for human rights elsewhere – if it ever was.

“I strongly believe that in South Africa, in Nigeria, in Asia and in my country in India, there are millions of young people who would like to be a part of Amnesty but we have not found a way of reaching out to them.”

The organisation’s stark canary yellow and black logo, depicting a solitary candle, is an iconic image. It recalls the great social movements of the ­Sixties and Seventies, where rock stars turned activists and young people in Western countries exerted pressure on their governments to end wars or to intervene in human rights crises.

The times they are a changin’
Now social movements operate in a different sphere, in an entirely different demographic, who are more likely to agitate via Facebook and Twitter rather than sending the letters that were the mainstay of the Amnesty membership base in the past.

“Amnesty members typically 30 years ago came out of student movements, universities and campuses and church groups on the grassroots level. That’s an aging demographic so we need to reach out to today’s youth,” said Shetty, who acknowledged that the organisation should make greater use of technology in reaching people.

The organisation has built its reputation on doing the hard work of research and legal human rights work all on its own buck, to avoid undue influences. This means relying on the donations of its some seven million people – and also ensuring that their data remains pure.

“This is always the tension,” mused Shetty. “On one hand you want people to engage, you want people to report from the ground but at the same you want to be sure that whatever Amnesty says is credible ... we’re finding ways of getting around it and getting a mix of the two.”

But the organisation is catching up to the technical and social nature of human rights advocacy in the 21st century. A campaign this year to highlight the plight of Pakistani girls forced into marriage cleverly took over the Tinder dating app. Instead of images of potential partners popping up, users were confronted with slogans that read: “You pick your partner. Many women aren’t given a choice.”

New direction
The restructuring of the organisation and devolving of power away from a Western centre is part of the new Amnesty.

It was met with stiff opposition from certain quarters in Amnesty, with Shetty bearing the brunt of the criticism. He has now won over many of his critics and there is more of a unity of purpose.

In the organisations’s Rosebank office, cocktail tables are laid out with bright yellow serviettes for the opening of the local chapter and to welcome more than 20 new staff members who will expand Amnesty’s presence in the region.

“South Africa has some amazing human rights organisations, people’s movements, so it’s not a question of somebody flying in and saying what you need to do,” said Shetty

“It’s a question of working together and what Amnesty brings to the table is international leverage and clout. It’s a different ecosystem to where we were before but the end goals are the same.”

For Shetty that goal is the people on the ground.

The one story that sticks with him is his encounter with a Malian women. The West African ­country has been through major upheaval and changes in regimes. One particular case left the families of 40 soldiers devastated when the men simply disappeared overnight.

“But the wives and families of the soldiers ­organised themselves,” said Shetty. “One woman organised the community and went to the defence minister and she created havoc.”

Shetty met her. She didn’t speak English, was not very educated and yet had managed to make her community’s voice heard.

“I asked her: ‘how do you have the courage to take on the army in Mali?’ She fished into her pocket and she took some time. She had this big purse of hers, and she took out this yellow card with Amnesty International written on it and she said: ‘I’m an Amnesty member’.”

It’s those sort of meetings that keep Shetty inspired, he said, when the constant excesses and cruelties of those in power tempts him to lose hope.

“It’s meeting women like this who put their lives on the line … Amnesty is a movement of people fighting for their rights.”

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.  Read more from Verashni Pillay

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