What I learned at the Amnesty Scotland Human Rights Festival

Amnesty Scotland had their annual Human Rights Festival at St Augustine’s Church in Edinburgh on Saturday the 17th of November. There was food, there were stalls, there were workshops and films and there I was, too, notebook in hand.

A human right is a right that belongs inherently and inalienably to every person simply because they are human. Amnesty and other organisations invited to take part in the Human Rights Festival (Jubilee Scotland, Freedom from Torture, Scottish PEN, Refugee Survival Trust, etc) are engaged in making sure human rights are available to all humans. The annual Human Rights Festival is a chance to see what these groups are doing, the challenges they face and how you can help.

The three biggie themes that came up again and again throughout the afternoon were:
  1. The public’s and journalists’ understanding of human rights and perceptions in the media
  2. The effectiveness of writing that conveys a sense of humanity seeking humanity, composed both by victims of human rights abuses and journalists/writers who bare witness.
  3. The need for more open dialogue to work towards a “culture of human rights”
Unable to clone myself, I couldn’t get to every workshop, talk, stall and film but the ones I did see all touched on one, two or all three of these ideas.  Presentation by presentation, this is what I heard:
 
Freedom from Torture
 
I was not hovering about Freedom from Torture’s stall long before I got talking to Nigel Watson, the chair of Freedom from Torture's Edinburgh supporters group.  Freedom from Torture (formerly the Medical Foundation for the care of Victims of Torture) “helps torture survivors rebuild their lives” through a combination of whatever is necessary, really, from specialist medical treatment to writing therapy to medical reports of torture wounds that support asylum appeals.  I’m all about the writing. Expressing a horrific experience returns to the sufferer a degree of control over a situation in which they were powerless. When shared, this writing affirms their humanity in a wider sphere and aids efforts to end this hideous treatment. 
 
Scottish PEN
 
It was appropriate that I should move on to a workshop by Scottish PEN, the Scottish arm of an international charity that campaigns for the freedom of imprisoned writers. I'm obsessed with their empty chair symbol but I'll leave those ramblings for a future blog.  At this workshop, I got to feel first hand the impact of writing coming out of conflicts the media portrays so differently. The exiled Syrian poet Iyad Hayatleh read out his verses that evoke real people that he knew and loved. “The conflict in Syria is a people’s revolution against a dictator,” he says, “not a civil war like it’s portrayed in the media.”  It is the voices that get out, like Hayatleh’s and like Syrian novelist and journalist Samar Yazbek’s (author of A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution, a passage of which was read out by PEN member Ann Clark), the voices of humanity seeking humanity, that have a unique power to claim human rights.  “That is why tyrants fear them,” says workshop facilitator Drew Campbell, “because they speak in human terms.”
 
Burma: On the Road to Democracy?
 
I learned some fun facts about Burma in this workshop thanks to facilitators Alistair and Lindsey of the St Marks Amnesty group: There are about 100 languages spoken in the country, the national dish mohinga calls for banana tree heart and British author George Orwell served there as a police officer in the 1920s. But mostly, I learned that democracy-wise on a scale of 1 to 10, Aung San Suu Kyi rightly says Burma is “on the way to number one.” I refer you to speaker Lillie Diamond’s article in the Herald “Backlash in Burma”). She visited the country in March and says that the long and short of it is that democracy has not reached many regions of Burma like the northern Kachin State where elections were cancelled, and minorities are still driven from their homes.  Diamond attributes much of this violence to a lack of open dialogue. “There is no leader in Burma prepared to speak on their behalf… People in Parliament need to stand up and talk about these complex issues”. Our speaker also advocated independent travel to Burma because going with a tour company means that more money than necessary goes to the military and you don’t get to interact as much with locals, the real people with real stories in a deeply complex situation.
 
Billy Briggs
 
Billy Briggs is a freelance journalist covering human rights issues in a reportage, eye-witness style. He and photojournalist Angela Catlin fly around the world investigating the most unsavoury of human situations and then cover their costs with the sale of the story to news outlets and magazines.  Briggs is concerned about how the media reports human rights abuses. Stories of violence in Haiti paint monstrous pictures of native thugs without examining the context of resistance to UN Peacekeepers raping Haitian women. Even the BBC (one of the most balanced news outlets in Briggs’ opinion) has presented a worryingly one-sided image of strife in Gaza: interviewing Israelis and not Palestinians and failing to question where people are getting their numbers. He also says that there is considerably less appetite for these stories nowadays, less vehicles in the UK for “hard news”. The media (especially the right-wing press) is largely uneducated about human rights, and, by extension, a great deal of the public. I would argue that, in tough times, Briggs’ eye-witness, investigative reporting is more necessary than ever to make sure people are perceived as people and not ethnicities, statistics and scapegoats whose rights we are not obliged to defend as our own.
 
Edinburgh and Lothian Regional Equality Council (ELREC)
 
But, you don’t have to go to Burkina Faso to see human rights abuses. The Edinburgh and Lothian Regional Equality Council (ELREC) fights racism and hate crime and promotes a “culture of human rights” right here at home. In a brief presentation, Arun Gopinath outlined how ELREC addresses hate crime (largely against minorities and usually committed by the 16-25s). They try to get more people to report crime through education (so hate crime can be identified as such) as well as acting as an intermediary if a victim or witness is unwilling to deal with police.  Hate crime is any abusive act motivated by prejudice, so programs are geared towards promoting the realisation that “they” are just like “us” (i.e. humans). This is largely achieved (surprise, surprise) through getting people from different backgrounds and age groups actually talking to each other. 
 
Amnesty International: Defending Human Rights in the UK
 
This was a discussion of the Human Rights Act: what it is (an extension of the European Human Rights Convention to UK courts so you don’t have to go all the way to Strasbourg for a hearing) and how and why it should be defended (because it protects EVERYBODY’S human rights).  Mike from the St. Mark’s Amnesty group showed us media coverage of extremist cleric Abu Qatada resisting deportation on a Human Rights Act technicality, Home Secretary Theresa May alleging an illegal immigrant got to stay because he had a cat, and inmates successfully demanding KFC and porn. In each of these cases, the Human Rights Act has apparently been evoked with ridiculous consequences.  The first case is more complicated than it appears, and the other three are basically loads of Sun-baked crap. To highlight the vast majority of CONFIRMED cases where the Human Rights Act actually does provide a safety net for people in the UK, the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) co-ordinates the site Our Human Rights Stories. Have a look and see how the Human Rights Act is keeping elderly couples from being split up by social services, stopping blanket use of Do Not Resuscitate Orders in hospitals, protecting the right to peaceful protest, etcetera.  Some politicians want to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights.  While Amnesty is not adverse to change in itself, it is concerned about the context of these discussions.
 
 
 
In Sum 
 
The challenges are immense, but if there is one message I would take away from the Human Rights Festival it’s this: We are all human, all of us, and, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  Protecting the rights of others is tantamount to protecting your own.  
 
But, what can you do? 
 
This: Pitch in and spread the word however you can. Have conversations, educate yourself, write letters, be sceptical about what you read in the Sun or anywhere else for that matter, and put your creative back into it for an energising experience, too. Protecting human rights is a supremely social activity and Amnesty Scotland’s Human Rights Festival was just that.