Say it like it is: on Amnesty International and all that


“It was not the West who faced the tanks, it was the Chinese students.”

Just before it vanished off i-player, I managed to squeeze in a great documentary about the history of Amnesty International which was full of comments like that one. Set my mind off on all sorts of ponderings, as you can imagine.

Amnesty International’s one of those things I feel I ought to know more about, so I figured this was a good way of learning the basics. And it was fascinating seeing how individuals joined together to start an international movement which spoke out for the voiceless, and how this growing movement faced a challenging evolution over the years. Questions raised about organisational impartiality, about power, and about the feasibility of non-violence when military action seemed to be the lesser of two evils. Questions about the role of Amnesty as Human Rights became more mainstream, and as Amnesty itself became increasingly middle class and Western: ‘the MacDonalds of Human Rights’.

Having worked in fundraising, communications and grass-roots charity stuff, I liked the discussions on the direction of the organisation in terms of vision and mission, and the measurement of its effectiveness. You can easily measure Amnesty’s work with prisoners of conscience: success is a captive released. “You saved me”, is the quasi-religious strapline of a recent publicity email outlining the liberatio of an Azerbaijani journalist. But what about their work in other contexts like Haiti, where it’s not prisoners of conscience but victims of rape? What is ‘success’ in that context? A worker comments: “these women are crying in front of me and I’m not sure we can help in these individual cases. So it’s quite tough to listen and to know that you can really do little for them. All the time when we explain what we do we say that we are going to put pressure on the State but at the same time when they hear the word ‘State’ they look at us like ‘what are you talking about’? There is no State.”

Another worker reflected on the challenges arising when the established Amnesty tools – of naming and shaming, of detailed research, of bearing witness – stop working. When you point something out and there is no shame, no regret, no desire to change. “The underlying assumption to name and shame doesn’t work,” the worker suggests, “so what are you doing here? What are the benefits of your engagement? Is this a statement about yourself, a way of rendering a kind of ethical account to your own sense of moral purpose? “

Say it like it is. Hard words but they make you think. And which of us hasn’t looked at our own motivations and come out wanting in some way.

At one level it was a really inspiring documentary, and at another level really sobering. You can see why people go full-on activist, striving to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves and to defend the rights of the poor and the needy. And you can see why people veer towards full-out apathy because the more you get into it the more complex it becomes. In many ways it’s easier to keep our distance knowing that we’re safe enough for now.

With this documentary playing round my mind, it was striking that Andy’s sermon in church the next day picked up on some of these themes when he quoted those familiar words:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the communists
and I did not speak out – because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me –
and by then there was no one left to speak out for me.

Kind of refreshing hearing them in church.

Reminding us that persecution is a reality for many today, Andy encouraged us to stand up then and there as an expression of unity with our global family, in recognition of the fact that as our brothers and sisters are persecuted we hurt too and can’t remain immune to what they’re going through. In the silence, I am praying and I am thinking and I am conscious of the enormity of it all.

The Amnesty documentary concluded that, in spite of all the challenges and the questions, the Amnesty candle should not be snuffed out. As I stood up on Sunday, in silent solidarity, the words that echoed round my head were along the same lines. The Light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.

Perhaps it’s because of my work, or because I watch documentaries, or turn on the news, or simply look out of my window, that I see this rubbish stuff all around me and sometimes it feels like that Light is just a flicker.  Someone in the documentary said “in human rights work, progress is never permanent”. Each day a new battle.  I’m with them on that one. But I’m not sure how the Amnesty people think things will turn out eventually, and whether or not they ever foresee being out of a job. I, on the other hand, am confident that the end is in sight and that, in the words of the Brooke Fraser song quoted below in full, “You who mourn will be comforted, You who hunger will hunger no more, All the last shall be first, Of this I’m sure.”

Perhaps the biggest and messiest paradox of the all, but one that I’m holding out for.

* * * * *

Flags: Brooke Fraser (

Come, tell me your trouble
I’m not your answer
But I’m a listening ear

Reality has left you reeling
All facts and no feeling
No faith and all fear

I don’t know why a good man will fall
While a wicked one stands
And our lives blow about
Like flags on the land

Who’s at fault is not important
Good intentions lie dormant
And we’re all to blame

While apathy acts like an ally
My enemy and I are one and the same

Don’t know why the innocents fall
While the monsters still stand
And our lives blow about
Like flags on the land

I don’t know why our words are so proud
Yet their promise soothing
And our lives blow about
Like flags in the wind

You who mourn will be comforted
You who hunger will hunger no more
All the last shall be first
Of this I am sure

You who weep now will laugh again
All you lonely be lonely no more
Yes, the last will be first
Of this I’m sure

I don’t know why the innocents fall
While the monsters stand
I don’t know why the little ones thirst
But I know the last shall be first
I know the last shall be first
I know the last shall be first




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