“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
― Margaret Mead
I recently wrote an entreaty on human rights activism, encouraging others to come out of their comfort zone if they want to change the world. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is because I have been privileged to live such a life, which introduced me to literally some of the worst humans in our lifetime – but also some of the best.
In 1961, British lawyer Peter Benenson wrote a newspaper article about people who were imprisoned around the world for political rather than criminal reasons. He issued an APPEAL FOR AMNESTY, and this quickly led to the formation of the human rights group Amnesty International, which still exists today. Its goals have expanded and changed since 1961, but its unofficial goal – to make itself obsolete – is sadly far from being reached. Human rights abuses still exist around the planet.
I can speak with some familiarity about Amnesty International and its operations – although of course I have no official authority to do so – because I was involved within Amnesty International Australia (AIA) for some 33 years. During that time I spearheaded a campaign to get an Australian stamp issued for the fiftieth anniversary of Amnesty International, and received two human rights awards within the organisation as a result. (My parents, who were also in AIA, remarked ironically that our local group had contributed a great deal of revenue to Australia Post through our letter writing to Leopoldo Galtieri, Mikhail Gorbachev, Robert Mugabe, and a legion of others). I was once told by an AIA staff member that my local group was doing more for human rights than the rest of the entire Australian branch combined, because we wrote over 50,000 letters during the group’s lifetime (and I personally wrote an average of 500 letters per year during each of the years that I was involved).
My involvement within an AIA local group based in Ivanhoe, Australia, was itself the source of some remarkable times. We worked on behalf of people who were christened ‘Prisoners of Conscience’ (POCs) because of their political rather than criminal imprisonment. When calling for the release of one POC in a political prison in Morocco that contained 450 prisoners, we ultimately saw the closure of the entire prison. We actually met another POC from the Black Sash movement in South Africa, whose freedom we had secured after her imprisonment for her own human rights activism in apartheid-era South Africa.
I am honoured to have walked the same corridors – either literally, conversationally, metaphorically, or by correspondence – with the likes of Rebiya Kadeer, Mordechai Vanunu, Aung San Suu Kyi (before her fall from grace), Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Troy Davis. I received a specially created, artistic thank you postcard from a prisoner in one country, and a hand-drawn thank you card from the children of another prisoner in another country. One letter from a prisoner pleaded for help against the “hellish worry” of AIDS in prison; while an offer was received from three South African MPs to present to their Parliament a petition against apartheid. I have interacted with the Black Sash, the Shiministim, the Mothers of the Disappeared, and advocates for the Tiananmen Square protesters.
My local group worked against torture around the world, for human rights in countries around the globe, and we campaigned against violence targeting women. We wrote submissions to the Australian (and other) governments, and helped to change laws. We lobbied against the death penalty in a variety of countries, and sadly two of our most heartbreaking failures during that time were to save the lives of a Van Nguyen in Singapore and Troy Davis in the USA.
Not all our work was appreciated. After writing to the Russian embassy regarding human rights in that country, I received a reply from a diplomatic aide criticising Australians for our national treatment of refugees (it was hard to argue against that point). The attaché of another embassy once replied, “Bullsheet to Amnesty International”; while MPs in successive Australian governments responded to our concerns with form letters that implicitly misrepresented asylum seekers as being “illegals”.
And yet our activist work continues to impact. I recall meeting a church minister from post-dictatorship Argentina who told me that he could not walk down a street in his town without bumping into people whose lives (or the lives of their family members) had been saved because of Amnesty letters. He implored me to keep doing whatever we were doing. Decades later, I occasionally pause and ponder how many descendants of those same people now walk down those same streets. When you save a life, you save the world.
Amnesty International changed, probably in response to a changing world. I was pleased to assist one other activist in AIA during the early 1990s who managed, as we sat in a pub in Fitzroy, to write a letter challenging the publication of homophobic letters in the AIA newsletter, and confronting their organisational reluctance to adopt LGBT+ cases. Within a few short years, AIA was marching in Sydney’s Mardi Gras (although some decades later, in the early 2010s, it was still reluctant to send a speaker to the Marriage Equality rallies in Melbourne). I left Amnesty around that latter time, and my local group closed, with recognition of our existence and work disappearing from the AIA website almost immediately. But our legacy continues to live on, in the lives of the individuals, families, communities and nations whom we impacted.
While my activist work forced me to sacrifice a great deal of time, money and effort, I feel that I was rewarded with a remarkable life in which I met many heroes. While I grew up in relative privilege – white, male and relatively affluent – I learnt to use that privilege to raise my voice on behalf of those who had no voice. In doing so, I became genuinely privileged (in a much fuller sense) because I was introduced to a world filled with people of nobility and grace and courage and conviction; people who put the passion into compassion and who enriched my life by showing me that it is better to light a candle than to curse that darkness. When I walked away from AIA in 2015, I knew that I left behind a legacy of having made a genuine difference in the lives of thousands of people directly, and an indirect impact upon many more beyond that. I have touched and been touched by a mass of humanity that surpasses the immediate sphere of my circle of friends. Can life be any more fulfilling than that?
“No man is an island… For I am involved in mankind.” – John Donne, 1624.
I know there are many others around the world who are also involved with similarly aspirational work. I admire Rotary, a group that since 1988 has helped to eradicate 99.9% of polio cases and who deserve the plaudit that Rotary cured Polio. What a fine tribute to their humanity.
Whether it’s the School Strike for Climate, Black Lives Matter, or the #MeToo movement, what Ferdinand Marcos learned to his regret is that People Power has the potential to change the world. But we have to believe it – and live it.
©2023 Geoff Allshorn