Our new guest writer for [3+1] is Susanne Ure. We asked her for two reasons: Susanne is Web Editor for Amnesty International Canada and Osocio is celebrating the 50th anniversary of AI; and, more important, we have rarely met someone so passionately dedicated to human rights. That is exactly what organizations like Amnesty need: compassion and conviction.
About [3+1]: it is sharing 3 favourite campaigns, designs or other visual things. And 1 failure, something annoying. In short: 3 x good (green), 1 x bad (red).
Web Editor for Amnesty International Canada. Her primary tactics of individual activism are social media (@SusanneUre) and photography. Susanne thinks that the most interesting part of any campaign story is what happens after. She draws her inspiration from the great human rights campaigns of history — William Wilberforce’s 20 year effort to abolish the slave trade, and Peter Benenson’s “Forgotten Prisoners” campaign in 1961 ( the one that catalyzed the global movement that became Amnesty International).
Susanne believes in the power of one voice – both the one voice of the individual, and the one collective voice. When listening to the Jenni Williamses of the world, she begins to wonder if our immersion in, and access to, digital channels and tactics may have made us a bit lazy and addicted us to the short-term “wins,” but is always willing to discuss it with an open mind.
Zimbabwe has a culture of political violence pervasive and intractable. When President Robert Mugabe was compared to Hitler he himself responded by saying “If I am Hitler, let me be 10 times Hitler.”
Quality of life in the one-time “breadbasket of Africa” has degraded to the abysmal. Citizens are confounded every day with the difficulties of getting food and water, the absence and unreliability of electricity and sewers, a level of inflation that has made money virtually worthless, the twin scourges of AIDs and cholera, the breakdown of the education and health systems, and the all-consuming fear that the president’s men will someday arrive at your door and commit unspeakable acts on your dignity and person and that of your loved ones.
In response, many Zimbabweans have fled. Those who stay, and those who go, suffer equal hardship, as the oppressed or the dispossessed.
Enter Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), a campaigning organization co-founded in 2003 by Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu for the purpose amplifying the voice of the country’s women – the mothers of Zimbabwe – and supporting them in tackling everyday crises and deep needs in their local communities. Since 2006 WOZA has also been conducting consultations with Zimbabweans to develop a People’s Charter – their contribution to the development of the new Constitution.
In 8 years this human rights movement has grown to 80,000 participants, men and women – all without the benefit of access to the communications infrastructure and liberality we take for granted in North America and Europe.
Their mobilization techniques are old school. The internet and social media represent dangers more than opportunities because these channels fall under the control and scrutiny of the police, and by extension, the governing regime. There are no membership dues because there is no money, just a membership card, a strict code of non-violence, and a WOZA scarf to publically identify themselves. In spite of having no leisure time they embrace a programme of capacity building for local activism and undertake, under very difficult circumstances, heroic, well-organized, and strategic efforts to improve their lot, build solidarity, and protect themselves from reprisals.
Every year on Valentine’s Day WOZA take to the streets of cities like Harare and Bulawayo with their key message: “The power of love can overcome the love of power.” They distribute roses (which are very hard to come by in Zimbabwe). Their emblematic gesture is the “love spear” – a hand raised high with thumb and forefinger in the shape of an “L”. They sing to bring themselves together and to quiet their fear.
The power of love doesn’t protect them from being detained, beaten, tortured and raped for this audacious act of singing and solidarity, however.
It’s WOZA’s brilliant talent for risk-management and getting the word out that ensures the world knows when they are in danger. And the world (including members of Amnesty) responds to protect them. A couple of weeks ago WOZA members were arrested. They were shuttled from police station to police station – each of which refused to take them. Why? Because as soon as a WOZA member enters the station, the phones start ringing off the wall with calls from activists, well wishers, and supporters from far and wide. It disrupts the whole operation. The station that finally did accept them had to expedite a release the next morning into the custody of their lawyer. It was the only way to restore peace.
For the Amnesty members who work to protect these human rights defenders that represents a valuable and gratifying outcome to their sustained attention and engagement. WOZA remains an inspiration to human rights activists everywhere. Amnesty’s work in support of them is a privilege and an honor.
Belgium: Wake Up Humans
To mark the 60th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights in 2008, Amnesty Belgium launched Wake Up Humans, a campaign to ignite the human rights defender in all of us. Using snail mail, email and SMS, this campaign sent out what appeared to be official notices to ordinary people, journalists and influential opinion-makers, letting them know that one or more of their rights had been, or would be taken away from them.
Access to www.amnesty.be was blocked with a message stating that the censorship was protecting citizens from subversive content.
A hidden camera was placed in several locations on the streets to record actors playing out human rights violations involving freedom of expression and discrimination. The reaction of those members of the public who got swept up in the small dramas and rose to the defence of the victims were also captured.
An advertising campaign was broadcast online and on television with this footage, with each segment ending with the call: “Human rights still need you to defend them. Wake up humans!”
The campaign succeeded in “waking up” several thousand consciences, and showed people the depths of their own courage in the face of the erosion of hard-won civil liberties. They confronted the abusers on the streets. They challenged the correspondence they received. When they discovered Amnesty was behind the campaign they became members, donated money, and took action to protect human rights for themselves and others.
The Wake Up Humans! campaign was developed at Air Brussels and Paris, by creative director Véronique Sels, copywriters Gregory Ginterdaele and Véronique Sels, art director Marie-Laure Cliquennois, account manager Pascale Pintens.
On 3 June 2011, a 21-year-old student employed as a page in the Canadian Senate seized the moment of the Throne Speech of the new session of Parliament to engage in a brief silent act of dissent.
Having had a front row vantage point to the machinations of power for over a year, Brigette DePape expressed her apprehension about the values and policies of the government by raising a handmade red octagonal sign with the words “Stop Harper” (referring to the surname of the recently re-elected Canadian Prime Minister)..
To my mind it contained all the elements of an effective campaign, albeit brief. It raised awareness that there was a concern. Just like “Wake Up Humans” it provoked people to think, to confront and clarify their beliefs and values, to respond, to express an alignment with one “side” of the issue or the other, to commit and share acts of free speech and debate. It resolutely demonstrated a tactic of engagement – civil disobedience. There was a clear call to action.
The reaction that followed swamped social media and the news. A debate centred around the necessity to preserve the dignity of the democratic institution by observing a decorum for dissent versus the necessity and efficacy of the act versus the position that it was indeed the perfect time and place for civil disobedience. The fact that the target of the action was seen to have dishonoured the institution was not offered up as licence for the young woman to break her own oath. The removal of her person from the locus of power and privilege, and the removal of her livelihood from her person were seen as the inevitable punishment for her “inappropriate behaviour.” She was not arrested, detained, or ill-treated (as she would have been in many other countries). She had full access to the media afterwards to elaborate on her point of view. Canadians rightly patted themselves on the back for this democratic magnanimity.
Quite apart from the many media reports, blog entries, tweets and Facebook postings, what really galvanized my attention was the photograph of the moment of dissidence.
The image is iconic. Will it become emblematic of a time and a generation? A touchstone? Will we revisit it over time and our interpretation of the importance, the appropriateness, of the moment, evolve, as the impacts of this time in history become more apparent?. Or will Canada change so much the photo will disappear, be expunged from the public record under the banner of ” security threat,” as so many things embarrassing to governments worldwide are wont to do.
My thoughts turn to a young Bahraini woman, Ayat al-Qarmezi, a poet, age 20: like our Canadian, an artist-dissident. In March she read a few words at a public rally that were perceived to be critical of the head of state. For her pains she was arrested, charged with “incitement to hatred of the regime” and imprisoned. It is reported that she has been tortured in detention – whipped across the face with an electrical cord and forced to spend days in a cell at freezing temperatures. She has been sentenced to one year in prison with no formality of a fair trial.
The Canadian and Bahraini represent two points on a continuum of tolerance for free speech. But how far apart are these two points really? That’s the idea that this tiny campaign has provoked in my mind. Brigette DePape, having been on the front lines of the G20 protests in Toronto and witnessed first hand the violent behaviour of the police against the peaceful protesters, might say, “not very”. The Bahraini poet, mindful of the recent safety and security she enjoyed within the walls of her parents’ home, might also say “not very”.
Will the dignity of the Canadian Senate survive the insurgency of the silent vox populi, with its home-made protest sign, into its inner chamber? Will the generation the sign speaks for, and the world they inhabit, survive the decisions and policies set by the sitting government?
The most interesting part of any campaign story is what happens after. Following upon a brief period of post-election inattention to the restored and empowered government, our awareness has been pricked anew, thanks to this activist and her micro-campaign. Whatever happens, we’ll be watching and listening with renewed vigilance.
Link to the photo (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press):
More about Ayat al-Qarmezi
Protesters at the Slutwalk in Ottawa, 10 April 2011.
Since a Toronto policeman made an ill-considered remark to a group of women at Osgoode Law School early in 2011, communities globally have rallied and marched to bringing attention to the culture of victim-blaming around rape and sexual-assault. I applaud the organizers and the participants for their passion and their courage. I attended a Slutwalk in my hometown of Ottawa in April and was deeply touched at the sight of hundreds of women marching through my neighbourhood with signs disclosing that they had been the victims of rape, sexual harassment and victim-blaming. It makes me sad to think that all around me women are still suffering these affronts to their dignity and safety as a matter of routine. In the speeches and presentations at the event I applauded the activists but felt the absence of the politicians and police on the podium. I observed the disproportionate number of cameras there to capture “the spectacle” but not the core messages. The media coverage afterward lacked any introspection into the dark side of women’s everyday experiences. Neither was there a commitment to follow-up with in-depth coverage about what could, and will be done, to change these circumstances. So Yay! women for speaking out, and Boo! officials and media for not stepping up.