Comic Relief? - Colum McAndrew
The well known English comedian Alexi Sayle once said that although he was a member of Amnesty International he wanted to pay his subscription on a weekly rather than a yearly basis. His reasoning behind this logic was that if all political imprisonment, torture, intimidation, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, disappearances and extra-judicial executions were eradicated overnight he wouldn't have wasted his money by paying in advance!
An amusing idea but sadly there is no sign that Alexi's money will be wasted. Whether it is ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, disappearances in central America, torture in Nigeria, the use of the death penalty in the United States of America, the intimidation of the Marsh Arabs in Iraq or the mass killing of thousands of students by the Chinese military in Tiananmen Square there is still a need to speak out
But does speaking out do any good?. Aren't we just a single voice in the wilderness? To answer these questions I could simply list a string of names of people who Amnesty International has helped. However they are individuals and human rights is a world-wide problem faced by millions of people. So to answer the question I will just say two things.
Firstly let us focus to just two regions of the world which have suffered some of the worst abuses of human rights seen this century. We' ve had apartheid in South Africa and an Iron Curtain in eastern Europe. Both South Africa and the eastern bloc countries have undergone change on a massive scale in recent years which has seen great strides taken to improve the rights of their citizens. Indeed the International Council Meeting of Amnesty International, which is responsible for deciding Amnesty's policy world-wide was held in January 1998 in Cape town. Such an event would have been considered unthinkable a few years ago but is recognition of the fact that the work of grass root Amnesty members and their supporters really does work.
Secondly I would say that it really doesn't matter whether it works or not. The point is that if you feel like I do that what is happening every day throughout the world is wrong, then you must not just sit back and let it happen. Everything you do is a reminder to the perpetrators of these acts that we know what they are doing and that we will continue to hound them until they cease these activities.
This illustrates the real strength of Amnesty International. We will not go away. We will not hide behind our consciences. The many victims of human rights abuses rely on us to secure their freedom. A freedom that is laid out in the UN Declaration of Human Rights whose 50th anniversary we celebrated last year. A freedom to speak out, a freedom to question and above all a freedom to criticise.
With 143,000 members of Amnesty International United Kingdom, of which 25% live in or around London, I do not under estimate the massive potential they can have. London is a capital city. It holds the seat of the UK Government. It provides a gateway to Europe. Many countries hold major diplomatic missions here. It is arguably the financial capital of the world and is a major centre for the world's media.
Amnesty International members in London therefore carry an unique responsibility. They have access to resources which groups outside the capital only dream about and which can ultimately influence the human rights of others. London's importance as a campaigning centre must not be under estimated and it is both Mark's and my aim to ensure that it is not.
As one, the 143,000 members of Amnesty International in the United Kingdom care for human rights. We call for the release of all Prisoners of Conscience (political prisoners who have not used or advocated the use of violence), we work for fair trials for all political prisoners, we believe that the Tiananmen Square massacre was a gross abuse of international law, we believe that the use of electric shook batons and other torture equipment must be eradicated, we believe that the death penalty is not a deterrent to murders and is itself paramount to a form of torture, we believe that ethnic cleansing must not be allowed to continue and we continue to fight for information on all those who have disappeared.
In short we are 143,000 ordinary people from all backgrounds who believe that every human being on this planet has the right to freedom of speech and security of person regardless of their race, religion, political affiliation or gender.
However the battle is not yet won. More help is needed. Now! If you feel like we do that you can not sit by and let this abuse continue please look at the list of local Amnesty International groups in the capital and get in touch with the one nearest to you. Alternatively contact Mark or myself by e-mail for further details.