In 1961 when Amnesty International founder Peter Benenson and his friends launched the Amnesty for the forgotten prisoners, they came up with the description “prisoners of conscience”.
For the next sixty years members of Amnesty International continued to work on behalf of the “prisoners of conscience” and what began as a group of friends working out of Peter Benenson’s spare room, has now grown into a worldwide human rights movement. Our mandate has broadened and we now work on a range of human rights issues and the term “prisoners of conscience” is not so prominent in Amnesty literature.
(Photo of Peter Benenson taken in the late 1950s)
This weekend leaders of Amnesty International Australia (AIA) will meet in Sydney to vote on constitutional changes that aim to make the governance of AIA better suited to the environment in which we find ourselves. It is an opportunity to reflect on the challenges human rights defenders face as we advance into the 21st century and how AIA might support us in facing these challenges.
The world was simpler in 1961 when Peter Benenson launched his campaign for Amnesty. The original action was inspired by an article in a daily newspaper that reported the imprisonment of several people in Portugal for their human rights activism. Initially Peter Benenson and his colleagues thought that this was an isolated case, an aberration, in a world where human rights were generally respected. As their campaign grew they realised that this was not the case and that human rights abuse was common in a number of European countries at the time, and that human rights were not universally respected despite the pronouncement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a decade earlier.
In 2018 I open my computer on any day to find requests to take action on a wide range of issues, many of them human rights related. The task becomes to choose which ones to take action on – to sort out the worthy from the less worthy. Sadly this constant barrage of email requests, twitter feeds and Facebook posts can be disempowering.
Many today feel that whatever they do, it will make no difference. They switch off altogether and live in a world of “infotainment”. Those of us who do struggle to respond to the world around us are in danger of “burning out” – we can end up the same as our fellow citizens who put up no struggle in the first place, disillusioned with the idea that we as individuals can make a difference.
This is one of the great challenges facing movements for positive change today. How do we empower people who strive to build a more compassionate, fair and sustainable future?
Perhaps it is time to revisit the term “prisoners of conscience”. Those of us who work for peace and justice are in one sense all prisoners of conscience – prisoners of our own conscience. We receive a request from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre to phone Scott Morrison’s office to ask him to let the children off Nauru and we do it. Perhaps it is because it gives some relief to a guilty conscience that we are not doing more, or perhaps we welcome the chance to be working with like-minded people on a just cause. Whatever the reason, the important thing is we took action.
(Photo – AIA Online action in support of children on Nauru)
When we define prisoners of conscience in this way we see them everywhere – the doctor who speaks out about the conditions on Nauru even though it may mean losing his or her job, the Liberal Party backbencher in Federal Parliament who says is enough is enough and demands that sick children on Nauru and their families be brought to Australia for treatment, or the public servant who blows the whistle on illegal or fraudulent practices. Using this definition our human rights movement becomes a movement of “prisoners of conscience” working on behalf of “prisoners of conscience”.
What can we do to sustain each other in our work for human rights? Perhaps the most important thing to support and encourage each other. After leaving my message on Mr Morrison’s phone yesterday, I sent an email of support to the three Liberal MPs who have spoken out on the issue of medical treatment for the children on Nauru. They may not get to see these emails but it is a gesture, and such gestures are important in sustaining other “prisoners of conscience”.
In the 1960s Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk and mystic, used the phrase “bombardment of the senses” to describe the impact of the popular media. In his diary he commented that he avoided reading newspapers and did not listen to radio or television. All his news came from individuals – he maintained correspondence with peace activists leading the anti-war movement in the US, with civil rights activists in the US Deep South, with Vietnamese Buddhist monks and with ordinary people struggling to live responsibly in a world that was slowly losing its humanity.
Avoiding so-called popular media, Merton knew what was happening in the world but it was mediated by the experiences of people striving to make a difference. Although he lived as a monk in a silent monastic order, Thomas Merton was at the centre of the changes in the US Catholic Church that saw the Church come out in support of the civil rights movement, declare the war in Vietnam as an unjust war and to call for nuclear disarmament.
(Photo – Thomas Merton with the Dalai Lama in 1968)
The lesson I take from the life of Thomas Merton is the importance of relationships – in many of our campaigns and causes we may not achieve success but if we never lose sight of the importance of supporting and sustaining each other, and we remain in the struggle for peace and justice, who knows the ultimate outcome.
This weekend as we meet to change the governance structures of Amnesty International Australia and reconsider our role in supporting the global movement for human rights, it is important to reflect on how we sustain each other as “prisoners of conscience”.