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Secretary General @ Amnesty International
Hi everyone, namaste.

I have been with Amnesty International as Secretary General since 2010 and have seen many major changes take place during this time, both within and outside our activist movement.

Before joining Amnesty, I was Director of the United Nations Millennium Campaign. In that connection it was good to be back in New York last week addressing UN leaders on needs to happen to make sure that human rights are not forgotten. You can watch my speech here:

I am ready to answer any and all of your questions—be it human rights and the sustainable development goals, or anything else on Amnesty and our work which you would be interested in hearing about.

I should also say that this is my first Parlio Q&A so a very big thank you for having me...
This Q&A took place between 10/2/15 and 10/8/15. Unanswered questions have been hidden
15 questions
Researcher @ Harvard | Parlio community manager
Thank you for taking our questions! In today's digital age of instant communication and social media, it seems like more people than ever are interested in human rights issues (e.g. posting images, videos going viral, clicking on online campaigns that call on governments and companies to change, etc). Raising awareness is a crucial element of activism, but do you think that some of this "clicktivism" can be re-purposed and re-channeled to more meaningful, substantive action on a broad scale?
Secretary General @ Amnesty International
Thank you! Yes -- one of the big changes I have seen during my time at Amnesty International is the way our supporters increasingly engage with us online.

The internet is an important tool for human rights education, for teaching us what our rights are so that we can defend them for ourselves and for others. And digital communications have given us new ways to organize, express and protest against injustice.

I feel encouraged by the fact that at the same we have seen increasing support from people across the global south -- new members joining us and campaigning for human rights change online who may otherwise never have heard of us. (We currently have seven million members and supporters worldwide – which is great -- but I know there are LOTS more people who care about human rights out there, and we need them!).

But I also agree with you that there is a need for us to channel this growth in support into substantial action offline -- in people's neighbourhoods, with their governments, in pursuit of justice. There is, unfortunately, no cheap way or cheat for creating real, political long lasting change.

We are always looking for new ways to bridge the divide between online and offline action. Our MOOC on freedom of expression is just one tool I’d recommend people take a look at:
Product Guy / Fellow @ Harvard Ash Center
IMO, There is a global power shift where non-state actors are becoming more powerful.

Online platforms such as Facebook / Twitter / Google are used by billions of people worldwide. Dictators and extremists often use them as vehicles to promote hate speech, justify violence, and broadcast propaganda.

My question: Do you think Amnesty International can play a proactive role by lobbying to ensure that the Internet is not hijacked by extremists/dictators? And that these companies are having global standardized terms of service that is consistent in all languages/regions?
Secretary General @ Amnesty International
You are of course right that non-state actors are more powerful than ever. As you know better than anybody Wael from your own experience, social media platforms offer incredible opportunities for change, not least through the greater knowledge that people can have about what others in their town, their country or their region are doing. And yes, of course there is the twin danger of the growth of extremism on the net.

Not all voices for change are positive! I'm not sure that Amnesty International is in the best place to control (!) the internet -- but I do think that this is an important case where we need voices of sanity to drown out the extremists. Too often, in too many countries, we see that extremists show more "energy" than moderate voices for change.

I hope that Amnesty can play a role in reminding millions that extreme (and violent) solutions do NOT bring positive change.
Thank you so much for being here and answering our questions! As a first generation Iranian immigrant, I hold Iran and its current human rights climate close to my heart. What impact do you think the Iran Deal will have on human rights in Iran? Is it enough? Do you see the other sanctions being lifted any time soon?
Secretary General @ Amnesty International
In general, we have seen too often over the past years that governments have focused entirely on the nuclear issue with Iran, and have seemed much less willing to focus on the ongoing human rights violations, which are very serious, and which Amnesty International has repeatedly documented – even though the government refuses to allow us access to the country.

We need to see as much effort and pressure for transparency from Iran on issues such as the death penalty as we have done on the nuclear issue.

An invitation for Amnesty International to visit the country – that would be a good sign of real change, I reckon…. but it is still worth saying that I hope the authorities’ readiness to talk on these issues could be a sign for greater openness on human rights in the future.
Senior Lecturer at Bush School of Texas A&M University
Is the concept of "the responsibility to protect" still viable after the Libyan intervention?
Secretary General @ Amnesty International
Thanks for your question.

One thing I think is worth remembering: Responsibility to Protect is not primarily about dropping bombs. Those who are in favour of it because they think it gives the right to bomb other countries have fundamentally misunderstood what R2P (to use the jargon abbreviation) is about.

The essence of R2P is reacting at an early stage when there is the possibility of mass atrocities being carried out. And there, I think the message is more relevant than ever. If we don’t react early – by supporting human rights defenders and by criticising and putting pressure on repressive governments – then by the time the mass atrocities are happening, it is much more difficult to react.
How do you see the situation of human rights in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya , Yemen, Syria as well Bahrain after the Arab spring? After the great promises following the Arab spring wave in 2011 that championed human rights , it seems that we are back to square one.
Secretary General @ Amnesty International
You are right that the situation is extraordinarily depressing today. I was in Cairo shortly after the revolution, and was heartened by the extraordinary achievements of the huge numbers of Egyptians demanding their rights. It seems as though, across the Middle East, that people are becoming much more aware of their rights.

In the meantime though, we have seen a real spiralling of repression by governments. The other countries that you name are all facing major difficulties and included very serious violations. Only Tunisia is still trying to build on the gains of 2011, and even there the challenges are huge.

The failures to address Syria at an early stage were serious, and the suffering of the Syrian people – where half the country’s population have now fled their homes, or fled the country, and hundreds of thousands have lost their lives – is unimaginable.
Founder, 10 TRAITS Leadership Institute; UN Virtual Mentor
Dear Secretary General: It has been said that worse than poverty, illiteracy, or AIDS, is the lack of leadership training for women and girls. Do you agree? If so, can you describe obstacles and barriers, or point to any examples where leadership training for women and girls has made a positive difference.
Secretary General @ Amnesty International
I’m not sure that I would necessarily go for a league table of violations. But you are absolutely right that the gender gap is not just bad for women and girls, it is bad for society as a whole. And there is no shortage of women who are ready to lead. A few months ago I was in Kabul, launching a report on Women Human Rights Defenders in Afghanistan. You won’t be surprised to hear that I was blown away by the eloquence and courage of the women that I met. Above all, I was struck by how much their country needs their courage, if it is to have any hope of achieving stability and normality in the years to come. Much more needs to be done to support these women in their important work.
Will Amnesty International recognize the UN Charter and the Kellogg Briand Pact and oppose war and militarism and military spending? Admirable as it is to go after many of the symptoms of militarism, your avoidance of addressing the central problem seems bizarre. The idea that you can more credibly offer opinions on the legality of constituent elements of a crime if you avoid acknowledging the criminality of the whole seems wrong. Your acceptance of drone murders as possibly legal if they are part of wars immorally and, again, bizarrely avoids the blatant illegality of the wars themselves.
Secretary General @ Amnesty International
As a human rights organization, Amnesty International’s main goal will always be to take that course of action which practically does the most to ensure protection for human rights and respect for international law.

We strongly condemn opportunities which have been missed to take effective measures to protect human rights and civilians.

We treat the fundamental human right to life with utmost importance -- hence the importance and status we give to our global death penalty campaign.

We also believe that governments must not be allowed to use ‘security’ as an excuse to carry out human rights violations against their citizens.

We know, for example, that the humanitarian and human rights catastrophe in Syria did not develop overnight. For the last few years, the states involved and the international community as a whole have manifestly failed to take effective action to stem the crisis, protect civilians, and hold perpetrators of crimes against humanity and war crimes to account. For several years now, Amnesty International’s calls for targeted sanctions, an arms embargo and a referral of the situation in Syria to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court have gone largely unheeded despite the mounting toll on civilians.

On drones: we find the use of drone aircraft deeply troubling, and we have published reports on the terrible suffering they have caused, for example in Pakistan, where the title speaks for itself "Pakistan: Will I be next? US drone strikes in Pakistan".

The current status quo is absolutely unacceptable, as is the handwashing of the US administration on this theme.
if human rights are absolute values, all countries have issues with them at different levels, and Amnesty International helps everyone monitor this complexity., but new issues keep popping up, and new frontiers are drawn or crossed, making at times national levels less relevant. What are,according to you, the greatest challenges for your organization in the years to come?
Secretary General @ Amnesty International
You are right that this is an extraordinarily complex time that we are living through, and we face many challenges.
Some of the greatest challenges for our organization are: the continuing conundrum of how we can make best use of our resources when there are multiple competing pressures which have a very real impact on people’s lives; continuing to strengthen our presence and grass roots support across the world to combat the excuse some leaders try to use that human rights are some kind of foreign ideal; ensuring that people continue to see human rights as relevant to their lives – and above all, that they don’t lose faith in the possibilities of change.

I have a huge amount of respect for Amnesty International and your efforts as secretary general, and have always wished to know how to better contribute to international efforts to alleviate extreme poverty.

As a white, educated, male living in a rich, democratized, industrialized society I realize I have a W.E.I.R.D philosophy and often feel disconnected from the realities of life around the globe.

How can I reconnect?
Secretary General @ Amnesty International
First: thank you!

Secondly, you say you are from a democratized society but we know that not all democracies are quite working how they should. With power and resources comes responsibility and rich countries can have major detrimental impacts both within and beyond their borders with their actions.

We should absolutely believe that we can each of us make a difference by becoming engaged, whether by getting involved at the grassroots, or giving money to organizations we trust, or both. It’s belief that keeps us going – and we have repeatedly seen good reasons for such belief, over the years.
If we look back even 20 - 30 years, we can find many practices that were "accepted" that we now abhor, from a humans right perspective. What will we look back at, 20 - 50 years from now, and think: "Why the hell did the world allow that to happen"?
Secretary General @ Amnesty International
You’re right, things change to an extraordinary and heartening extent. When Amnesty International started working on the death penalty, all but a handful of countries had it on their statute books. Now it’s only the real outliers who use it much – China, Iran, Saudi Arabia…. Oh and the United States, which sometimes likes to keep sad company.

On LGBT rights, too, the changes have been remarkable, from widespread illegality and persecution to a growing acceptance of same-sex marriage and a revulsion against the discrimination of the past. Not everywhere, for sure – but, going back to your point, let’s look at how much things have changed elsewhere, and so can still change in the places that have not yet embraced LGBT rights.

Regarding the “why the hell did the world let that happen?” Well I guess that for me the answer is depressingly clear. I think that our children and grandchildren will look back and wonder: how could it possibly happen that such terrible things happened in Syria and the region, and the world just looked away? How did we allow the mass atrocities to happen in the first place and why did we turn our backs on the refugees fleeing those horrors?
Internal medicine resident at Wayne State University/DMC
Based on your vast experience , what is your best advice for people in "militarized" communities regarding human rights ?. In other words, what seems to be the most efficient way for protecting human rights in such societies?
Secretary General @ Amnesty International
I think it is worth reminding authorities everywhere that living in the midst of conflict does not mean that human rights can be put to one side. It has famously been said: It is more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier, in eastern Congo.

In other words, too often it is the civilians who suffer much more than the men with the guns. We urgently need to change that. War is bad enough. War against civilians is unspeakable.
Mr Secretary General,

Thanks for giving us this opportunity to ask you questions! What I would like to ask you is: What role do you believe that human rights should play in foreign policy? And why?

Thank you!
Secretary General @ Amnesty International
I could of course give you an answer that would last half the day and half the night – this is at the heart of so much of our work.
Let me just say this: thank you for asking the question, because it IS so important. And I really wish that governments would understand how important it is.

I often despair of the number of governments which take what they believe to be a “pragmatic” line of not raising human rights issues with other governments – and then they are surprised when things in that country spiral from bad to worse, in ways that can in due course affect not just the country, but entire regions and the whole world.

Any government that takes the attitude “we don’t have time for addressing human rights now, everything is too complicated -- we’ll come to human rights a bit later” needs to be given a massive kick (well, a non-violent kick, but you know what I mean). It’s one of the saddest things imaginable to see how governments fail to speak out on human rights for trade reasons, for oil reasons, for geopolitical reasons. Human rights should never be put to one side. If they are kept front and centre at all times, the world could and would be a much less dangerous place.
Thank you very much for being here. The debate of decriminalising prostitution was re-triggered with the Amnesty conference in Dublin. While Amnesty's position is considering the case from a freedom point of view, how is it planning on tackling the case of human trafficking in sex markets? Also, what do you think of the Nordic Model?
Secretary General @ Amnesty International
Thanks for your question. Amnesty’s position is based on the lived experience of sex workers—it is focussed on protecting the rights of people who sell sex and who are vulnerable to abuse. There is more information on our position, and the Nordic Model, here:

It goes without saying that Amnesty International strongly condemns all forms of human trafficking, including trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation which is a grave human rights abuse and should always be a crime. We will continue to campaign on these important issues, as we have done in the past.
Doctoral candidate, University of Oxford
Thank you for taking our questions! Many people believe it was a mistake for Amnesty to dilute its original mission of campaigning for prisoners of conscience. A specific example might be Amnesty UK working alongside CAGE in order to lobby for prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, which one of your predecessors described as the 'gulag of our time'; or channelling its efforts towards fighting poverty, defined as a human rights issue. How would you respond to this point of view?
Secretary General @ Amnesty International
Thanks again to you and all for an energizing set of questions.
You are right that the focus only on prisoners of conscience seemed to have a certain simplicity. But we realised we could not ignore other issues including torture, the death penalty, unfair trials, freedom of expression, women’s rights, when we realized that all these issues are bound up together.

The focus on economic, social and cultural rights has been there especially since 2001, and I think that every major human rights organization or institution has progressed in the same way.

Egypt in 2011 gives a good example of why: how do you separate out the civil and political violations from all the corruption and economic discrimination issues which were at the heart of Mubarak’s Egypt?
Prisoners of conscience are still a major strand of our work (I encourage you all to sign up for our Write for Rights campaign in 2015), but it would be quite wrong for them to be the ONLY lens through which we look at human rights.

And as for the lobbying for prisoners in Guantanamo – that is one thing that Amnesty can be proud of and always will be proud of, highlighting the terrible reality of Guantanamo from the start. Nothing about Guantanamo helped keep us safe, and I am glad if we have begun to understand that. When you are working on issues like that, life is often as part of a very broad coalition, and the work on Guantanamo was an example of that, for sure.
Corporate Innovation Activist | Social Scientist in training
What is on your top 3 needs list in order to make the breakthrough change?

Curious from both a macro and micro needs perspective (i.e., what you need in general and from individuals - such as each and every viewer of this Q&A - across the world).
Secretary General @ Amnesty International
That’s both a really difficult and a really easy question.

(1) Let’s start with the easy bit, not least since you offered it to me in your own words. I mentioned above that we have seven million members and supporters. I would like – to be honest, really, I am DETERMINED – that that number should dramatically increase. We need new energy to help create change in our grassroots organization.

(2) And then, regarding the macro question… Maybe it’s a version of my first answer, above. If Amnesty International is strongly present in countries around the world, I believe we can achieve an extraordinary amount, even in places that can often seem hopeless. We have in recent months nailed down our Strategic Goals for the next few years, which are available for all to read [link] But those goals are only achievable if we have enough people to back our work. That challenge is scary, but definitely exciting, too.