Amnesty battles rights abuses

A young student in China is dragged off to prison for putting up political posters — a "crime" against the state.  Elsewhere, in a country torn by civil strife, a father and son are arrested for continuing to practise their chosen religion. Neither are heard of again.

These are just a few examples of the countless, and so often undocumented, abuses of human rights that go on across the world each and every day — the kind of abuses which lead so many people to ask: What can I do about it?

For most of us, it’s not a question. It’s an expression of helplessness. I’ve been talking to Canadians from one end of the country to the other, though, for whom it’s a call to action. "What can I do about it?" they ask. And the answer comes loud and clear: Plenty.

They are active members of Amnesty International, all over 50, and proof that idealism and a desire for a better world are not the exclusive purview of the young. Dec. 10 marks the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an epochal document penned by a little-known Canadian named John Humphrey.

"All human beings," it declares, "are born free and equain dignity and rights." Who, you’d wonder, could argue with that? Yet all over the world, even occasionally in our own dear country, people in power are willing to trample on that idea, abusing and imprisoning people for their political views, their religion, gender or their race.

Who are these giant-killers in our midst, so willing to take on the world’s worst tyrants? One phrase came up over and over again as I assembled this snapshot of a compassionate Canada: "ordinary people."

Amnesty International (AI), this year marking its 25th anniversary in Canada, consists of 60,000 ordinary Canadians who, in their daily lives, probably wouldn’t say boo to a goose.

Margaret John, 61, in Ancaster, Ont., told me she was "in fear and trembling" when AI in Ottawa asked her to be Canadian coordinator, acting as watchdog, on abuses in faraway Singapore.

At first she ignored the letter asking her to take the job, figuring it was a mistake. "I felt it was definitely something I couldn’t do," she says. "But somebody had to do it." McMaster University recently awarded this ordinary person an honourary degree for her work fighting human rights abuses in Singapore and Malaysia for over 20 years from her office in the basement of her home.

The people they try to help, too, are often very ordinary. Ann Jayne, of Calgary, works with refugees who often face torture or even death if they return to their own countries. "They are people doing ordinary, human things," she told me. "Running political parties, putting up posters, belonging to their religion — simple things — and it gets them in terrible trouble, in terrible danger in their home countries."

What inspires people to become involved in AI? For most it’s a growing disgust with human rights abuses — the sort of thing we have been learning about from Kosovo in the former Yugoslavia this year. For some, it’s a single incident.

Luan Pinto, a retired senior systems analyst with Canada Post in Ottawa, was only 19 when he fulfilled a longing to visit the Hindu Kush mountains in northern Pakistan. Every evening in this paradise on earth he took a walk through a nearby village, enjoying the smells of woodsmoke and cooking.

One evening, passing a small army barracks, "I heard a most dreadful, prolonged scream. Somehow I just knew that man was being tortured." He vowed he would somehow do something about such terrible practices. Some 20 years later, in Ottawa, that memory prompted him to join Amnesty International, and now, at 60, he has received an award from Canada Post for his AI volunteer service.

But what can these "ordinary people" do in the face of such pervasive evil?

Alone, perhaps very little. As a member of a million-strong, worldwide organization, a great deal. AI’s strength is it’s information-gathering network. Evil flourishes best in secret, its members believe. Exposing it to the daylight undermines it. Sometimes groups work for years trying to free prisoners of conscience. Often though, quick action is needed, e-mails go around the world, and tyrants are bombarded with messages through AI’s remarkable Urgent Action (UA) network.

Cyril Weeratunge, 60, a UA activist in Quesnel, B.C, told of one human rights lawyer arrested in Latin America. Faxes from Amnesty International people began arriving before he reached the police station. He was released within 24 hours.

Some 6,000 kilometres to the east, Mike Wilkshire, a retired university teacher in St. John’s, Newfoundland, admitted, "The cases you deal with are terrible. But there’s some kind of satisfaction in calling for justice. There’s a feeling you really can’t not do it."

Do AI’s appeals work? You can never be sure, says Wilkshire, 59. A totalitarian government, after all, is never going to admit it was wrong.

He cites the case of Danylo Shumuk, a Russian prisoner on whose behalf the Vernon, B.C., section worked for many years. Finally released, he moved to Vernon. "I saw him at a meeting in Montréal," says Wilkshire, who had written letters on Shumuk’s behalf. "It was very moving, seeing him and actually touching his hand."

Margaret John, in Ancaster, also recalled one of these special meetings. Recently she flew to Germany to visit with Chia Thye Pho, a one-time Singapore opposition MP whose freedom she had campaigned for during his 20-year imprisonment. She found him, "a very modest, unassuming man who told me he was not extraordinary — it was the human rights people who are extraordinary."

But there are bad moments, too. While CBC served up idyllic scenes of Malaysian pleasure spots during the recent Commonwealth Games, John could not watch it. "I was too conscious of the reality of Malaysia."

Often, though, atrocities are committed in the last countries you would expect. Wilkshire keeps a special eye on Western Europe. Germany today, he says, was one of the last places he expected to learn of abuses, yet the treatment there of guest workers, especially Turks, has been open to question.

In France, he’s dealt with allegations of killing and abuse against immigrants from North Africa, and in Britain he and other AI activists have for years been demanding a full inquiry into the shooting (in front of his wife and children) of a Northern Ireland defence lawyer, Patrick Finucane.

In human rights, you can’t play favourites. Americans may be our friends, but Weeratunge has many times written letters appealing against the death sentence there, almost exclusively imposed on blacks who cannot afford the best lawyers.

Canada? As the current inquiry into the pepper-spraying of demonstrators at the APEC meeting in Vancouver suggests, we too need to be vigilant (although Amnesty International members, for their own safety, never deal with complaints against their own countries). Do they lose sleep over the horrors they must deal with? On the contrary. "I call it (my work) my rent for being on earth," Shirley Maines, 61, an AI activist from Cobourg, Ont., told me. In religious matters, "I used to be a rather rigid person," she says. Through the wonderful cross-section of people she’s met through Amnesty, "I am definitely more broad-minded, and a better person for it."

Anne Jayne admits it was a horror of torture that made her hesitate about joining AI long ago in her 20s. Now, in addition to her Amnesty work, she helps survivors of torture. "They’re really amazing human beings, people who want to live quiet lives and look after their families.

"That’s why I would always want to be involved in Amnesty. Even though there are many cases we’re not going to reach, and people will continue to be tortured, we need to say that this is wrong, that we’re trying to stop it. We don’t always succeed, but it doesn’t mean we didn’t care and didn’t try."

For more information on Amnesty International call 1-800-AMNESTY.