Amnesty International South-West Regional Conference in Exeter 11 May 2019
These are some notes of the recent regional conference made by Salisbury group member Fiona. They are not an official record.
The keynote speaker was Emel Kurma, a Human Rights defender from Turkey, currently hosted by the University of York’s Protective Fellowship Scheme. She outlined for us how a Citizens’ Assembly works. Inspired by the Helsinki Final Act, these are low-profile bodies (no smart headquarters or logos) that aim to stimulate social and political discussion towards a peaceful and inclusive society, valuing democratic and environmental principles. The best response to a state’s limitation of individual freedom is to strengthen civil society at all levels, allowing ethical thinking to penetrate even closed structures. For example a liberal academic offered an opportunity to go to a conference abroad might instead hand it to a member of a state institution in order to broaden that individual’s understanding of human rights as practised beyond their country’s borders.
Emel Kurma is a brave individual and her stoical acceptance of probable interrogation and possible imprisonment on her return to Turkey is both shocking and inspiring.
Two other reports (also by women) focused on Palestine and Eastern Europe respectively.
Penny Wilcox has for several years worked with the intriguingly-titled Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Again in an unobtrusive fashion, they accompany vulnerable Palestinians at checkpoints (adults going to work, children to school, traders etc.) and, simply by acting as protective witnesses, aim to reduce the levels of conflict or anxiety so often experienced by this oppressed population. This approach is also practised by various Israeli humanitarian groups who wish to offer support to trapped and threatened Palestinian communities. Even simply to witness and record the bulldozing of ‘illegal” Palestinian structures (cow byres, olive trees) is an act of silent protest and solidarity. One of the many ironies of this absurd and tragic occupation is that when sometimes belligerent Israeli settlers have gone into Palestinian villages to cause trouble, the Israeli army itself has been called in to defend the Palestinians residents.
The third report came from Central Europe co-ordinator Ulricke Schmidt, who traced worrying trends in the rise of racism and anti-Semitism in Hungary and, to a lesser degree, in Poland.
In Hungary the usual targets are the Roma, but the influx of refugees has now made them the focus of anger. This in spite of the warm reception originally given to those fleeing war, who were perceived as ‘passing through’ Hungary and in manageable numbers. However attitudes have hardened and Ulriche quoted an acquaintance who got 6 months imprisonment for giving a lift to a refugee while NGOs risk being criminalised for helping them. Additionally, resentment against global capitalism has contributed to a revival of anti-Semitism. Huge posters crudely stereo-type George Soros as ‘an enemy of the people’ with his ‘army of leftist terrorists’.
Ulricke defines some of the underlying causes of xenophobia as relating to globalisation – seen as benefiting the few – and to a drift to the cities which has left a frustrated and impoverished rural population to grasp at the promises of the Right to restore Hungary’s romanticised past (sounds familiar, does it not?).
Poland reflects some of these trends, but fortunately to a lesser degree. Some liberal teachers have been disciplined and protesters have had their personal data published. But Poland has had a more recent history of resistance to authoritarian rule. When an outright ban was placed on abortion thousands of women marched in protest to overturn it. When a recent Independence Day march was joined by racist demonstrators, fourteen brave women entered the throng and unfurled a Stop Fascism banner. They were beaten by some marchers, and subsequently charged and fined by the courts for ‘disrupting a lawful demonstration.’ But a recently published video has now prompted an Appeal Court investigation into the attack..
The European Union has triggered Article 7 against Hungary for imperilling European values and has also expressed concern that the judiciary in Poland is being politicised. On a more positive note, 26 EU countries have recently seen powerful demonstrations against fascism, racism and anti-Semitism.
The Death Penalty workshop confirmed that our group is very well informed on relevant data thanks to the regular updates from group member Lesley. The new network now has two and a half thousand members. An interesting recent survey estimated that it was actually more expensive to execute a prisoner than to simply keep them in prison. The campaign is currently now focusing on Singapore and Iran, the latter for its practice of deferring punishment until a sentenced juvenile is old enough to receive the death penalty. On a positive note – more and more countries are abolishing the death penalty – 106 in total by the end of 2018.
Many thanks to the regional representative Chris Ramsay for organising this meeting.