Light a Candle

by Nadia Bamoshmoosh

JANUARY 1, 2021

We had the chance to meet some local representatives of Amnesty International, who gave us an inside look at what it’s like to be part of a human rights organization that works to encourage and promote the most basic interests and needs on behalf of people across the globe.

“A world in which every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights.”

For those who are not familiar with this motto, it is the modus operandi of Amnesty International, one of the most famous organisations in the world. Founded in 1961 by Peter Benenson, this organisation draws attention to various abuses of human rights by mobilising public opinion, signing petitions and making appeals to governments and public institutions.

Two stories summarize the role and action of Amnesty International. The first one is the story of the organisation’s foundation. In 1961 Benenson made an appeal in favor of two young students who were caught cheering for the liberation of certain Portuguese colonies and were consequently arrested. At that time, freedom of expression wasn’t as guaranteed as today, even in Western Countries; as a result, Benenson started his appeal. Named the “forgotten prisoners”, it was a call for people from all over the world to advocate against the perpetrators of wrongful imprisonment. This was the first international campaign for human rights and the cornerstone of an international institution, basing its conducts on appeals.

The second story concerns the logo of Amnesty: a lit candle wrapped in barbed wire. Beneson was inspired by the Chinese proverb: “it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness”. It is his view that the barbed wire that represents imprisonment and a lack of freedom must be in the public eye as a constant reminder; only then can individuals be united towards a common goal, in defense of human rights and against any kind of maltreatment.

Amnesty has always been non partisan to avoid any conflict of interest, since the fight for human rights goes beyond ideologies and personal beliefs. The association’s structure promotes sections and local groups, with many running in more than 80 countries. Not only does this mean there is an easier distribution in terms of States, but there is also a greater demographic dislocation; this is why Amnesty is operative with many young volunteers, and a large portion of the organisation is made up of “Amnesty Youth”. Young people are often an underestimated part of society that don’t yet have the tools to make huge changes but can learn to contribute through organisations such as “Amnesty Youth” to improve their future.

Human rights are a very sensitive topic based on the conscience of a collective in a specific historic moment. Since 1961, there has been an increase in the interests that should be granted to all peoples, but war, famine, or a global pandemic can overshadow the individual rights that should be available to everyone. The action against these issues, according to Amnesty, is achieved by starting with individual persons; even one signature for a petition can liberate a prisoner of conscience in Columbia or Turkey. So far Amnesty, which holds over seven million participants internationally, has contributed to the liberation of over fifty thousand prisoners all over the globe by pressuring governments and public institutions. Even individuals can work to promote campaigns and celebrate personal victories that contribute to bringing improvements in human rights legislation.

I talked to a local branch of Amnesty Youth in Florence, Italy, a group which is composed of eleven students that work both at a local and national level. Since the main tool of Amnesty is appeal, the Florentine students try to inform as many people as possible: they visit local high schools giving lessons on what human rights are, they create petitions in universities and, at a national level, they have formative camps on the major abuses of human rights in Italy. One girl explained to us how she has been involved in a camp focusing on illegal recruitment, which is of national, political and social relevance, especially in the Southern part of the country. The members of Amnesty Youth I have talked to have also highlighted the importance of information and social media, especially now during a pandemic that forces us to social distance and to limit communication via the internet and social media platforms; Instagram, Facebook and YouTube are an effective way to draw attention to important issues.

A recurrent theme that has been discussed with all the Amnesty volunteers, is that in Western countries, we are generally used to being granted most of our basic rights. There are some violations, but they are not comparable to those being faced in other States. There is a responsibility among those who come from a place of privilege to push for change. Human rights and freedoms are often superficially explained to those who are unable to see their importance and value as they take these rights for granted, but they are not given to everyone and so the ones who can help, must. Direct and practical action is not always the key to a solution - words are efficient too, and words spread between people could save someone else’s life.

I was particularly touched by their petition relating to Gustavo Gatica, a Chilean student who was shot by police with rubber bullets during a peaceful protest against rising prices and growing inequality, after which he was left completely blind. Gustavo Gatica was denied the right to peacefully protest in his own country, and was even punished for it, but he says “I donated my eyes so that Chile can wake up and see”. We should follow his example in promoting equality and being brave enough to stand up to injustice. To “light a candle” so that no one will have to suffer such a gross violation of their rights again.  

Amnesty Youth – Amnesty International

Amnesty Youth – Amnesty International

 

Special thanks to: Alessia A., Alessia C., Asia S., Barbara S., Camilla M., Claudia C., Margherita N., Melissa O., Roxana N., Sara D., Séverine G., Nadia Bamoshmoosh

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