Monthly Archives: October 2012

Amnesty International Society’s First Demonstration of the Year!

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So the demonstration on Campus last Wednesday was a huge success – in just one hour the members of Amnesty International Society gathered 845 petitions! An incredible achievement for the group, and those signatures will join the flock of petitions being sent to the Russian government from all around the world, urging them to help the UN in their efforts to end the violence.

Now to decide what to tackle for our next campaign…

The Syrian Model Village outside the Great Hall

Syria Campaign

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So for first term we have been focusing on the escalating civil war in Syria – here is a great video from Amnesty TV on the Arab Spring from earlier this year:

Thousands of people have been killed since the violence started, and many more have been displaced and traumatised as the result of the fighting. Amnesty is calling for the UN to condemn the violence in Syria, and for peaceful protesters to be permitted to voice their desire for a change without fear of persecution. However, for this to happen China and Russia have to alter their position, and stop blocking the action. We are calling for the UN Security Council to:

  • Investigate crimes against humanity under international law.
  • Impose a complete arms embargo on Syria.
  • Implement an asset freeze against the president and his allies.

We are also calling on the Syrian authorities to:

  • Immediately rein in the security forces.
  • End the arbitrary arrest, detention and torture of those who peacefully express their opposition to the government.
  • Cease all other human rights violations.

Find us on campus outside the Forum at 1pm Wednesday 17th October! We will be collecting petitions to send to the Russian government to urge them to back UN sanctions, so that a diplomatic end may be brought to the violence.

Amnesty activists appeal to Putin to take action on Syria

Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

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Speaking at Greenbelt festival in August, former prisoner, journalist and writer Erwin James delivered a challenging and thought provoking talk on his experience of life inside and reflections on UK penal system.

Key to Erwin’s message was a call for increased public awareness and involvement. Highlighting the tendency of to publicise atrocities while hiding from the challenge of rehabilitation, Erwin stressed how sentences rarely equate to life and therefore preparing prisoners for life outside of prison need be of pressing concern to us all. Former convicts are our future neighbours; who do we want living next door?

Statistics of post-prison re-offence are widely available as are figures showing the extent of overcrowding. Both of this point to the urgency of public debate over the purpose and practice of prison, and the need to buck the trend of repeat offending.

Erwin’s talk captivated the audience as he drew on personal experience of life behind bars and from his post-prison involvement in reform of the penal system. Following his mother’s death while he was aged seven, Erwin was sleeping rough to escape from his abusive father when he received his first criminal conviction aged ten.  After being caught breaking into a sweet shop Erwin was taken into care where he stayed till 15. Erwin spoke of persistent knocks to his self worth giving an account of when he pleaded to the policeman not to tell his father as, ‘he will kill me’, to which the policeman responded, ‘but you deserve to be dead’.

Erwin meeting former Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke

On leaving care Erwin drifted from sofa to sofa, relying on extended relations and shifting between various precarious jobs. He often ending up sleeping rough and became increasingly involved in petty and occasionally violent crime. His life on the periphery ricocheted from one disaster to the next until he was eventually sentenced for murder.

Erwin’s well balanced yet critical account of life behind bars highlighted both the problems and the potential in the British penal system. Highly aware that his own course through prison was the exception not the norm, Erwin spoke of how in 1984 he faced a life sentence as an uneducated, troubled and disenfranchised individual yet left prison in 2004 as both a graduate and a journalist. Erwin’s first article was published in The Independent in 1994, the start to a career which was simultaneously encouraged and discouraged by prison officers. Overcoming multiple setbacks, by 2000 Erwin was publishing a weekly column in The Guardian. A collection of these came to form his first book, A Life Inside: A Prisoner’s Notebook, published in 2003. Yet while Erwin was able to turn his life around above and beyond his own expectations, the same cannot be said for the majority of his fellow inmates. Erwin gave accounts of many cases of suicide he’d seen during his 20 years inside, and the difficulties of building the self worth so critical to cultivating a life after prison. For Erwin, acting as prison scribe gave him a positive role in his harsh environment and an outlet for his creativity. For many others, overcoming the weight of negative formative experiences and the reality of prison life was less of a possibility.

What can prisons do to help rehabilitate and support their inmates? 

Following his release in 2004 Erwin has dedicated his time to penal reform working as a trustee for the Prison Reform Trust and The Alternatives to Violence Project Britain, and as a patron to the charities CREATE, Blue Sky and The Reader Organisation.

Listening to Erwin’s captivating speech left me challenged to engage with these questions both so relevant yet so often eclipsed from our daily lives. Eager to find out more, I purchased A Life Inside which has proved an equally engaging read that I would well recommend.

Bronwen Moore

For more information see:

www.greenbelt.org.uk/festival/2012/lineup/talks/

http://erwinjames.co.uk/

http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/erwinjames

China: A Place of Increasing Democracy?

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In the UK, we are fortunate to be able to write articles, such as the following. For thousands of people across the world, this simple act of writing could be illegal.

In 2010, hundreds celebrated China’s first Nobel Peace laureate, Liu Xiaobo, as he accepted this prestigious award for his non-violent and persistent struggle towards a recognition of human rights in China. This was to be a moment that captured the interest of people throughout the world; was Liu Xiaobo’s achievement to signify a new era for China, in which human rights would be taken into greater consideration by the government and leaders? Initially, Xiaobo appeared to be a ray of hope for the country. Much of the world sat back and wondered if this was to be a time for change.

Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo

Whilst China remains an increasingly developing country, home to a large proportion of the world’s population, it is, sadly, a country with one of the world’s highest rates of human rights abuses. Force, torture and excessive police control are prevalent throughout the country. Unsurprisingly, then, China has one of the highest rates of execution in the world; people are put to death unfairly and without trial. These punishments are common in cases of citizens speaking out against the government, criticising the country, leaders and government ideas or propaganda. The policies and legislation of the government by no means practise a high standard of human rights.

It can be so difficult sometimes to understand this situation from afar; for many of us, restricted freedom of speech is not exactly a daily experience! Spending time in China this summer opened my eyes afresh to some of the difficulties and frustrations that the Chinese people may face, and the implications of these problems in their lives. Immediately upon arrival in China I became aware of a few common frustrations the people experience in regard to freedom of speech. There are some subjects, including politics, religion, ‘states’ of China, and democracy, which are entirely taboo, especially for Westerners, tourists and those with opinions and ideological systems which are not considered to be ‘mainstream’ in China. On occasion I was slightly uneasy about conversation and topics that had the potential to be wrongly misconstrued – not something I have never experienced before!

Internet censorship has been a hot topic in China in recent years

The role the internet plays in promoting democratic ideas of both individuals and groups is taken very seriously by the government, and many social media and networking sites are banned as a result. Most notably, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can’t be accessed. It became clear that I would have to rely entirely upon email; it was the first time in years that I had been completely without access to social networking sites. It highlighted how reliant we, in Britain, are upon social networking and just how great a potential we have to impact our friends and society in this way. And this is not the only restriction of speech and communication. Emails, phone calls, texts, Skype and letters are all strictly censored. For many people this is ‘normal’, however; it is important to remember that many Chinese citizens have not experienced otherwise.

After some time experiencing this kind of society, I returned home with a renewed appreciation of how in Britain we are able to easily access information on the internet and express ourselves entirely freely. I feel incredibly fortunate to be born into an open society, which allows and caters for an increasingly diverse range of opinions and beliefs. I was able to gain an insider’s perspective into China, which ultimately pointed to the importance of promoting human rights in countries throughout the world.

China might be on it’s way to achieving a fairer society step by step, and whilst an increased presence of activists and advocators of rights might indicate this, their struggle towards a more democratic and fairer society is by no means complete. There is still much to be done in China before a fair and just state based on the equal human rights can ever be achieved. In the mean time, I will remember that we who know freedom are the ones that can help in bringing freedom to others

Esther Elliott

North Korea’s Looming Health Crisis

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So to what extent do we judge a country that has failed its citizens? When it loses a war it promised it would win? When it has a catastrophic economic collapse? Or perhaps when its health care fails its citizens so much, that each one receives only 32p a year on their healthcare, with 5% of their population now suffering from a Tuberculosis epidemic; all because the country itself seeks to boost its military power to rival its world counterparts?

I propose whilst the first two are entirely viable, North Korea is entirely guilty of the latter. In their attempt to unify themselves as a country of the first world persona, North Korea has caused 1 million of its own people to starve and die because of economic policies, with their escalating military spending causing millions more to starve even further. The situation has resulted in many choosing death over healthcare.

Many North Korean children are at risk of severe malnourishment

On the face of it, North Korea boosts free health care to its citizens, however their constant failure to lower their military budget and increase their health spending is a total abuse of the right of any human to health care. North Korea currently has its lowest recorded per capita of expenditure on health in the world, spending only 3% of their GDP on the health care of its citizens and yet spending 33.9% of their GDP on their military. This gap is likely to widen with North Korea’s increasing attachment to its nuclear program. This miniscule commitment to healthcare in North Korea has resulted in the country not even being able to provide sterilised needles, clean water, or medicine, as well as most hospitals operating without electricity or heat, and not stocking medicines now as staff sell them on the black market. Factor these hospital problems in with the 5% suffering from TB, and the fact that malnutrition and stunted growth is incredibly common amongst young North Korean children, it is hard to see how the country is not heading towards a full-scale humanitarian crisis.

Whilst sanctions against North Korea’s military spending have been employed by the UN, North Korea’s inability to help, feed and provide health care to its own citizens has created an increasingly dire situation. Care needs to be taken to ensure that people know that desperate medical and food aid needs to be made available for the people of North Korea. Indeed with the UN asking for $198 million as of 2012, the number itself shows the scale of the solution needed to help those in the country who have been neglected for so long by a government of whom is perverted enough to put its military ego in front of its citizens’ needs and human rights.

Oliver Gamston