Two weeks ago, three committee members and two society members attended Amnesty International’s South-West Regional Conference in Exeter. The conference was attended by other student and public Amnesty groups from all over the South-West and beyond, and several employees and volunteers of the Amnesty headquarters in London.
The day started with a fascinating talk by a human rights defender from Kyrgyzstan, Aida Baijumanova. Most of us in the UK know nothing about human rights issues in this region, yet there are thousands of human rights defenders in the area putting their own lives and freedoms at risk at risk to secure full human rights for their country. The Kyrgyz Republic is located in Central Asia, and was formerly one of the republics in the Soviet Union. It has a population of about 6 million people, made up of several ethnic groups and religions (Islam, Russian Orthodox). On the World Press Freedom Index, it takes 88th place of 188 countries. It is a country with high poverty and unstable politics, including frequent conflicts between political parties and religious and ethnic groups. It experienced revolutions in 2005 and 2010. The 2010 revolution was accompanied by a serious incidence of inter-ethnic conflict in which 470 people were killed and 70,000 displaced.
However, despite all these difficulties, it is known as an “island of democracy” in the region, for it is surrounded by places with an even worse record for human rights, such as China and Kazakhstan. It is by no means a democratic country by our standards, but it has several NGOs working to change this. Aida was from the organisation Bir Duino Kyrgyzstan, which translates as “one world Kyrgyzstan.” It has a range of objectives: protecting human rights and freedom of association, protection and expansion of political space for NGOs, promoting humanization of criminal legislation, and prison reform. It also works specifically to support victims of the June Tragedy: the interethnic conflict of 2010. Aida’s friend and colleague Azimjan Askarov has been imprisoned for life, and tortured, for his work on the June Tragedy, as he is ethnically from the Uzbek minority. Aida described how far the country still has to go, especially with the rise of radical Islam in the region and the growing links between Kyrgyzstan and Russia. When asked how we can help, Aida suggested raising awareness, and educating people about the issues in this region. She also recommended as a specific action sending letters to people such as Azimjan Askarov.
Later in the morning there was a series of optional workshops. Some of us attended the talk on “Human Rights and Roma Communities” by Ulrike Schmidt, the Amnesty Country Coordinator for Eastern Europe & Roma. There are 6 million Roma people living within the EU, and they are one of the most persecuted groups within it. They are one of the few groups towards which racial segregation is accepted. When the Roma people first moved west during the rise of the Ottoman empire, Eastern Europe was already fairly structured. There was great suspicion towards dark-skinned people at that time, as Turkish people had darker skin, and so the Roma were quickly enslaved, and remained so for hundreds of years. This colours the relationship between Roma and non-Roma in Eastern Europe to this day, in the same way that race relations in the southern United States are coloured by the history of slavery. Shunned in many areas, the Roma stayed where they could. There was some integration during the Communist era but the rise of nationalism after the fall of Communism has led to an increase of tension between the two groups. Discrimination, segregation and hate crime (on both sides) are common, especially in countries such as Slovakia and Hungary.
Amnesty has been focusing particularly on the problem of forced evictions for Roma people. Italy and Romania have the worse record for evictions: 10,000 Roma were recently evicted from Rome. There has been a recent case in Romania of Roma people being evicted to the site of a rubbish dump, where they are at high risk of illness and whole families are forced to live in one room, with 5 or 6 of these families sharing a bathroom. The children who are still able to catch the bus to the local primary school are now known as the “children from the rubbish dump.” This particular eviction has been ruled as illegal, but it is currently in legal limbo and no steps have been taken to alter the situation. A few years ago, the founder of the ruling party Fidesz in Hungary said of Roma people “they are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals, and they behave like animals. These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist. That needs to be solved – immediately and regardless of the method.” There is thus still a very long way to go for human rights to be extended to all Roma groups within Europe.
Our Campaigns Officer Helen attended the workshop on the Asylum Justice Project. She said:
“The first part of the workshop gave an overview of what the project was and the issues behind its cause. It was set up with the aim of ending the destitution of asylum seekers and to change the public’s perception of them, along with fighting for justice within the British system of immigration detention. We learnt that the UK is the only EU country in which there is no time limit on immigration detention and almost 40,000 are detained per year. The system is incredibly overused, dangerous and unlawful. There are numerous cases of human rights violations in which cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment is carried out towards the detainees. Mental illness is very common and a number of deaths have occurred in recent years, with the causes attributed to neglect and suicide.
The second half of the workshop was spent brainstorming in small groups on ways to gather public opinion on the issue, specifically which groups of people to target. We thought of approaching schools, church groups and university students – to get opinion from the local community as well as those slightly outside it. Someone had the idea of using performance as a way of getting people to reflect upon the issue and the approach they take towards it, with an example of role playing in an asylum seeker interview.”
This was followed by a talk about Amnesty and the current refugee crisis by Steve Symonds, the refugee and migrant rights programme director from Amnesty International UK. He emphasised that the current refugee crisis is not a European crisis. Countries hosting much larger refugee population include Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Kenya and Jordan. He also noted that Palestinian refugees, as they fall under the jurisdiction of a different branch of the UN, are not usually counted in refugee figures for these regions. There are currently 5 million Palestinian refugees, and many of these are in the above countries, and, in fact, in Syria, one of the countries from which refugees are also leaving. Thus, when a European country says “we’re too full,” their “limit” is on a different scale to that of these countries who are hosting several millions of refugees already and still accepting more. It is important to keep these things in mind considering how prominent the refugee crisis has become in European politics today.
After a demonstration on the cathedral green during the lunch break there were more optional workshops. Some of the committee members attended the talk “Human Rights in Afghanistan and Pakistan” by Chris Usher, the Country Coordinator for Pakistan. She spoke primarily about Afghanistan, an extremely troubled country, partly because it is bordered by so many other troubled (and powerful) countries: the former Soviet Union to the north, Iran to the West, China and Pakistan to the East. It has had a history of conquest, right back to the invasion by Alexander the Great. This was followed by an Arab Islamic conquest: Afghanistan was largely Hindu until the 6th century. It was invaded by Genghis Khan in the 13th century and by Britain and Russia/the Soviet Union several times across the 19th and 20th centuries. It was most recently invaded by the USA in 2001.
Even though the Taliban is no longer prominent in Afghanistan, it is still probably the worst place in the world to be a woman. Maternal mortality is at 22nd in the world, infant mortality is highest in the world, forced and early marriage are widespread, and approximately 85% of women report domestic violence. 75% of adult women are unable to read and write. The average woman has 5 children in her lifetime. Now that British troops have left Afghanistan, it is much more difficult to access information about the situation there in our media. The war is most certainly not over, despite the withdrawal of troops: many US troops are in fact still there, and there were more civilian casualties last year than ever before. However, it is difficult for Amnesty to aid the situation in Afghanistan. It cannot campaign for individuals in the usual way, for it has been shown to put the individuals at greater risk within their own communities. It will require patience and effort for Amnesty members to bring about any change in the region. However, Chris used the example of the improving human rights record of nearby countries such as India to prove that it can be done.
The regional conference was a remarkable day that is invaluable for educating Amnesty members on issues that are less well-known, and on improving the ability of smaller amnesty groups to publicise and effectively create social change. Everyone who attended enjoyed the day and would recommend that as many people as possible go next year!