As we bid farewell to Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s former Secretary General, Shenilla Mohamed, Amnesty International South Africa’s Executive Director, convinced him to share the secret to successful human rights campaigns and awareness in Africa.
Shenilla: After eight years of being at the helm of Amnesty, what are the key lessons you can share with us around human rights and ensuring that people are able to access their basic human rights?
Salil: I think the last eight years which happens to be the period where I’ve been leading Amnesty, have been a rollercoaster as far as human rights are concerned. You have governments what don’t really know how to deal with peoples’ aspirations and expectations. People have become more conscious of their rights, more educated, more demanding. The internet has created a huge possibility to organize and governments don’t know how to handle them, so they become more repressive and more and more attacks on basic freedoms of people. Then you’re in a vicious circle, you know, people are resisting more. So, we’re in this situation, where you have both repression and resistance increasing in a very serious way.
Shenilla: Given the changes in the global world, what do you think are the main chances that the human rights movement needs to be aware of? I know you’ve talked about repression, you’ve talked about governments clamping down but there has been a shift in the last couple of years in the global economics and politics. What do you think we as a human rights organization need to be aware of?
Salil: I think we need to break it down, because it is a very complex situation. It’s difficult to generalize and at the end of the day you have the legal side, which is what human rights is often mixed up with. But, in the end, I think it’s a political process which determines whether rights are being respected or not. Politics is not impossible. It’s true that geopolitics cause effects on smaller countries, so I say in the African countries, the developing world, the global south context, we just have to mobilize and organize a lot more. For an organization like Amnesty, people are organizing and mobilizing. I mean, if you take Africa (as an example), young people have mobilized in the last decade like never before. That’s been exceptional. So, the question is Amnesty supporting them, building them, being part of them, or standing outside and watching? That’s the challenge we have.
Shenilla: Do you think that Africa is stepping up to the plate or is there something that we should be doing as Amnesty Africans (that we aren’t doing)?
Salil: You know, forget about 10 years or eight years, just think in the last four months. We’ve seen incredible change. We’ve seen what’s happened when young people in West Africa stand up for change, and young people in Ethiopia… because of people standing up we’ve seen changes. South Africa as well, is not unconnected with young people. Protests that we’ve seen – Fees Must Fall – each of these things, they add up. So, I think that it’s happening. We have to be much much sharper, in partnership with social movements. The speed at which we respond is just incredibly slow and the African part of Amnesty has to become not just aligned with the external reality in Africa but it also has to be much more confident and articulate when speak up globally. I think one very concrete thing in the Amnesty context is that we have to build our membership and constituency. You can’t keep complaining, you got to do it and also raise resources. It’s not a good idea to keep saying we need capacity building, we need resources from outside. We know that there are constraints, but at the same time it’s not as if there are no resources. You’re never going to be legitimate and recognized if you don’t have membership and money from within the continent.
Shenilla: Most of my team at Amnesty South Africa never had the pleasure to meet you, so what would you say to them, when you were excited… you know most of the team is young, they’re really enthusiastic. What would you say to Amnesty South Africa as we move from just pick ourselves up to really racing ahead. What would you say to the team?
Salil: I’d say first of all South Africa is such an important junction in our history. It’s massive challenges, we now have a new president, we have a new possibility. It’s not as if presidents change the country and the underlying issues, but there is you know a set of opportunities now that allow young people at Amnesty to speak up. On the other side, in terms of Amnesty side itself, much as we are self critical and we need to do more, it is also fact that there is nothing else like Amnesty. It is a global peoples’ movement for human rights. We’re just unique and we can do a lot more to strengthen ourselves within Africa, within South Africa, and the global south, but we are exceptional. I always say I am deeply privileged to work at a place like Amnesty and I hope that your collogues along with you feel the same, and you feel that you can contribute and make a difference. For that person who’s rights are being violated, who doesn’t see hope, Amnesty – that candle that is lighting up the place – offers a unique, unique light.
Shenilla: Where to from here? Are you still going to be part of our Amnesty lives? What is your plan, I’m sure people are wondering where is Salil going next?
Salil: I’m going to Bangalore, which is home for me in India, and I want to be more in the political, electoral outcome side. But you know in terms of Amnesty, we always say, you may leave Amnesty, but Amnesty, never leaves you, so we’re together.
Watch Shenilla’s interview with Salil here: