As we bid farewell to Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty, he shares with us the secret ingredient to ensuring human rights. This article was first published by CNN, and we proudly share it here. Together We’re #NotPowerless.
(CNN)During a visit to Peru last year, I had the honor of meeting Melchora Surco, an indigenous woman from Alto Huancané, a village set amid the Andean mountains, who has been fighting for clean water for her community for years.
At 63, Melchora seemed older because she was worn out — not only by health problems from water that had been contaminated by toxic metals, but also by her struggle to get the Peruvian government to stem pollution in her community’s only source of fresh water.
Yet she showed no sign of giving up, which, in a country where indigenous peoples have been treated like second-class citizens for decades, requires a boundless supply of both tenacity and courage.
As I reach the end of my eight years as Amnesty International’s Secretary General, this is a moment to reflect on the countless activists I have met like Melchora, who defy all odds to hold the powerful to account. It is my deep belief that their strength and numbers serve as the clearest rebuttal to the skeptics who argue that human rights are failing.
True, human rights are under attack with very few leaders standing ready to champion them and provide moral leadership on an increasingly fragmented global stage. The United States’ withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council is the latest example of that.
True, the United Nations is deadlocked, unable to ensure international justice for mass atrocity crimes as countries put naked self-interest above any pretense of principle — whether in Myanmar, Syria or Gaza.
And, true, repression is on the march in countries such as Turkey, where nearly a third of all the world’s imprisoned journalists languish in jails; in the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte’s horrifying “war on drugs” has killed thousands; and in Hungary, where the government has launched an all-out assault on NGOs helping migrants.
However, to indulge in hand-wringing over human rights is not just defeatist — it is misdirected.
While this hostile environment makes plain that none of us can take any of our human rights for granted, it’s equally clear to me that people’s thirst for justice is as strong as ever.
Take the inspirational teenagers in the United States, for example, who organized one the biggest marches of recent times to demand stricter gun control following the shooting of their classmates at their high school in Parkland, Florida.
Matt Deitsch, one of the young campaigners behind the movement, told a recent gathering of young global activists convened by Amnesty International that while their group encounters people who have spent thousands of dollars smearing their work, they have learned to overcome the fear of speaking out: “If your agenda is saving human life, then you should peddle that agenda non-stop and fear nothing, because you are standing up for something that is right.” It’s a similar journey that many activists around the world have already gone through, despite the huge price many have had to pay for it.
People-powered movements are not simply about resistance and protest, but a pathway to change. We don’t have to look at the history books to know that is true. In the past year, we have seen cracks emerging in situations which even months ago seemed intractable.
Take the Ni Una Menos — Not One Less — movement across Latin America, in which thousands of women and even men have stood together to call out the epidemic of gender violence across the region.
Grounded in the far from radical notion that women are people, and are therefore long overdue their human rights, Ni Una Menos is already having a visible impact: Last month Argentina’s lower house of Congress voted through a bill that would allow for legal abortion up until 14 weeks.
It was the very act of women coming together and speaking out against a burning injustice that led to the chance of this transformational change.
And from the Oromo protests in Ethiopia to the student-led #FeesMustFall movement in South Africa, peaceful protests led by people are not just seeing a resurgence across the African continent, they are leading to seismic changes.
So-called realists might argue that a protest, a tweet or a newspaper article are still ineffective in driving change. But if we are to believe people power is useless, why then are governments all over the world trying their hardest to stop people from speaking out?
Cynicism about human rights is a trap. It’s what those leaders who would rather see the back of human rights want you to believe — they want you to disengage and to turn off.
In contrast to the current wave of skepticism about human rights, I have seen nothing but a growing appetite for justice and human rights to be realized. In the last year alone, nearly half a million people have joined Amnesty in Egypt, Pakistan and Nigeria.
All over the world, countless battles are being fought, by people from all walks of life every day. People with everything to lose are speaking out against abuses and demanding the right to live their lives in dignity and safety. In the end, that’s where the battle for human rights is fought and won — at the grassroots level.
Faced with unprecedented challenges across the world, people have shown repeatedly that their desire for justice, dignity and equality will not be extinguished. And that is a powerful source of hope.
Salil Shetty is an Indian human rights activist who served as Amnesty International's secretary general from 2010 to July 2018. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. He is joining Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy as Senior Fellow in 2018-19.