[Pictures will come when they get put on Facebook by Amnesty ]
So, I spent my weekend at the Amnesty International Student Conference 2009, held at the Human Rights Action Centre near Old Street – what a great coincidence it was held in London when I’ve just moved here this year! Students from universities all over the country (and some from around the world too) gathered to share ideas and learn about Amnesty’s campaigns.
We were all given the chance to attend two workshops on Saturday. The first one I opted for was on Demand Dignity, Amnesty’s latest campaign aimed at combating the human rights violations that go hand in hand with poverty. We learned about the situation in the Deep Sea Settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, where 7000 residents already in poverty live in constant fear of illegal forced evictions. Discussions about what sort of problems the residents face and how they can be solved took place, culminating in the realisation that all the problems are interlinked and have poverty and government corruption at their root. Rather than just sending money, Demand Dignity hopes to empower and educate people, and also lobby governments to make changes for the better.
The second workshop I took part in was on the death penalty, specifically the case of Troy Davis, who has been on Death Row in Georgia for 20 years. He is charged with shooting dead an off-duty policeman, but his conviction rested solely on witness testimonies with no physical evidence and since his trial seven out of the nine witnesses have withdrawn or changed their statements – some claim they were forced into testifying against Troy. The conviction appears to have also been racially motivated. Recently he was granted a chance to prove his innocence, and this hearing will take part in front of the Supreme Court in January. The woman giving the workshop, Kim Manning-Cooper, visited Troy on Death Row, and was incredibly passionate about getting justice for him – and, of course, the victim of the crime that was committed, Mark McPhail. His family have campaigned tirelessly on his behalf – his sister will be giving a talk in London next week, which I will be attending. In the workshop, we came up with campaign ideas, and some of them were so good that Kim told us she’d try and incorporate them in Amnesty’s official campaign against the death penalty.
Five different plenaries took place: Demand Dignity, which discussed the human rights violations caused by Shell’s activities in the Niger Delta; I Am An Activist, which focused on what it means to be an activist and featured the case of Troy Davis; The Right To Water, about the restriction of access to clean water in the Gaza Strip; Stop Violence Against Women, looking at the use of rape in conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo; and Burma ’88 Generation Students Group, which looked at the suppression of human rights by the junta in Burma. All the plenaries were incredibly compelling, but highlights included hearing the experiences of a former prisoner of conscience in Buma first hand, as well as a student who’d studied both in Burma and the UK; a phone call from Martina Correia, Troy Davis’s sister; and sending a message of solidarity to Justine Bihamba, a campaign against sexual violence in the DRC who unfortunately couldn’t be at the conference.
On Saturday night came the conference campaign action – this year focusing on Shell’s activities in the Niger Delta. We marched from the Human Rights Action Centre to Hoxton Square and back, in a procession with banners, candles and a giant “pipeline”. I helped carry one of the banners in what were fairly windy conditions, something I’m still feeling the effect of… Plenty of signatures were collected, and it was a really successful event. There was also an AGM and elections to the Student Action Network Committee, as well as the Conference Part and Raise-Off Awards (where awards for the best fundraising student groups were given out).
It was incredible to be at an event where everyone was so passionate about human rights. Imperial has no politics or law students, so it might be considered less equipped to be concerned about Amnesty, and certainly our group is smaller than a lot of other universities’. Still, those of us from Imperial Amnesty that attended the conference came back with lots of ideas for spreading the word at our university. Watch this space!