Students and the struggle for Human Rights

Amnesty International’s Secretary-General and student activists reflect on what it means to champion justice during such a tumultuous time for human rights.

“I think it’s about time,” says Hannah Orr, a second year activist from Queens University Belfast, when I ask her why she thinks this year’s Amnesty human rights review is focused around female activism.

“When you’ve had so many centuries focused around men, surely we can have one year focused on us.” Hannah has been running workshops and campaigning for the fight of abortion rights in Northern Ireland whilst juggling her degree in Criminology and Social Policy.

Celebrating the efforts by women’s resistance movements around the globe, the cover page of the annual report features a courageous, pink-haired activist with the Venus symbol painted in glitter across her cheek. Women had a vital role in the construction of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Seventy years ago today Eleanor Roosevelt, then chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, oversaw drafting the document.

“It’s about time”

Hansa Jivraj Mehta, delegate of India, changed the language of the document to from “all men are created equal” to “all human beings are created equal.” Now celebrated as Human Rights Day, the anniversary of this document comes at an auspicious time for activists across the globe.

The last page of Amnesty’s report features a coat hanger on a green background citing the Argentinian slogan ‘Adiós’, reminding us that the fight for women’s reproductive rights is not over.

Noel is part of a group of young Amnesty International activists campaigning for safe and legal abortion in Argentina. Credit: Javier Heinzmann / Majority World / Amnesty International

The past year has also seen horrific injustices across the world, from the heightening war in Yemen, to the rise of the far-right in Europe. So what can students do to fight for a fairer world?

I sat down with undergraduate female activists Niamh, Hannah, Piper, and Malloy who have been working with Amnesty on various campaigns. They gathered around the coffee table of the Amnesty UK office flicking through the report, featuring pictures of Dr. Ford testifying before the US Senate, Chinese students rallying in defence of the #MeToo campaign, and Argentinian women fighting for abortion rights.

“It’s great to see that grassroots movements are filled with women, whilst a lot of top-level governance is undertaken by men,” explained Molly-May, looking up at me from the report – she is a modern languages student at University of Exeter – “it’s empowering to be surrounded by so many women at rallies”.

“No struggle has been won without an element of risk, sacrifice and courage,”

The opening article of the report is an op-ed by Secretary-General, Kumi Naidoo, explaining the year’s focus.

“We have seen a weak global economy give rise to bombastic figureheads who use macho posturing, misogyny, xenophobia, and homophobia to give the appearance that they are ‘tough guy’ leaders.”

Present circumstances mirror the rise in fascism of the 1930s, he reminds us, and this is what the enactment of the UDHR was trying to avoid. At the age of 15, Kumi got expelled from school for his involvement in anti-apartheid activism. Since then, he has been championing the cause of climate justice on all fronts – from being arrested for militant activism to leading the push for more proactive legislation to combat climate change. “No struggle has been won without an element of risk, sacrifice and courage,” he tells me, “I realise that in the context of shrinking democratic space and civic space in particular around the world, it does pose threats of repression, such as expulsion from schools and universities.”

When asked his advice to student activists in similar situations would be he quickly replies, “I would say young people need to make up their own minds individually regarding what level of sacrifice and courage they feel comfortable to show, but this is a moment that’s calling for that in a very fundamental way because bottom line is, on the 70th anniversary of the UDHR, we are seeing significant slippage backwards rather than movement forwards.”

University as a space of political resistance can often be thought of as isolated from the wider socio-political context. “When I was one of the student leaders at my university in Durban, South Africa we had a dedicated community services unit and we mobilised students to work with working class communities around the city – that’s the kind of thing we need to see more of,” says Kumi on the subject of university activism and community engagement.

“Firstly, let’s have a reality check,” he adds, “globally, less than 8% of young people who are eligible to go to university actually make it, so we should not think that this is where the majority of young people are today. I think universities as a sight for struggle are incredibly important, but for the most impactful kind of human rights activism we need student movements which connect with young people who are not in the student movements as well as other communities in general.”

Emily has been an Amnesty International activist since she was 16. Credit: Christo Geoghegan / Amnesty International

Chris Moss, the London representative for Amnesty’s Student Action Network Committee, is a strong advocate for student activism as a form of political action. When asked if universities represent an exclusive space for political organisation, he admits that “whilst the campus can be a bubble, it can also act as a springboard for wider activism in a place with loads of like-minded people that are willing engage with the wider community.”

Activism can also play a detrimental role on student’s mental health, however, Chris tells me that “Youth activists represent the optimism in resistance.”

Niamh Oddy, second year Politics student agrees with him and states, “We are building a world for us.” Both of them agree that Amnesty’s support for student activism has catalysed their campaigns and given them access to resources they wouldn’t have been able to obtain on their own. Niamh happily tells me that “so many things that Amnesty does comes from the fire of youth activism.”

There are loads of reasons to be pessimistic about the future, and yet talking to these students gives just as many reasons to be hopeful. I keep coming back to Kumi’s words about students: “I think it’s really humbling and enlightening if you are also conscious of your privilege in comparison to most young people. You are either part of the problem or part of the solution.”

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Title picture: International Women’s Day 2017 Argentina | Credit: Amnistía Internacional Argentina


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