Photo from Amnesty International website
By Katherine Weir
Some think Amnesty International only focuses on human rights abuses in other countries.
But they work to protect citizens in this country too.
Refugee and immigrant rights, gun violence, and police accountability have been a primary focus in Amnesty International’s newest campaigns.
These issues particularly affect those living in Rogers Park, where 82 different languages are spoken on a regular basis.
In an interview with Katie Flood, co-president of Loyola University Chicago’s Amnesty International Chapter, we talked about how international human rights fit in the conversation about domestic human rights.
Q: First, Katie could you tell me a little bit about what Amnesty International is?
A: Amnesty International is an international human rights organization. It started with a couple of college students who saw that someone was wrongfully imprisoned. They really retaliated against that, because wrongful imprisonment is a human rights violation. It’s grown drastically. It’s one of the largest international human rights organizations out there, in terms of grassroots organizations, and it has incorporated all of the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights at this point. They do not do direct action. Meaning they’re not like the white helmets or anything, but they do campaigns and outreach, and things like that. They put pressure on governments and government officials to address human rights violations in their countries. Loyola’s branch of Amnesty is much smaller. It’s similar to how many large organizations work. They have different branches and then smaller clubs within that. Sort of like the boy scouts or girl scouts. So, we’re a much smaller club and we focus on education. We’ve been doing a lot of outreach and campaigns. We do a letter writing campaign every semester, and then we do fundraising through Slamnesty. That’s our slam poetry event. It’s very fun, and we raise money for Amnesty because the organization is entirely grassroots.
Q: Why did you get involved with Amnesty on campus?
A: I got involved my freshman year when we went to Georgia. My friend who lived four doors down from me was involved in Amnesty, but I worked on Tuesday nights, which was when their meetings were. So, I had never been to a meeting. I had really wanted to go, because I had a few friends that were in it, but the only night a week I worked was Tuesdays. My friend was the only freshman that was going on this trip, and she asked me if I wanted to go. My interest in politics had started later on in my life. I lived in a bubble in high school, and then senior year was when the Mike Brown stuff happened. I’m from St. Louis, so after that it was different to be confronted with politic, human rights, activism, and stuff that I had never witnessed before. My dad is a very big advocate about gun control, and often times he is speaking at rallies. So, I had been to rallies before, but I didn’t really have my own opinion until I was about 18. It was also the first year I was able to vote. So, it was really cool to get involved with Amnesty around the same time. We went to Georgia. That was a really powerful experience, and through some string of events someone asked me to talk on stage in front of a bunch of people. It was cool to be involved. That trip sort of solidified my involvement in Amnesty.
Q: Do you think that it’s important to have organizations like Amnesty on college campuses? Why or why not?
A: I do think that it’s important to have organizations like Amnesty. I think that a lot of the organizations on campuses are very partisan if they are political or activist organizations in general. The social organizations are also really exciting and fun, but I think a lot of the time when organizations involve deeper topics, they become very partisan. Right now I know there’s a big divide, and it’s nice because organizations like Amnesty focus on human rights that are inalienable. So it’s really cool to be able to focus on “here’s what we can do to fix these things.” Those other organizations are still very important, and it’s important to have those partisan things, but being able to make a difference and come together to fight human rights violations in our own country as well as other countries without the labels is cool. People aren’t as pushed away from it.
Q: So what can a student or community member to do get involved in Amnesty or other human rights organizations?
A: Come to our meetings! That’s one way to get involved. We have lots of opportunities for involvement, and you can be as involved or as not involved as possible. We send out emails almost every week talking about events in the area. Something that we’ve really been focusing on this year has been giving as much information to people as we have. Also, having new resources on the information that’s going on. Maria and I, my co-president of Amnesty, went to the border this year with the Illinois School of the America’s (SOA) Watch protest. They put on the protest in Georgia my freshman year. We’ve been reconnecting those resources, and we’ve been going to the Illinois SOA Watch meetings. They give us a ton of information, and we help them organize some events. Ways to get involved is to sign up for our email list if it’s just particularly Amnesty. We don’t flood your inbox, but you’ll get a lot of information. Organizations like Amnesty are always looking for people to get involved. It’s a bit difficult because they are grassroots so sometime their websites are not as properly designed as others. It might be harder to get ahold of someone because there are way less people because resources are limited. But you can really make a difference by putting the effort in to get involved with it.
Q: So why do you think people should care or get involved in something like this?
A: Mainly because it really does make a difference. Amnesty focuses on national and international issues, so it makes you realize the connections between humanity and the entire world rather than just trying to fix one problem in some quote-unquote developing country. Instead of it being like that, it’s like here’s something in China, here’s something in the United States, here’s an issue in Canada. They don’t really discriminate based on the issue or place. They’re just like “here are problems we need to fix them.” and a lot of the time they end up being fixed. A lot of people have been freed from wrongful imprisonment. So it really does make a difference, and because it’s grassroots they need the help. Also, not to sound bad, from a networking base, it never looks wrong to be able to talk about stuff that you care about. If you have a passion for making a difference that’s something that employers look at. Especially from something that’s nonpartisan. They’ll be like you’re passionate, and you’ve found time to do this and care about things that matter while you were in college. I know that for me it’s been a huge talking point at jobs that I never thought would’ve been.
Q: And how would you define human rights?
A: Well I don’t know what my personal moral definition would be, but I know Amnesty’s definition is the Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. Human rights are what humans deserve no matter who they are or where they live.
Q: Where should the role of international human rights be in the conversations about human rights in the United States?
A: I don’t think that when you talk about human rights in the United States that you can use an argument saying, “human rights are being violated elsewhere quote unquote worse” which I think happens a lot whenever people are talking about feminism and stuff. When they’re like “it’s worse here” and it’s like ok.. maybe.. if you are going to compare two things but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about is human rights are being violated yes or no. For me at least, it’s very simple. The list is very defined, and shouldn’t get muddled as two people being oppressed fighting each other. It should be them both having the power to fight these human rights violations.
Q: Last question. Imagine a world where no human rights abuses are occurring. What does that look like to you?
A: I don’t know if that world will ever exist because I think that as we get more advanced as a planet, as a species, we’ll develop more things that become human rights. Back when there was no real way of purifying water, having access to clean water as a human right was not heard of. Having clean water as a human right wouldn’t have been a thing because it would’ve been impossible. I guess there was way less pollution in the water, but it would have been so difficult to enforce. Government’s wouldn’t have been able to do that. Our advancement will be able to provide for us so what becomes a human right will evolve just as we do. SO I don’t know if a world without human rights abuses will ever really exist.