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Everyman to his trade

Amnesty International is a charity that appeals to millions of people all over the world. But do they know why? Amnesty’s positive image has been harvested in a time that those millions knew what Amnesty did and accomplished. Amnesty’s groundbreaking and very clear struggle for human rights was obvious to most of them. A human being is free. A human being belongs but to him- or herself. All people are equal and of equal standing. Every human being is entitled to a fair treatment. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights goes for everyone. Every human being is important.

Amnesty International could be recognized in the way she revolted against the unlawful imprisonment of people for their political beliefs. She gave those political prisoners a voice, so as they would not be forgotten and could not vanish in oblivion. She orchestrated the international community to convert injustice to justice. Thanks to her the death penalty has disappeared from most countries around the world. That was all very clear and is well known by many. But it is as though this image is fading. It’s getting more obscure by the day what Amnesty International really is and what the results are of her efforts. No matter how she distinguishes herself from other human rights organizations.

This lack of clarity has partly been prompted by the extension of her mandate since the beginning of this century. From then on she also focused on social and economic circumstances people live in. With that she petered out to the policy terrain of e.g. food organizations. Understandable as these new activities may seem – many more organizations know far more about these subjects – they blur her image. Even for those that know Amnesty International very well. The ratio for the focus on these issues is unclear for most people. Even for many activists within Amnesty. It’s about time that Amnesty International recovers her old image and profiles herself again with the legal focus she used to have. Everyman to his trade is the maxim so to speak. Amnesty’s image deserves this effort.

Bert Breij

Political prisoners

The definition of political prisoners refers to the fact that these prisoners are put away by countries for non-judicial reasons. Countries that incarcerate political prisoners use every trick to label them as criminals. These countries do this to get a good image, internal as well as abroad. They think that if the law and a judge were involved, this qualifies them to be just and civilized states. For multinationals it’s an excuse to locate themselves in these countries. And for other countries to give development aid. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International must expose these practices. It’s very important to stay alert if it comes to criminal rulings and the misconduct of due process.

A clear standard

To be able to recognize political prisoners, political and legal standards are required that go beyond common law and even beyond the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Such standards are still missing. The 10th of December is the day on which worldwide human rights are celebrated. This date is selected by the United Nations to commemorate the acceptance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948. It’s about time that the United Nations establishes a clear standard for political prisoners and advocates it to the world. This perhaps could lead to the accentuation of the Universal Declaration, which by the way is overdue for more than just one article.

Bert Breij, Amsterdam

Power to the human rights

The world may be shaken out of the grip of dictators, especially in the Muslim world, the dedication of independent human rights organizations is needed more then ever. The economic crisis steps up the pressure. The yet to materialize new democratic societies are no guarantee for the freedom of opinion and expression (art. 19 UDHR). It’s no guarantee either for the fair treatment of the defeated opponents. What really happens is often less clear compared to the dictatorial days. In the path to democracy it’s as if it’s easier to annihilate the opponents, from fear of resurrection, but also out of revenge. Quasi fair trials are no guarantee for the truth to come out. There is not very often much wisdom in them either. The euphoria about the end of the former dictatorships shifts to the blurring confusion of how to deal with the near and not so near future.

Principal grounds

The ultimate respect for the freedom of opinion and expression and an independent and fair judicial system are fundamental to any future development, as is the unconditional separation of religious, state and judicial powers. The current development to accept more or less the mingling of these powers must be rejected on principal grounds. In these transitional times some human rights organizations contribute to the confusion by accommodating an attitude that might appear loose if it comes to human rights. Only a pure and principal attitude give human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, their reputation and respect. We are well aware of the fact that China is quite different from The Netherlands or the United States of America, but this cannot be a pretext for human rights organizations to accept the violation of human rights. Even if this means losing territory.

Occidental doctrine

Are the principals invested in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the dogmas of the developed world? Does the developed world force these principals upon all the reluctant others? This is highly unlikely. Even if there should be any truth in this “Occidental doctrine”, it still is a drive for universal values such as the freedom of religion, the freedom of opinion and expression, the freedom of organization, the integrity of the individual, equality of the sexes, a fair trial. Moreover a transparent society is one of the most important preconditions for the establishment and protection of the fundamental human rights as they are laid down in the declaration.

No compromise

Committed human rights organizations do not compromise to these fundamental rights, as they do not compromise to the truth and the search for the truth. The rise of a growing number of human rights organizations may appear to be a boon to the world, but it’s also a cause for some concern. Some of these organizations stem from powers that take the universal rights lightly, to say the least. Some doubt can be cast on their independent status. Furthermore, it’s urgent that human rights organizations join hands worldwide to avoid the watering down of their message. It’s as important as their grass roots character. As it is important that human rights organizations focus on national and international governments as well as on national and multinational companies. If it comes to subsistence of a civil society in which the fundamental human rights stand at the core no compromise is justified.

Bert Breij, Amsterdam

Pollsmoor Prison

breda photo

While studying at the University of Cape Town, Mikhael Subotzky (South Africa, 1981) first visited the Pollsmoor Prison, infamous for its degrading conditions. Subotzky quickly familiarized himself with the prisoners. He got to know them through conversations, and gave them lessons in photography. These visits resulted in the series Die Vier Hoeke (prisoners’ slang for the four corners of a prison). In April 2005, on South African Independence Day, he exhibited this series inside the Pollsmoor Prison—a unique event, as never before had the prison been used as the location for an exhibition.

This project was followed by a more extensive investigation of the South African prison system. High crime rates characterize today’s South African society. Prisoners find themselves limited in their most fundamental rights—a sensitive issue, in a country that only recently abolished the segregation laws of the apartheid system.

The pictures can be seen at the Breda Photo 2012 festival, Breda, the Netherlands, from today until the 21st of October.
(Text: BredaPhoto; pictures: Mikhael Subotzky; overall picture: Hannie Mommers)

More information: wikipedia




As this book is not an Amnesty International publication, the organisation bears no responsibility for it. Nor is it the result of an initiative by Amnesty International and we are very much aware that this book could lead to many a repercussion and discussion. If that is indeed the case, we will be more than satisfied.

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