Amnesty International at FSU is hosting its second annual Human Rights Conference on Saturday, April 1st at the FSU College of Law. The conference is an opportunity for FSU students and faculty, as well as members of the Tallahassee community, to come together to discuss human rights and receive education on how to be a human rights activist. The conference will bring in speakers and panelists to give speeches and conduct workshops on various issues surrounding human rights. This year’s conference is entitled “America We Believe In.”
Burning Tree Magazine met with Ambar Martin, one of the directors of Amnesty International at FSU as well as a member of Amnesty International USA’s National Youth Action Committee, and Ciara Bennese, the Public Relations officer for Amnesty International at FSU, to discuss this year’s conference, the newfound concerns held by Amnesty International and other groups since the election, and how anybody can start getting involved in activism.
Register for the conference here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/human-rights-conference-the-america-we-believe-in-tickets-31668711970
Burning Tree Magazine: This year’s Human Rights Conference is entitled “The America We Believe In,” after an Amnesty International campaign. What is this campaign all about and why was it chosen as the focus for the conference?
Ambar Martin: The campaign is called The America I Believe In, which is actually an early 2000s campaign for Amnesty International and it came from when the world started to take notice of what the United States was doing abroad in terms of the war on terror and torture. It also came from this increase in Islamophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric. That was a somewhat short campaign for Amnesty back then, and we sort of revamped it last year because we were seeing what happened in the early 2000s but to an extreme. There was rhetoric on terror and very aggressive foreign policy being proposed that was very anti- human rights – and now anti-refugee rhetoric. So the three prongs of the campaign are to focus on anti-refugee rhetoric, anti-Muslim discrimination, and also a look into the perpetual war on terror. The point was to rethink the idea of patriotism – so instead of patriotism being guns and America first, and Anglo-Saxon skin tones and traditional nuclear families … instead, it’s a rethinking of what patriotism is. That’s why you see the Statue of Liberty on this campaign. America is a nation of immigrants; we’ve tried in the past to be accepting, and it is actually more patriotic to be more accepting of diversity in religion and race.
Ciara Bennese: I think one reason why we felt very strongly about integrating this campaign into our Human Rights initiative through Amnesty is that, not only does it tackle those three main prongs that Ambar talked about, but it’s also a way for one to talk about different issues. When we went to the Amnesty International conference in Houston, Texas, we went to the America I Believe In workshop and a lot of the discussion on America I Believe In was actually focused on combatting racism in schools. There were a lot of high school students there who felt strongly about using this campaign to make their issues known. … The diversity and flexibility of this campaign allows us to talk about issues from police brutality to refugee issues to Islamophobia, and allows the topic of human rights to be multifaceted and easy for people to grasp in relation to themselves.
BTM: What will this year’s conference consist of in terms of speakers, workshops, etc.? Who will be there that is significant in the field of human rights activism, and what main topics will be covered? How will this be different from last year’s conference?
AM: Last year we focused on the issue of torture, which was very relevant due to the primaries – and still is relevant. Now, for this year, obviously it’s impossible to deny that refugee rights are at the forefront, and that is really the main focus of the America We Believe In conference. So we are looking into refugee rights, and informing people about what these are – and how it’s not something that is made up, it’s international law and is within our own laws as well. And also just informing people about who refugees are and what they are running from, and what the conditions are when you are a refugee. We will also focus on the topic of immigration because that is also very relevant. One last focus that is not the primary focus of the conference but still part of it is going to be the use of lethal force by police.
As far as speakers, one of the main speakers will be Elizabeth Beavers from Amnesty International, who is the senior campaigner for the Security with Human Rights unit, which is the unit that focuses on thinking about security policy that is still sensible for international law and human rights principles. We will also have Professor Terry Coonan, who is very well known on campus, and is an immigration lawyer who has worked on refugee and asylum issues. We will also have Peter Marocco, who is an advisor for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); he works on rescuing refugees from ISIS and helps to bring them to the United States so he is a very interesting man – and he will be the keynote speaker. We will also have Mariam El Magrissy. She is Egyptian and is a student here in the states based in new York, and she is the western representative for the National Youth Action Committee for Amnesty International. She was a very active person in Egypt in 2011 and is still very active today. She worked in a refugee camp in the summer – she’s just incredible. And I highlight her because she’s a young activist – she’s our age and she’s doing all this work. It shows that you do not have to have a PhD or be a lawyer to do this work. She is an undergrad right now at UC Berkeley and is doing this work. Her job is to help organize for other students to do that work as well. We will also have Eric Yopp from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) who will do a workshop with Professor Coonan on human trafficking. We will also have James Cook, a civil rights lawyer here in Tallahassee who does work on lethal force and prison abuse, so he will speak on the use of lethal force in Florida and the legal mechanisms through which we can hold police accountable.
BTM: That sounds like a lot of really great speakers! Now I wanted to move on to talk more generally about Amnesty and other human rights/activism NGOs in general, and how they have been influenced since the election. What are these NGOs current plans for the future, and how is the future looking in general for human rights activism?
CB: I feel as though the goals and motives of a lot of organizations like Amnesty, both student and non-student groups, have turned to increased awareness. Since the election, particularly with the recent executive orders, many organizations were put on high alert. For example Amnesty International dedicated three weeks to combatting the executive order on the travel ban. And I think this is going to change how we work, because we are becoming more reactive with an administration who is constantly passing legislation and enacting policies contrary to the goals and missions of these organizations. On campus, as well, there has been increased visibility among different groups holding rallies and protest walks. It also seems that more people are interested other than the small groups previously focused on human rights. More and more people are posting about it on social media and getting involved. I feel that we will see the membership of these groups increase, as well as more multifaceted ways of people getting involved by calling representatives, becoming aware of issues, and our organization will evolve to cater to that.
BTM: I know that I have seen significantly more people, since the election, express an interest in getting involved with protecting human rights, especially on social media.
CB: Yeah – for example, after the election, I attended a volunteer organization for Planned Parenthood. It ended up being 200 people in a tiny building – they did not expect that. So organizations like Planned Parenthood, Black Lives Matter, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch – they are all seeing increases in membership right now. So hopefully that continues to increase especially as we need to be holding our representatives accountable, even when they don’t want to hear our voices.
AM: A lot of the activists that I work with in Amnesty’s leadership have been doing this work for decades, and what they said after the election was that this is a very unique moment. This is unlike anything they have seen before – in the United States. It is very important to have that asterisk on it, because Amnesty International is international – most of their work is focused on other countries. After the executive order, that was the first time that Amnesty International focused all of its resources on an issue in the United States. Amnesty is 55 years old at this point and this is the first time they have done this. It’s because they are very much seeing a threat.
BTM: In addition to these national and international initiatives, what are some things going on locally, in the FSU and Tallahassee area, in regards to human rights activism?
CB: In addition to Planned Parenthood’s regional action, there is also the International Rescue Committee (IRC) here in Tallahassee which has been very active in getting volunteers and resources for the refugee families – to the point where they actually don’t need any more volunteers or donations. You also have the local Bread & Roses Co-op, which often does free lunches if you go and call representatives. Student groups are also uniting between FSU, TCC, and FAMU. Keep Guns Off Campus is becoming increasingly powerful in Florida and Georgia.
AM: The Students for Justice in Palestine are always super active – they organized the March Against the Muslim Ban.
CB: The Women’s March is now an organization that has a planning committee that meets here in Tallahassee. The response to local and national activism since the election has been completely unprecedented – hopefully that momentum continues and people prepare for a marathon and not a sprint because we will need them for a while to come.
BTM: What would be your best advice for the preliminary steps that people can take if they feel like they really want to make a change, but are not sure how to begin getting involved in activism and human rights?
AM: First I would say to find an organization that you would be comfortable joining. That doesn’t have to be Amnesty International, and it isn’t for a lot of people. It could be Students for Justice in Palestine, it could be Black Lives Matter – whatever group you feel comfortable joining that will be doing some sort of work. For a lot of people, their reaction is initially to start their own group because they don’t really know the connections. This is not to say that that is always a bad idea – because there are many places where there is not a lot of activism going on, especially in Florida where there are areas where that is just not the case. But if you are somewhere like FSU, there are about 600-700 student organizations, and a lot of them do focus on social justice and human rights. So, I would say that it’s good to shop around and find these different groups’ meetings. These groups exist, and they need membership. Whatever group you may click with, just go with it. You do not need to be studying some sort of social science – I think that’s something that discourages a lot of people – if you are an engineering major and are interested, just go. These organizations need bodies, real people with ideas and different points of view who are ready to go protest or call Marco Rubio’s office, even if he might not answer, or to call legislatures and show up to town halls. It’s a lot easier than you think to be a human rights activist.