By Devendra Kamarajan
NAIROBI (IDN) – The human rights movement needs to be bigger, bolder and more inclusive if it is to tackle the challenges that people face today, says life-long social justice campaigner Kumi Naidoo as he officially starts his four-year tenure as Secretary General of Amnesty International.
Amnesty is the largest human rights movement worldwide, with a global presence including offices in more than 70 countries, 2,600 staff and seven million members, volunteers and supporters worldwide. Naidoo wants more.
He is the first-ever South African to be appointed as the leader and main spokesperson for Amnesty. He succeeds Indian human rights activist Salil Shetty, who served eight years as Secretary General from 2010, and is now a Senior Fellow of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School for the 2018-2019 academic year.
Before joining Amnesty International, he was Director of the United Nations Millennium Campaign from 2003 to 2010, credited with significantly increasing awareness of and accountability for the Millennium Development Goals across the world.
Naidoo has held multiple leadership roles including Chair of the Global Call for Climate Action, Founding Chair of the Global Call to Action against Poverty and Secretary General and CEO of CIVICUS, the World Alliance for Citizen Participation.
But his time as Executive Director of Greenpeace International starting 2009 apparently cemented his reputation as a bold activist who championed civil disobedience – most notably when he was arrested for scaling a Greenlandic oil rig to hand-deliver a petition in protest of drilling in the Arctic in 2011. A year later he occupied a Russian oilrig in the Barents Sea in the Russian Arctic.
Naidoo’s most recent role has been as a co-founder and interim chair of the pan-African organization, Africans Rising For Justice, Peace & Dignity. The group, which has forged partnerships across trade unions, religion and civil society, aims to change the fact that while Africa as a continent has benefitted from economic growth, Africans themselves have not shared in that increasing wealth and power.
Born in Durban in 1965, Naidoo’s first taste of activism came at age 15 when he organised and took part in an anti-apartheid protest that saw him expelled from his school. From there he became deeply embedded in activism in his local community and organising mass mobilisations against the apartheid regime.
In 1986, at the age of 21, he was charged for violating the state of emergency regulations. He was forced to go underground, before deciding to live in exile in Britain where he stayed until Nelson Mandela was released and liberation movements were unbanned.
As the apartheid regime crumbled, Kumi Naidoo returned to South Africa in 1990 to work with the African National Congress. There, he took up a cause close to his heart: education, specifically adult literacy campaigns and voter education efforts to empower historically and systematically disenfranchised communities.
It was seeing a letter that Nelson Mandela had written to Amnesty International in 1962, thanking the organisation for sending a representative to observe his trial that inspired Naidoo to apply for the role as the global head of Amnesty.
On the eve of taking up his new role at Amnesty International, he returned to where his story began, by paying a visit to Chatsworth Secondary School in Durban, where he was expelled from in 1980.
Speaking to the children at the morning assembly, he said: “Do not accept your voice does not matter, do not wait until tomorrow to exercise leadership since if you wait, there will be no tomorrow. And remember that service to humanity brings you the greatest happiness.”
In his first message as Secretary General on August 16, Naidoo says that Amnesty International “is now opening its arms wider than ever before to build a genuinely global community that stretches into all four corners of the world, especially in the global south”.
“I want us to build a human rights movement that is more inclusive. We need to redefine what it means to be a human rights champion in 2018. An activist can come from all walks of life – a trade union, school, faith group, government or indeed business,” he says.
Naidoo argues that our world is facing complex problems that can only be tackled if we break away from old ideas that human rights are about some forms of injustice that people face, but not others. “The patterns of oppression that we’re living through are interconnected,” he says.
“You cannot talk about the climate change crisis without recognising that it is also an inequality and race issue; you can’t address sexual discrimination without recognising that it is bound up in the economic exclusion of women; and you can’t ignore the fact that people’s civil and political rights are often suppressed exactly when they are trying to demand basic economic justice,” Amnesty’s new Secretary General maintains.
Amnesty has repeatedly warned that we are living through some of the most divisive times in modern history, with prominent leaders offering a nightmarish vision of society blinded by hatred and fear. “Only if we come together under the common values that unite us, like human rights, can we overcome this adversity,” declares Kumi Naidoo.
Amnesty International was built on the idea that people, regardless of where they are or who they are, take the injustice that other people face personally, notes Naidoo. And it has proved time and time again that when strangers come together to fight for people that they have never met across the other side of the world, change is possible.
In a clarion call to expand Amnesty’s outreach, he says: “Now, more than ever, we need people to come together and stand up to oppressors. I invite people who care about the present and future, for people who care about their children and grandchildren, for people who take injustice personally, to join us. Amnesty International needs your voice, your participation and your presence in our movement to make human rights a reality.”
Addressing youth, Kumi Naidoo says: “I want young people to know especially that we are open to you and need you to challenge us to do better by you. It is my abiding belief that young people are not the leaders of tomorrow, but the leaders we need here and now. The Ahed Tamimis, the Elin Erssons, the Sibongile Ndashes, and every single person that has not shied away from civil disobedience or being called naïve or idealistic are the bold role models we need today.”
Paying tribute to his predecessor, he said: “I want to thank Salil Shetty for the contributions he has made to Amnesty International over the past eight years, and for his work on strengthening our presence throughout the world. I hope to build and expand on his legacy to ensure that we become a united global movement.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 16 August 2018]
Photo: Kumi Naidoo. Credit: Amnesty International
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