The Wednesday Interview | Interview

India has always been selective in human rights discussions, says Secretary General of Amnesty International

Secretary General of Amnesty International Salil Shetty.   | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Salil Shetty, the Bengaluru-born human rights activist who directed the United Nations Millennium Campaign to help push its development goals, has served as the Secretary General of Amnesty International, the London-headquartered NGO, since 2010. With the Arab Spring, the revelations by WikiLeaks, the European refugee crisis, and the spread of nationalist, populist forces globally, his tenure has seen tumultuous times. Faced with a rapidly changing world, including the rise of social media, Mr. Shetty has sought to bring about changes in Amnesty International. This includes efforts to “decolonise” it and make it a more global network of activists. The focus on local issues has brought Amnesty into regular confrontations with governments, including in India, where in 2016 it faced accusations of sedition over a Kashmir-related event in Bengaluru. Mr. Shetty speaks about the impact of populism and social media on human rights, and Amnesty’s evolving socio-economic agenda. Here are the excerpts:

Since the role of social media in shaping political discourse has captured the spotlight, how much of a concern is all this from a human rights perspective and how do you tackle it?

We’ve been dragged into this arena not by choice but by default. We’ve been raising this issue for a while... where four or five companies have complete monopoly of data and there is no regulation whatsoever, which is problematic. I am the first to say that governments shouldn’t over-regulate — they are the ones who want to ensure that people’s data are captured for them — but you can’t expect these companies to play god either. There has to be regulation.

If you are looking for parallels, you can look at the media where you have counsels that are self-regulated bodies. I’m not saying it’s easy: the line between free speech and hate speech is a thin one, and legally, the threshold is quite high to clamp down on somebody, but incitement to violence is where the line is drawn.

One example that isn’t highlighted enough is the case of Myanmar, when [Facebook founder] Mark Zuckerberg came up with the idea of Free Basics. India rejected it because of Net neutrality, which was the right call, but Myanmar embraced it and Facebook usage went up dramatically. Now the entire anti-Rohingya campaign, the fake news, has been run using Facebook. The Myanmar government is silent but Facebook has been watching and we’ve been raising [this] time and time again.

Is the human rights situation globally improving or worsening?

My answer is dependent on the time frame. If you use a 57-year time frame, which is the number of years Amnesty International has operated, we’ve made big progress. When we started campaigning, there were only 20-30 countries not using the death penalty. Now it’s the other way round. People are a lot more aware of their rights and this is resulting in tensions. Women’s rights is a classic one: we couldn’t have imagined something like the #MeToo campaign.

But if you take the last 10 years, we’ve had the Arab Spring, WikiLeaks, more information coming into the public domain than ever before, but all of that turned sour very quickly. I think the reason is that governments — and even corporations — are not very good at handling progress, dissent and public accountability. It’s not something that comes naturally to them. If you look at the origins of the most complex crises, like Syria, most of them started as peaceful processes where there were very legitimate concerns of communities that were marginalised. And then [protests were] crushed and a cycle of violence [followed].

The crisis in the Middle East and Africa led to one of the largest refugee crises in our history. The Refugee Convention is signed by most European countries. They go around as “champions” of human rights — the first time it’s tested, they fail. The irony of this is that the vast majority of Syrian refugees are in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan. I’ve spent lots of time in these camps and I can promise you, I’ve not met a single person who says they want to come to Europe. They want to go home. There is a trickle into Europe and the way Europe has responded has been shocking.

What has been the impact of populism on the global human rights situation?

These leaders — male, macho leaders whose belief is that we have public support and awe and can crush anything — are nothing new. With [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi, we are used to this. I think what is unique is that Western countries are starting to see this sort of leadership. The playbook they use is almost the same across these countries.

Firstly, it’s nothing to do with facts. They abandon facts and use emotions, creating the Other. If it’s Turkey, you create a Kurdish enemy; if it’s India, you create Muslims; if it’s the U.S., you create refugees. You [make them] scapegoats and deflect attention from the most important issues in the country. How can beef be the single most important issue in India? We have some of the biggest health and education challenges, and women’s rights issues, and they focus on beef.

Secondly, you delegitimise any dissent. If it’s the media, you call it fake news; if it’s NGOs, you call them foreign Western agents. You emaciate all the institutions, the basic checks and balances, such as what has happened to the judiciary in India.

And there is the constant drip, drip campaign, often online. Even if you are a relatively neutral person, they sow the seeds of doubt.

Is this a pivotal moment for human rights and human rights organisations?

Absolutely, we are not dealing with unelected leaders; [these] are elected dictators and authoritarians.

In the past, Amnesty would have focussed only on civil and political issues but a lot of the anger manifest at the moment is about the denial of social and economic rights, which we have not done enough [about], so we are looking more at that.

There are two classic arguments made by the populists. One is that you have to make a choice between human rights and development: ‘We are a developing country and of course we support human rights, but we have more important basic needs.’ The other is around security, and you are constantly told you have to choose between the two.

In the past, our strategy would have been to wait for a violation and expose it and hold the perpetrators to account. We are now saying we have to work more upstream on this. It’s not just human rights and security, it’s human rights for security. If you don’t deal with security or economic issues with a human rights angle, you’ll have trouble.

How is this impacting the way you work?

We find that we typically have 20-30% who agree with our view of human rights, 20-30% who disagree, and the rest are in the persuadable middle. In the past, we tended to talk to people who naturally agreed with what we were doing. Social media can end up narrowing audiences further, so we are trying to consciously understand how we can get to people who don’t agree with us or who are sitting on the fence on big issues, and ascertain how to talk to them about it. Our past approach had been very fact- and evidence-based but we are in a world where people aren’t interested in facts. We are trying to see how we can make or work both tangible and engaged with facts but also more emotional.

You have spoken of the need to decolonise human rights.

When we first started in 1961, it made sense to run it [Amnesty] in a top-down way but now we are totally different. One thing I’ve really pushed for is to distribute our presence. The number of attacks we’ve had on Amnesty workers in the last couple of years is not small. It’s partly a consequence of the way the world has shifted but also that we are more out there and standing up much more.

It’s also a question of who does the work: most of our work in Africa is done by Africans. It’s not about Europeans flying in to lecture — the kind of argument that a [former Zimbabwe Prime Minister Robert] Mugabe or [Philippines President Rodrigo] Duterte would have, accusing us of having a Western agenda. Of course, we still have people from the West in Amnesty but most of the work is done by people across the world.

We are also a membership-based organisation. Historically, all members were in rich countries but my view is that pressure for change in countries should come from its own citizens.

In India, we now have around a million people who have signed up in different ways. A lot of our supporters are technology guys from Bengaluru. The younger people are fed up with the mainstream system and are keen to be part of a global movement that is able to say it’s independent.

How is the situation in India progressing?

Our human rights story in India is not about this government. India has always been very ambivalent and selective in human rights discussions. It’s one of the few among large democracies still using the death penalty; it’s a country with major women’s rights [issues] and minority rights issues. None of this is new. What is new with this government is that the attacks on minorities are much more brazen than ever before.

They were so critical of [former Prime Minister] Manmohan Singh being silent and now you have a government that has been silent at the highest levels when it comes to these issues.

What is the way forward?

Some of it is long haul. It’s about schools and education, which they are unfortunately trying to change and make less fact- and evidence-based. But we need much more public discussion and debate and more prominent people need to stand up. Right now there is an atmosphere where people are really nervous to take a position and if you speak out, you are branded as anti-national.

Are you optimistic about the future?

Not in the short term. Things will get worse before they get better. But the arc of the moral universe is long and it always tilts towards justice. In the end, truth and justice prevail. People such as Duterte and Erdogan will fall on their own sword — you can’t sustain a system based on hate, toxicity and divisiveness. It’s not something you can keep propagating indefinitely. Messages of love and inclusion will prevail; history has shown that over time. But in the short term there will be major challenges.

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Printable version | May 14, 2021 10:58:45 PM |

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