The impact of a letter: Ottawa community talks Amnesty International

On Dec. 10, 2020, Amnesty International hosted its annual Write for Rights campaign—this time virtually—to encourage global activism.

Babacar Faye sits outside a coffee shop next to the University of Ottawa campus between classes. It’s his fourth year studying political science and second studying common law, and, since March, he is the first Black University of Ottawa Student Union (UOSU) president.

Faye now spends his time between classes advocating for students, but he credits his passion for advocacy to the years he spent volunteering with the university’s Amnesty International club.

“Working with organizations like Amnesty have really helped me better understand my goal of one day starting my own [non-governmental organization],” said Faye, who volunteered at the club’s campus branch from 2017 to 2019.

In an interview with The Pigeon, Faye reflected on Amnesty International’s December Write for Rights (W4R) campaign, a letter-writing campaign that originally led him to volunteer for the international charity organization.

The international W4R campaign takes place on International Human Rights Day, Dec. 10. The date marks the signing of the United Nations Declarations of Human Rights in 1948. Participants in the W4R campaign are encouraged to signs petitions protesting human rights violations and send letters or emails to those fighting for justice around the world.

Now in its 72nd year, 2020’s Human Rights Day theme is “Recover Better — Stand Up for Human Rights.

As a refugee, working with Amnesty International has helped Faye to feel less alone and foster his passion for human rights.

Born in Kamsar, Guinea, Faye and his family came to Canada as refugees in 2000, arriving in Mississauga, Ont. after years under dictatorship and fear. The move was decided after his father, a Guinean journalist, received death threats.

“It wasn’t a good situation for us to leave the country,” he said. “This was something that definitely got me personally involved with Amnesty, [as well as] having both parents involved in other conflicts and grassroots organizations.”

Faye was first drawn to Amnesty International’s uOttawa branch by the W4R campaign set up by students on campus. They handed out cards for students to fill in and encouraged them to get involved.

Faye admires the structure of W4R and how the organization collectively continues to inform, educate, and engage people in acts of solidarity and accountability for the voiceless.

“I’ve seen the positive results of sending letters through Amnesty,” he said.

Faye remembers being deeply moved by a campaign toward the release of Ahed Tamimi, the 17-year old Palestinian teen imprisoned in Dec. 2017 for slapping armed Israeli soldiers.

While the case has been contested, Tamimi said she did this after her 15-year-old cousin was shot in the head with rubber bullets by Israeli soldiers that same day. Her mother, who filmed the incident and shared it on Facebook, made the teen an international icon.

In Feb. 2018, Amnesty International encouraged its supporters to speak out against Tamimi’s arrest. They mobilized activists to sign petitions and post online.

Tamimi was released in July 2018 after an eight-month prison sentence.

“It’s hard sometimes to keep people engaged with those […] being persecuted in other countries,” Faye said. “That was something that had really grabbed my attention because we are [similar in] age.”

Photo courtesy of: Amnesty International

The W4R campaign mobilizes citizens to advocate for those directly affected by injustices and to pressure those in positions of power.

Every year, Amnesty International selects 10 ongoing worldwide human rights cases, drafts specific demands, provides the names, addresses, and social media handles of those accountable and those affected, and invites people to submit and share solidarity cards, personal letters, petitions, and online posts.

According to the organization’s 2019 W4R report, over 6.6 million actions were taken worldwide, double the previous year’s results. In Canada, activists in both French and English groups recorded 175,000 actions combined.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Amnesty International offices in over 80 countries have taken 2020’s W4R campaign online.

Available since November 20, the 10 international cases are on Amnesty International’s website with case sheets and videos with both online and Twitter actions.

One campaign calls on Saudi Arabia’s King to release Nassima Al-Sada, who was jailed in July 2018 for demanding women have the right to drive and carry out their daily lives without a male guardian.

Another encourages activists to write letters to the Algerian president and demand he free journalist Khaled Drareni, who was jailed in March for reporting on the country’s pro-democracy movement and on police violence.

A third case calls on Turkey’s minister of justice to remove all charges against 18 students who attended the Middle East Technical University and were prosecuted for participating in a campus LGBTQ2S+ Pride march.

“When we all act together, we are more powerful,” reads the Amnesty International website. “People are freed, justice is served, and the world becomes a better place. Every action counts, and these people need your help.”

Lucy Scholey works in the media relations department with Amnesty International Canada. In an email to The Pigeon, she highlighted the 2019 W4R case demanding South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit stop the death sentence of Magai Matiop Ngong, convicted of murder and sentenced to death at age 15 without a lawyer. After Amnesty sent over 765,000 messages, Ngong has since been removed from death row, with citizens calling to remove capital punishment.

Amnesty International advocacy also made national headlines at the end of October in a landmark settlement for three refugees from Eritrea allegedly forced to work at gold, copper, and zinc mines operated by Canadian company Nevsun Resources.

“Yes, letter-writing does work,” wrote Scholey. “Sometimes it requires persistence, as some countries can be more responsive than others.”

“Prison releases are one of the most dramatic examples of success, as we saw most recently when Narges Mohammadi, an Iranian human rights activist, was released from prison. There are so many examples, even from 2019 alone,” she said.

[From left to right] Alexa Bran, Menéndez, Ghitau, and Tatum Brunton. Photo by: Karli Zschogner
As Amnesty International makes an impact across the world, it’s also changing lives on campuses in Canada.

Co-president of Amnesty International uOttawa, Georgiana Ghitau, said she’s motivated to see people from all kinds of backgrounds engage with the organization. She reports that last year there were over 50 club members at uOttawa. Since this fall, that number has grown to over 80.

“I picked this club because there is so much injustice in the world and I want to be part of the people who fight it, who give a voice to those who don’t [have one],” Ghiatu said.

She’s in her third year of conflict studies and human rights at the university and is inspired by her Romanian family, who grew up under a communist regime.

David Menéndez is the club’s other co-president and has been involved since his undergraduate degree. He said Amnesty is unique compared to other international organizations because it prioritizes local grassroots leaders and decision-making while maintaining global communication and presence.

“One thing that stands out about Amnesty is that it is a movement of people across the world,” he said. “It is not just one organization or one group—it’s a whole grassroots movement united by one passion to defend human rights. It combines people from all kinds of backgrounds and ideologies.”

“It creates bridges and connects people all over the world.”

Menéndez said, as a Columbian Canadian, he focuses on Indigenous and labour rights cases involving corporations and exploitive and illegal activity. He said last year’s W4R case for Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation) youth and the decades-long impact of mercury poisoning from a pulp and paper mill resonated with him deeply.

“It becomes so difficult sometimes—it’s like Goliath versus David,” he said. “But we need to keep in mind the successes that Amnesty has made, like [W4R cases] where people, prisoners of conscience, have been released, had reduced sentences, or given comfort.”

In Amnesty International’s 2019 report, the Grassy Narrows youth campaign received an estimated 448,000 global actions. Momentum in early April secured $19.5 million for a mercury treatment centre with continued advocacy to long-term funding.

“While these success stories give us reason to celebrate, they also remind us that there is still so much human rights work to be done,” concluded Menéndez.

On Thursday, Dec. 10, Amnesty International Canada hosted an all-day interactive W4R virtual marathon. They used the virtual marathon to encourage viewers to write letters and promote discussions about global human rights.

The stream ended with a conversation between outgoing Amnesty International Secretary-General Alex Neve—who has held the position since Jan. 2000—and his successor, Ketty Nivyabandi. The conversation was moderated by CBC News Ottawa co-host Adrian Harewood and centred around Nivyabandi’s background, the COVID-19 pandemic, and Amnesty International’s future.

Nivyabandi was appointed at the end of September after Alex Neve announced he would be stepping down from the role after 20 years.

Nivyabandi, a Burundian poet, journalist, and human rights defender with a degree in international relations, has resided in Canada as a refugee since 2015 when she last faced police violence as a leading organizer of peaceful women’s protests for democratic change in her country.

She formerly held the role of advocacy and research manager at the Nobel Women’s Initiative.

Burundian-Canadian Sandra Barancira is the co-founder and former vice president of the Alliance des Burundais du Canada. She’s also a childhood friend of Nivyabandi’s.

Growing up with Nivyabandi in Bujumbura, Burundi, Banancira remembers Nivyabandi as quiet, graceful, and thoughtful. When she did speak, though, Banancira said the audience was captivated.

“She lives every injustice,” she added with a smile. “[Nivyabandi] is a dreamer and an activist. That’s a dangerous mix for an oppressor.”

Nivyabandi fills a lot of firsts for the international organization. She is the first woman, Black person, African, and refugee to become secretary-general. She told Harewood in the stream that these experiences have enhanced her skills as a human rights advocate.

“These things exposed me to a lot of realities that Canadians aren’t aware of,” she told Harewood during the live stream. “This informs how I approach this work. There’s an urgency that you feel […] when you have been in those shoes.”

“It means so much [to have this role].”

Karli Zschogner is a multimedia journalist originally from the Parry Sound region under the Huron-Robinson Treaty. She is a graduate in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from the University of Ottawa and journalism at the University of King’s College, and has been a multimedia journalism trainer in Northwestern Ontario First Nations under Journalists for Human Rights.

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