After quite a few months of preparation, the Amnesty International Societies of London were proud to present the second annual Student Conference, which took place on Saturday 1st February 2014. The venue for the conference was Queen Mary’s University and the action for the day would take place in front of the Russian Embassy in Kensington Gardens.
As soon as I got there the SU building was crowded with keen Amnesty student activists who had brought their own slogans and placards ready for the action. We were delighted to have the very articulate Aidan MacQuade give the first plenary on Child slavery. Aidan is the director of Anti-slavery International, which is the world’s oldest international human rights organisation. Anti-slavery International focuses on the fight against slavery at a local, national and international level. He told us the difference between child labour and child slavery, and how the number of child slaves is still the same as it was five years ago and will continue to stay constant unless change is brought forward by society and the state.
A lot of the children are enslaved due to cultural and poverty reasons so it is harder than ever to bring about this change, which is why even now, many multinational corporations exploit children to make garments and products for trade.
The second inspiring talk was given by Dr Richard Mole, who is a lecturer at UCL, and has done research on Russia and the Baltic State. He gave a brief introduction to our focus for the day, which was LGBT Rights in Russia. His work has been centred on the relationship between identity and power, with reference to inter-cultural relations, gender and sexuality.
The talk turned into more of a discussion with students asking questions on Russia and its leadership as well as what can be done to change the fact that 70% of Russians are still against LGBT Rights. The fact that only around 7% of Russians are acquainted with LGBT people confirms Dr Mole’s view that change needs to happen, and by having events such as our student conference and campaigns, this can be brought about. After his talk, he told me about how he spent a year campaigning with LGBT activists in Berlin to help those in Russia by offering funding and solidarity and his means used to create this normative change really inspired me.
The highlight of the day for me was after lunch when the legendary Mr Dan Jones came to the conference armed with many placards, a YouTube video and printed verses in Russian and English for our protest song. We then proceeded to learn the chant in Russian with the second half in English, and began practicing our deep voices. After donning high visibility jackets and splitting into organised groups, we made our way to the Russian embassy to start the protest.
The action on LGBT Rights in Russia was on the broad topic of protesting against the restriction on freedom of expression experienced by the LGBT community in Russia. The slogans carried by the students in our party varied from ‘Love is a Human Right’ to ‘Love Russia. Hate Homophobia’. The LSESU Amnesty International society even carried a massive cloth banner, which we had made in the week prior to the protest, and we were able to display this at the front of the protest, to the eyes of the public. Chanting along to our Russian song which we had practiced religiously on the tube (to the surprise and entertainment of commuters) brought a sense of unity and solidarity to all of us and as the afternoon progressed, we continued as a unit to belt out verses and chants such as:
‘Hey! Ho! Homophobia’s got to go!’ We were even fortunate to collaborate with the NUS so the number of protestors continued to grow (as did the volume on the loudspeaker).
After an incredibly powerful and enjoyable protest, which was very well planned out and executed, we headed back to Queen Mary’s for our final event on the packed schedule, which was a student-led debate on Freedom of speech. The London presidents presented the arguments for and against freedom of speech regarding issues such as the NSA, Ukraine and China. One that drew a lot of attention was the topic of ‘Blurred Breasts’, which was presented by Kit Lawrence from St George’s, and focussed on the mixed messages of the song ‘Blurred Lines’ and societies sexualisation of women in venues such as Page 3. The presentations were followed by a lively discussion, which we continued in the Globe pub for the student social after the conference.
During the day, I learnt a lot about LGBT and Children’s rights, about how to sing in Russian and grab attention in a protest effectively, and I had a great time mingling with students across London universities while actively campaigning and participating in what I believe has been my best Amnesty conference yet.