Every year, students from across the UK gather at the Human Rights Action Centre (Amnesty UK HQ) for the Student Conference, organized by the Student Action Network. The conference is a chance to listen to some immensely interesting panels, participate in workshops and meet fellow Amnesty activists. Last weekend, some of the LSESU Amnesty International Society committee members had the pleasure of attending this event.
On Saturday morning we participated in the plenary on My Body My Rights campaign, with a special focus on barriers to accessing abortion services in Ireland. This year, Amnesty is focusing its campaign on pressuring the Irish government to decriminalise abortion in Ireland. At present, seeking a termination – even on the grounds of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality – could get a woman 14 years in prison. This leads to situations where women are forced to pay to travel to the UK to get an abortion. On top on travel and accommodation costs, the procedure itself can cost as much as 2000 euros; the system is therefore disproportionately cruel towards poor women. Ruth Bowie (a nurse who spoke out publically about travelling for a termination for fatal foetal abnormality and co-founded Termination For Medical Reasons), Emma Campbell (Alliance for Choice Belfast) and Donagh Stenson (British Pregnancy Advisory Service) shared with us their experiences with both advocacy and lobbying, as well as with working directly with Irish women who have to seek abortion outside of their country, where doing so would make them criminals. The plenary was followed by workshops dedicated to different Amnesty campaigns: My Body, My Rights, Stop Torture and Save the Human Rights Act, among others. The workshops were a great opportunity to share experiences and brainstorm ideas on how to campaign more effectively on our campuses.
In the afternoon, the most exciting bit of the day started. The representative for Amnesty International Secretariat briefed us on the case of Albert Woodfox, an American man who had been held for 43 years in solitary confinement (meaning spending 23 hours a day in a 6×9 cell). His case has been ongoing for decades and the conviction of murder (lacking the support of any physical evidences and relying on testimonies from bribed witnesses) has been overturned twice before, but every time authorities of the state of Louisiana appealed, re-indicted him and managed to keep him in solitary. All conference participants thus took to the streets of London to photograph themselves with a cardboard cut-out of Albert in front of famous London sights (Tower Bridge, London Eye and Big Ben). The goal was to highlight that Albert should be free to travel the world, instead of being kept in solitary confinement. The action ended in front of the US embassy, where we photo-petitioned and called for Albert’s immediate release. The pictures will be send to Albert to express our solidarity and will also be used to keep putting pressure on the state of Louisiana authorities.
Sunday, the second day of the conference, started with the plenary on the Refugee Crisis; Steve Symonds, the AI UK refugee and migrant rights programme director, talked about the current crisis, the lack of coherent European response and the tragic repercussion the situation continues to have on the lives of thousands of desperate people fleeing war and persecution. There was second session of workshops, and then it was time for the STAN Committee elections. Each university group could vote on who they wanted to see as their new representatives for the Amnesty students in the coming year. We, at LSESU Amnesty, were quite happy that most of the candidates we voted for got elected J.
The election was followed by a panel on the Human Rights Act, where Laura Trevelyan talked to us about the importance of the Act and how Amnesty UK is campaigning to save it. We then heard from Jan Sutton, an amazingly inspirational woman who experienced first-hand how vital HRA is in everyday life. She talked to us about her experience using the Act and subsequently campaigning to save it. At the end, Laura reminded us of how important it is to continue putting pressure on our local MPs to support the Act: remember everyone, lobbying is vital so write to you MPs right now if you haven’t done so already! (Also, remember that our second campaign of the year will focus on Saving the Human Rights Act – it will get kicked off November 30th!)
In the afternoon, we participated in the Annual General Meeting, where we voted on motions including the support of the Student Conference for the change of Amnesty stance of abortion to “pro-choice” (which was preceded by a very interesting and, at times quite controversial, debate). The Conference also recognized the importance of climate change as a human rights issue.
The last plenary of the day concerned workers’ rights and Amnesty’s engagement with the trade unions movement. Shane Enright, the AI UK Gobal Trade Unions Adviser, explained the importance of trade unions and how unions have always been at the forefront of the fight for socio-economic rights. He shared his experiences with campaigning on behalf of trade unionists all over the world, and encouraged us to think about how we as students can collaborate more with the unions. Last year, Amnesty launched a campaign to free Mahdi Abu Dheeb, the head of a Bahraini teachers’ union, sentenced to 10 years of prison in 2011 following the uprising in Bahrain; this year, the National Union of Teachers and UNITE have pledged their support to the campaign. Shane urged us to remember that collaboration is the key to success and that we should always be looking for partners in campaigning so as to increase the impact and visibility of our activities.
Overall, the conference was an amazing event, full of inspirational conversations and a fantastic, creative exchanges of ideas. Meeting with fellow Amnesty activists has once again reminded us how big the Amnesty movement is and how many people share our commitment to human rights and social justice. The conference has inspired and motivated all of us to make sure that our Society continues the great work it’s doing and continues to be a platform for all LSE students to engage with human rights and be a part of the change that Amnesty activities bring to the real world.
Aga Maciejewska and Lily Chamberlain, Guest Contributors