BY DANIEL GAMBITSIS
The Equal Justice Project interviewed Keeara Ofren, the President of Amnesty on Campus at the University of Auckland for 2017.
Amnesty International has worked since 1961 to combat human rights abuses globally in relation to armed conflict, detention, disappearances, discrimination, freedom of expression, refugees, asylum seekers, sexual and reproductive rights, torture and other areas. Amnesty researches human rights violations by governments and other groups, advocates and lobbies relevant groups and campaigns through petitions, letters, protests and other means. Amnesty is funded by everyday people and it is independent of any political ideology, economic interest or religion. Amnesty’s recent work has included bringing pressure to bear on Morocco to change the law which allowed rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims. In New Zealand, Amnesty lobbies the government and is actively educating Kiwi youth in schools.
Daniel: Hi Keeara! Could you please introduce yourself?
Keeara: Hey there, Equal Justice Project team and law students! I’m Keeara and I have been an activist with Amnesty International for about 5 years now and counting. My family is from South-East Asia. I grew up in New Zealand with my family who have always encouraged me to ask questions about the world and things that impact the way people live. My journey with Amnesty and activism in general started in high school after learning about Amnesty in a social studies class. Since then, I’ve made working towards a future of freedom and rights for the world my goal and main value. I am currently in my second year of a Law and Arts conjoint specialising in Politics and International Relations.
What does Amnesty on Campus do? How are you related to Amnesty New Zealand and Amnesty International?
Amnesty on Campus is Amnesty International Aotearoa NZ’s youth representation at our university. Our actions and campaigns are the same as those that Amnesty activists all over the world take part in. As per the Amnesty International youth network, our actions are motivated by Amnesty International’s goals of raising awareness about human rights violations around the world. It’s a call to action. We involve people from all walks of life and backgrounds in our letter writing, petitions, vigils, protests and so on.
What would you like people to know about Amnesty? Are there any common misconceptions you’d like to dispel?
At lot of the misconceptions about Amnesty International arise from a misunderstanding of the nature of our group and our purpose. For instance, I have been told by some others that they believed that the organisation was a political one, advocated intervention or was against religious beliefs. Amnesty is an apolitical organisation that is not aligned with a specific ideology, religious or political ideology. The exercise of political power may entail human rights abuses or fostering discriminatory views. So it is our duty to always question and ensure that the protection of human rights is at a reputable standard. Amnesty International’s recommendations are drafted specifically as steps that the nation in question can realistically follow. Our job is that of a watchdog. We also give hope to the victims of human rights violations.
All of our cases and yearly reports are formulated with thorough research collected from the field, from eyewitnesses and with carefully corroborated information. Our supporters have full freedom in which campaigns they participate in and the core part of Amnesty’s purpose is very much in line with the principles of looking out or others and acting with compassion.
What are your projects this year? There are so many ongoing threats to human rights in 2017: from the ongoing Syrian Civil War, President Duterte’s drug war in the Philippines, the imprisonment of journalists in Turkey and China, to Russia’s denial of the extermination of gay men in Chechnya …
What we like to do in our regular meetings is to complete tasks which are in line with current events and cases from individuals at risk of torture and ill-treatment as well as prisoners of conscience. Amnesty teams around the world cover campaigns specific to events in their nation. Amnesty on Campus has addressed the aforementioned issues in our regular discussions and also in our letter writing actions of Semester 1 this year. For Semester 2, we’ll be participating in Amnesty International’s Freedom Challenge which has a specific focus on campaigning to make the Palm Oil industry in Indonesia more sustainable, with a particular focus on worker rights.
Amnesty is known for its letter writing campaigns. How do these work, and how effective are they?
Letter writing is a key part in Amnesty action and in short, if they were not effective, they would not be an activism tactic used in Amnesty’s more than fifty-year history. The effect from protest letter writing and petitions is cumulative. Singular letters have greater effect if part of a much larger grassroots effort which is mobilized by Amnesty in each of our campaigns. Petitions and letters are given directly to authority figures in the cases of individuals or their political representation in New Zealand, such as consulates. Collective action shows that the world is a watchdog for human rights which in turn creates pressure on human rights violators in the public sphere. This works in conjunction with other methods of campaigning which culminate in international outcry and media attention from advocacy outreach, and the availability of practical recommendations for change. We also write letters to the prisoners of conscience or groups at risk to show that they are not alone, to provide hope. These get sent to the prisoners themselves or their families or legal representation. For individual cases, this could mean a reduced risk of being tortured, access to lawyers, medical care and hope for their family members and others whose rights are threatened.
In this social media generation, we are also seeing great efforts in grassroots action that allows for greater awareness and outreach.
Are there job or internship possibilities at Amnesty in the area of human rights, which is a very popular area for many Arts and Law students, in particular?
Yes! My time with Amnesty is a testament to their reputable work with youth activists. Amnesty’s approach for encouraging involvement in human rights is defined by fostering creativity and leadership. For those interested, Amnesty International Aotearoa NZ’s page has a careers page https://www.amnesty.org.nz/careers . There’s also plenty of opportunities to volunteer within our Amnesty on Campus group and with regional Amnesty community groups.
You are more than welcome to pop by to one of our meetings or follow us on social media. Our Facebook page is ‘Amnesty on Campus’ https://www.facebook.com/groups/6593111124/. Meetings are on Wednesday afternoons from 4-5. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and we are always looking to welcome members, volunteers or those wanting to learn how to change the world in their own way. As part of Amnesty on Campus, we’ll keep you in the loop about activism on campus and as part of a national group and international organisation as a whole.
Thank you so much Keeara for granting us this interview!
Thank you for involving me in this chance to talk about my passions, it’s been a great experience to be interviewed by the Equal Justice Project.
Find out how you can take action, volunteer or join Amnesty International New Zealand here: https://www.amnesty.org.nz/get-involved
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