This speech was prepared for the first meeting of the Columbia University Amnesty group, where I served as webmaster for one year. It was intended as an introduction to the world of Amnesty International including some of the history behind the organization.
Hi everyone and welcome to the first meeting. First of all, can everyone understand what I’m saying ok, is my voice clear enough? As you may have surmised from the way I speak, I’m not from around here. I’m from further south… 86th street, as a matter of fact.
“Open your newspaper any day of the week and you will find a story from somewhere of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions are unacceptable to his government, The newspaper reader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if these feelings of disgust could be united into common action, something effective could be done.” So said Peter Benenson in his article “The Forgotten Prisoners”, published May 28th 1961 after he was incensed days earlier reading in a newspaper of a pair of Portuguese students who had raised their glasses in a toast to freedom and been imprisoned for seven years without trial for their troubles.
His article called on readers to write letters to free, or at the very least demand prompt and fair trial for so-called “prisoners of conscience”, people imprisoned for their beliefs, be they religious or merely politically inconvenient, and who have not used or advocated violence. The campaign: “Appeal for Amnesty 1961” snowballed into a permanent, international movement with over a million card-carrying members (and many, many more supporters) in over 150 countries around the world which we now know as “Amnesty International”. The mandate of the movement has also expanded beyond prisoners of conscience (which only address articles 18 and 19 of the UDHR) to include all human rights abuses as defined in the UDHR. In 1977, Amnesty International was awarded the Nobel Peace prize.
Our vision is of a world in which every person enjoys all the human rights enshrined in the UDHR and other human rights instruments. This may seem a lofty and impossible goal, but it is known that in about one third of our letter-writing cases alone, an improvement is reported. Good results notwithstanding, letters from Amnesty supporters are a source of inspiration and hope, and when you are stuck in a jail cell with no guarantee that anybody knows of your whereabouts, inspiration and hope are in desperately short supply. A prisoner of conscience who I spoke to once related the feeling to me thus: “getting a letter from Amnesty is like being a thirsty man wandering the desert for days and finally finding a drop of water”.
Yet, in spite of the success of this organization, our task is enormous, and good results aren’t always immediate or forthcoming. But why do nothing when we can do a little? I, for one, couldn’t imagine a world without Amnesty International, I don’t think I’d want to live in it.
So I leave you with this: I challenge you all to think about how you can make a lasting contribution, however small, to humanity as a whole for it is your responsibility, your duty, to use your voice, as I have just used mine, to speak up for those who, through no fault of their own, have no voice.
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