Amnesty International UK (AIUK) could not have chosen a more youthful location for their head offices. Nestled in amongst the street art and hipster coffee bars of Shoreditch is the Human Rights Action Centre, the organisation’s hub of operations, from which they research, document and challenge human rights abuses across the world. It is here that I meet Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty International UK. Her dress is casual and colourful – a t-shirt adorned with a rainforest that morphs into a vibrant city scape – but her tone is largely serious and business-like. This well reflects the organisation itself, known for its bold use of colour and enthusiastic activists but concerned with tackling some of the deepest injustices of our time.
The global movement for defending human rights began in London when British lawyer Peter Benenson read about two Portuguese students, living under the dictator Antonio Salazar, who had been imprisoned for toasting to freedom. Incensed about the injustice of this and other actions of repressive governments, he penned a letter to The Observer newspaper arguing that, if the outrage he and other members of the public felt ‘could be united into common action, something effective could be done.’ Benenson framed his outrage in the recently developed language of human rights, and named his campaign ‘Appeal for Amnesty’. The subsequent public response was immense, sparking the birth of the organisation in earnest and creating a movement that is largely grassroots. It is in this spirit that Kate Allen, as director of Amnesty International UK, continues to work. “We completely and utterly believe that is in the power of people to make change,” she explains softly. Amnesty is “about the power of ordinary people standing up for justice.”
We completely and utterly believe that is in the power of people to make change
One might expect someone who leads an organisation concerned with fighting injustice to be in a state of permanent outrage, spouting fiery rhetoric as they go, but Allen is quietly passionate and speaks with consideration. She is clearly someone who loves and cares about her work, having been director for over 17 years now of the third largest Amnesty International section in the world. Before taking over at AIUK she had a brief stint in local government at Camden council, followed by a spell at the Refugee Council where she rose to become deputy chief executive.
Yet her tenure at AIUK hasn’t been without incident. In 2012, plans to restructure Amnesty International towards a greater focus on the global south – by opening offices in Nairobi, Johannesburg, Bangkok and Hong Kong – saw Allen implement cuts of £2.5 million to AIUK and resulted in over 40 redundancies. Workers went on strike and there were calls for her resignation over these plans. “We’ve gone through some really big and, for us, very difficult change,” Allen comments. But she stresses that “as a movement I think we’re in a brilliant place.” It strikes me that Amnesty seems torn between its local activist base and its strong roots in London on the one hand, and its international activism and growing presence around the world on the other. Allen herself is relentlessly outward in her outlook and in her ambitions for Amnesty to become a “global movement”, and this strikes at the heart of the disputes that took place. This is not to say, however, that she ignores her local activist base. Allen regularly engages with groups across the UK and before I‘d even sat down Allen had already asked me about the progress of the university’s Amnesty group.
Amnesty seems torn between its local activist base and its strong roots in London on the one hand, and its international activism on the other
I ask if, even in the face of the mass human rights violations that she has documented over her years, is she still an optimist. “Yes, absolutely,” she asserts. “You cannot not be.” Allen believes, for instance that actions documenting the human rights abuses in North Korea are not futile, that they send a message that “the world is watching … and the day will come” when North Korea no longer has an authoritarian government. She is positive and brimming with enthusiasm as she turns to consider the alternative. “The opposite is that you do nothing. And as Amnesty we refuse to be in a position where we do nothing. Regimes change, we see governments crumble, we see things happen that are unexpected. You have to push away, even at the most intractable problems like North Korea. You cannot give up.”
even at the most intractable problems like North Korea. You cannot give up
Allen is in full flow: “we do see change and we see some pretty brilliant change in the world, and some of it that we’ve been responsible for as Amnesty – whether it’s people who have been released from prison or off death row; whether its changes in laws or attitudes – that is something we are part of and I see that all the time too.”
This isn’t an immodest claim for Allen to make. Most recently, over 200,000 Amnesty members took action to pressure for the release of Chelsea Manning , which happened with just days to go before the end of Barack Obama’s presidency. Amnesty members also campaigned passionately for the release of US prisoner Albert Woodfox from prison after over 40 years in solitary confinement, a period of time which Amnesty claims amounts to torture. More broadly, the organisation’s pressure for a global Arms Trade Treaty and against the use of the death penalty has seen great success over its history.
Though despite these successes and despite Kate Allen’s optimism, it is clear that the environment for those defending human rights is still challenging. According to a report by NGO Front Line Defenders, 281 human rights activists were killed last year, and over 1000 were harassed, detained, or subjected to smear campaigns and other violations. “What we are witnessing today is a full-frontal assault by governments, armed groups, corporations and others with power on the very right to defend human rights,” says Salil Shetty, Secretary-General of Amnesty International. The words feature in a recent briefing entitled ‘Human rights defenders under threat – a shrinking space for civil society’, released to accompany the start of the new campaign BRAVE, conducted to detail and defend the position of human rights activists across the world. This gives some indication of the organisation’s concern for present trends. “We’re needed as much, if not more, than ever,” Allen accepts, as she begins to express her worries about the “rising populism” of Trump, Duterte and Erdogan with the latter of these figures a specific focus of Amnesty at the moment.
the environment for those defending human rights is still challenging
Over the summer two members of Amnesty’s top staff in Turkey were detained along with other activists, in a move that Allen condemns as indicating “the collapse of any rule of law”. “Allegations against them are ones of assisting terrorism and espionage,” she continues. “These are ludicrous charges.” At this point Allen sits slightly awkwardly in her chair, almost tilted at 45 degrees, shifting slightly every couple of sentences. Her words in contrast, remain composed and deliberate. She commends Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson who publicly called for the activist’s release in early August. “We’ve had very good support from the British government, the US government, the French government and the German government […] we’re talking about what to do next.” I ask about if the West should be doing more to pressure Turkey. Allen swiftly corrects me: “I don’t think it’s just about the West, I think it’s about the world, and wherever there is influence I think that that influence should be used with President Erdogan and others. So that’s what we’ll try to do.”
Amnesty also hopes to use this same influence in the political behemoth of the moment, Brexit. I ask what Amnesty is aiming for from this process. Allen explains that they are encouraging the government to make decisions about leaving the EU whilst bearing in mind human rights, not just “when [it] feels like it or when it’s easy”. She particularly expresses concerns about a Brexit Britain, in which “trade deals takes precedence over everything else”, namely at the expense of human rights. She cites the current government policy of arms sales to Saudi Arabia as an example of what Amnesty wishes to prevent. “At the moment we see the government selling arms to Saudi Arabia. We know that they’re being used in war crimes in Yemen.” For Allen, these arms sales provide evidence that the UK government is willing to put trade ahead of human rights in the future and fuel worries that leaving the EU framework will leave people unable to challenge a government’s human rights record. “If it’s just the UK, and it’s desperate for trade and it’s not part of a union that is critical about human rights … is [the UK] going to be critical?”
they are encouraging the government to make decisions about leaving the EU whilst bearing in mind human rights
I ask if, given the uncertainty in the world and all we’ve talked about today, she believes in the idea of inevitable progress. Kate Allen smiles and, recalling the day before spent giving interviews about North Korea, says “I think there is still a lot for us to do.”