In a world dominated by the pressures of realpolitik, it can be difficult, and sometimes seem naïve, to raise the question of human rights. Yet there are many organisations and activists who do not flinch from raising awkward questions. One such person is Agnès Callamard.
In 2021, she became Secretary General of Amnesty International, having previously worked as Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council. In this article, the first of two exclusive interviews she gave to Geneviève Talon for West England Bylines, Agnès tackles the evils of this world head on, from the politics of oil in the wake of the Ukraine war and the migrant crisis to the patriarchal system that undermines women everywhere.
Geneviève Talon (GT): As Britain and other democracies try to reduce their dependency on Putin’s oil, they instead talk to Saudi Arabia and other countries with an equally objectionable human rights record. Is this inevitable?
Agnès Callamard (AC): Yes, this is what Biden, Macron and Johnson have done. The first thing to highlight, though, is that it does not work. We are selling out our values and human rights protection for nothing in exchange. There is this notion that you can get something by reducing human rights expectations but in fact, the opposite happened. Saudi Arabia is supporting Russia and has decreased its oil production. It has become emboldened and more repressive. In August, a young woman activist, a student in the UK, was jailed for 45 years for using Twitter. They have executed 120 people in the first six months of 2022, nearly double the number put to death in all of last year despite promises to reduce capital punishment. Selling out on human rights values does not work for people of either our country or the other country.
Secondly, what drives these strategies is a very narrowly conceived national interest. If we look at Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, or crises such as climate or inequality, none can be solved through bilateral talks. Food insecurity, energy shortages or Russian aggression won’t be tackled by one country alone. You need not even just a Western coalition but a real global coalition.
Going back to the example of Russia, which I’ve worked on personally: there is a strong view in many countries in the global South (Africa, Asia, Latin America) that the Western world has double standards, and that, for example, currently, it only cares about Ukraine, not about Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, etc. How can we criticise them? When Biden, Macron or Johnson court Saudi Arabia, Israel or Qatar, they are neglecting actors in the global South. Western governments are only now starting to work towards creating a truly international coalition against Russia’s aggression of Ukraine. Eight months have been wasted during which time Russia’s disinformation campaigns have done much damage.
The Western world’s double standards are destructive of our capacity to find global solutions to the global problems we are confronting, whether they are the product of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, climate change, rampant global inequality or food and oil crises.
GT: On International Women’s Day this year, Amnesty International spoke of a ‘dramatic deterioration in respect for women’s rights and gender equality’. Why do we still have to fight for women’s human rights in 2022?
AC: We live in countries which, independently of their different cultures, are still heavily patriarchal. Patriarchy is transmitted from one generation to the next through families, individuals and institutions and perpetuated through laws and policies. Whilst we do fight back and rights have improved in many parts of the world, we certainly haven’t reached a stage when we can claim equality of rights or of opportunities. At the heart of the problem is the fact that human societies are organised according to a patriarchal system which will take a great deal of time and energy to debunk.
It is proving difficult because patriarchy strengthens the interests of large parts of the population. It works for men at home because they don’t have to do the work that women do. It works for men in the workplace because they tend to have better salaries and more power than women. It also works for men in politics because they’re more likely to be elected, supported and promoted. Religion, culture, tradition, economy all work together to reinforce the key messages and mechanics of patriarchy.
Moreover, the fight against patriarchy is never won once and for all. We are witnessing a backlash against women’s rights in many countries, including the Western world. Even in the US, where women have fought for decades for human rights, they are now confronting attacks on reproductive rights, women’s equality, including in the workplace, etc. Women’s rights are being demonised and associated with cultural warfare. The fight for women’s rights is never linear and right now, globally, we may be closer to a ‘down’ than an ‘up’, including in our own country. Patriarchy serves the interests of many and so we are fighting against some of the strongest, best-established forces in the world. That is why it is so difficult.
GT: We are facing a serious migrant and refugee crisis. How do nation states reconcile national interest with the need to address the mass displacement of people because of persecution and/or climate change?
AC: Quite simply, it is in the national interest to be generous to migrants and refugees. We live in a part of the world with an ageing demographic and we are suffering from a labour shortage in almost every aspect of our daily lives, from medical care to transport, hospitality, and so on. It is in the interest of the Western world to have proactive and generous policies regarding migrants and refugees, and not just those who bring money but also those who provide the labour required for our societies to function. We all benefit from the tremendous energy and drive which migrants or refugees bring, along with diversity. It is therefore also in the national interest not to close the border. And it is the right thing to do. People who face persecution have the right to seek asylum and we have an obligation to provide them with the opportunity to rebuild their lives in safety.
How do we do it? I concede that some people feel alarmed at the numbers of refugees that are arriving now. But the harsh measures adopted by governments against refugees are usually not very effective because they result in people taking more risks to come anyway. This is why we are saying “look, we need to work with refugees and migrants, and develop and implement policies that allow for labour shortages to be tackled through regular migration, and that offer people some alternatives to persecution and repression at home and those terrifying sea crossings”.
GT: What was perceived as a lax attitude towards migration caused a backlash in the UK and this is partly what landed us with Brexit. Isn’t there a danger that this perception will continue to be disruptive?
AC: Maybe, but let’s look at the outcome: people are facing a difficult economic situation because Brexit has delivered labour shortages. It was such a short-sighted, emotional, frankly quite racist drive that pushed people to support Brexit. But it was not in the national interest or in the interest of most people, for example, elderly people who now don’t have enough carers. So, we need to be more rational about those issues. Migrants in Western countries are playing a major role in economic growth by remedying labour shortages and giving major impulses to the economy and society.
GT: Finally, on a more personal note, what was your professional journey as a woman?
AC: I have experienced sexism in every workplace, on official visits to various countries, in conferences and meetings, in my UN position, at Amnesty and so on. Patriarchy and sexism are everywhere, as is racism. Whether overt or indirect, it is disturbing and highly damaging.
Very early on in my life, anger was my first response to the sexism I experienced or witnessed around me. Later, through readings, my professors at University, other students and friends, I learned about sexism as a violation of human rights and a stratification of society. I must be prepared to fight against sexism and patriarchy, just as I fight against racism.
Sexism has made me angry, sad, sometimes depressed, but I’ve always fought back. The reality is that you have to work harder than many men so you just do it – for yourself and for the women around you and those who will come after you. Just fight back and don’t let them define who you are; don’t let them tell you what you can and cannot do, where you can and cannot go. You have to make your own journey and to do so, you need to be prepared to fight, and be strong and determined.
GT: You told us how at a personal level, war and war crimes in particular have cast a long shadow over your life. One of the most formative experiences of your youth was the annual commemoration of the execution of your grandfather, a member of the French Résistance, who died at the hands of the Nazis in the Vercors maquis on 15 August 1944. We can see how this memory has fed into your personal and professional commitment to the rule of law and the protection of human rights. Thank you!
Ed: Look out for Part Two of this interview which will be published shortly.
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