Amnesty International, 50 years old, feted in Vineyard Haven

From left, Donatella Rovera, Aliakbar Mousavi Khoeini, Ronan Farrow, Dr. Hani Mowafi, Charalyne Hunter-Gault, and Salil Shetty discussed activism abroad and the role of social media in Arab Spring revolts. — Photo by Susan Safford

Overlooking Vineyard Haven Outer Harbor, the lawn of Mike and Mary Wallace’s home was the site last Friday of a gathering to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Amnesty International. Despite a glittering guest list, it was not a fundraiser, but a chance to inform people who may be in a position to promote the organization’s mission, to protect human rights worldwide. Co-host Rose Styron was affectionately described as having “badgered” everyone to take part, and at the close she said she was “happy to ‘badger’ if this is what it produces!”

From a handful of volunteers who responded to a 1961 newspaper article called “The Forgotten Prisoners” by attorney Peter Benenson, Amnesty has grown to include three million members who are active in 150 countries worldwide.

After guests were entertained by Kate Taylor, first solo, and then with Jemima James, Charlayne Hunter-Gault moderated a discussion among a panel of experts in human rights who had a striking breadth of experience — from victim to observer. The topic was whether social media such as Facebook and Twitter have changed how people can fight repression in their own countries — and the way people elsewhere can lend support or join the struggle.

The journalists and activists from Amnesty International stressed that despite changes in technology, it was ordinary people performing real acts of bravery that led and would lead to change.

Ms. Hunter-Gault thanked Amnesty International “on behalf of journalists all over the world for telling us things we don’t know, things we ought to know, and where we need to focus” in order to keep the public informed about ongoing human rights issues around the world.

Aliakbar Mousavi Khoeini was a member of the Iranian parliament, until his advocacy for internet freedoms got him first banned from candidacy, and then put in jail and tortured for four months. Despite severe concussions, he refused to confess, and was able to escape from Iran after his release. Now he advocates lifting the sanctions the U.S. Government places on computer hardware destined for Iran, which serve, in his view, only to isolate ordinary Iranians from the internet.

Amnesty International’s Secretary General Salil Shetty, said that “the last year has seen a human rights revolution.” He pointed out that beyond the “Arab Spring” there was the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s release from jail, and the birth of a new nation, South Sudan. He said that there was no question that young people utilizing technology — the mobile phone perhaps the most effective of all — had been crucial. But, he stressed that the real impact these young people made was by “taking huge, personal risks; people taking risks, not Twitter, have brought down governments.”

Dr. Hani Muafi spoke movingly of how Amnesty International could do more than inform the outside world about human rights abuses. In his recent mission to Bahrain he learned from multiple sources about the “Pearl Roundabout” — the Tahrir Square of Bahrain — in which peaceful protesters had been gunned down by the government and then denied medical aid.

Government agents used social media successfully themselves, denying the violence and claiming pictures were Photoshopped fakes. It was only when Amnesty International came out with its detailed report on the massacre that Bahrain’s citizens understood what had happened in their own country.

Amnesty International’s Donatella Rovera discussed Libya, where Facebook served to organize a crucial protest on February 17. The whole internet was shut down in a crude move by a country she described as having a history of censorship even worse than Egypt’s. But she, too, said that “ultimately it came down to real people taking real risks. These weren’t soldiers” behind these pseudonymous internet accounts, she said, “but doctors, computer programmers, and engineers.” She herself was blasé about the constant bombardment, explaining the real fear was getting picked up by security forces for “a free ride to Tripoli.”

Next, special guest Harry Belafonte took the microphone, to cheers. Hardly one to ladle up platitudes about the importance of Amnesty International, he waded right in. “There are a lot of war criminals walking around free in the United States of America,” he said, and named names: Karl Rove, and Henry Kissinger among others. “The USA has still not signed the U.N. Resolution on the Rights of the Child. We’re afraid of making ourselves vulnerable to the World Court and the world’s opinions for the horrible things we have done — mostly in secret, but not all. We need to listen to what’s happening in these other places, but we need to think about what’s happening here.”

Mr. Belafonte went on to say we needed to be more forthright about the role of the western powers in many of the conflicts that have generated the very human rights abuses that A.I. documents, and to remember that America would lack the moral authority to complain about abuses elsewhere until it “restored the rule of law.” This met with cheers and applause, and a few gasps, though respect for his conviction and admiration for his delivery seemed universal.

Finally, as dark came on, Rose Styron and Nancy Rubin thanked the assembled for turning out, urged them to get involved, and challenged them to challenge human rights abuse, whoever perpetrates it and wherever it occurs.

Belle Waring, a writer who is visiting relatives in West Tisbury this month, lives in Singapore.