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VICE News Talks Human Rights with Salil Shetty, the Head of Amnesty International

We sat down with Amnesty International's chief to review a productive week at the UN General Assembly and discuss various aspects of the global fight for human rights.

by Samuel Oakford
Sep 29 2014, 10:25pm

Photo via Amnesty International

Terrorism and the threat posed by the Islamic State dominated the first week of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Countries large and small paid lip service to an agenda dictated by the United States and its allies. On Wednesday, as American war planes bombarded Syria without UN authorization, US President Barack Obama oversaw a packed session of the Security Council that saw unanimous passage of a resolution demanding that countries stem the tide of "foreign terrorist fighters."

The following day, eight countries ratified the Arms Trade Treaty, a landmark UN agreement that for the first time requires signatories to track the transfer of conventional weapons — everything from assault rifles and artillery to tanks and fighter jets — in order to prevent their use in atrocities and war crimes.

The question of human rights was a unifying element in these matters. VICE News sat down with Salil Shetty, the Indian-born secretary general of Amnesty International, one of the world's oldest and best-known human rights organizations. Amnesty recently issued reports on topics as disparate as China's unbridled security industrial complex and the deadly results of El Salvador's total ban on abortion.

Our discussion ranged from the Arms Trade Treaty to China's "peculiar understanding" of human rights and development, as well as the conflict in Ukraine and the failures of the UN's Millennium Development Goals to incorporate human rights as a central tenet.

'We have to link development to human rights in a very explicit way.'

VICE News: You've been the Amnesty International's secretary general since 2010. Tell us about your background and how you arrived there.
Salil Shetty: 
I come from India, which is where I spent most of my life. My father is an activist and journalist mainly fighting for Dalit human rights — for the untouchable community — and minority rights. My mother was a women's rights activist. I grew up at a time when the country had a political emergency under Indira Gandhi in 1976, when all political and civil rights were suspended.

Then I worked in Kenya under the repressive Moi regime. The whole issue of human rights was very central. I come from a lot of work in poverty, economic social rights, and denial of those rights, so I think Amnesty was a kind of natural place to work.

In the last four years, you've made efforts to decentralize Amnesty's operations, opening more offices in various regions and relocating staff from your headquarters in London. Why is decentralization important for Amnesty, and more broadly, for human rights reporting in general?
We are moving our resources closer to where human rights violations are perpetrated so that we can respond quickly, more effectively, and stand with the victims of these violations. The world is much more multi-polar today, and it's important for us to challenge the perception that human rights is a Western imposition by being closer to the sites of struggle.

Eight more countries ratified the Arms Trade Treaty on Thursday, meeting the 50-nation threshold for implementation. It will take effect in December, though some countries haven't signed or ratified it. Amnesty has been very supportive of the treaty. Why is it so important?
This is a campaign that Amnesty has been running for 20 years, along with a whole coalition of other organizations. It's really historic. This is so important given where the world is today: what's happening in Russia and Ukraine, what's happening in Iraq and Syria….

For the first time there is a treaty that says that before any shipment, any trade or transfer of funds, there has to be due diligence to make sure the arms don't end up in the hands of the wrong people using them for abuses. So it's a very laudable treaty. Of course, like all treaties, signing it is one thing — the challenge is its implementation. We can't forget the fact that only half the countries actually signed up to it, and only about a quarter have ratified out of the 193 [UN members], so we still have a long way to go.

The good thing is the biggest arms exporters in Europe have all signed up. The US hasn't, and China and Russia haven't. It gives us a rather slim victory nevertheless.

'There's no question that Western countries have used human rights selectively, and that they have serious double standards.'

Russia and China haven't signed the treaty, and the US hasn't ratified it. What happens to shipments from Russia and China to, say, a country in Africa that hasn't signed this agreement?
It's not a panacea. The ATT creates peer pressure, particularly if a large number of countries sign up. I think China is getting more and more into the international game. That's why it's interesting that they're sending peacekeepers to South Sudan. They're becoming part of the international community more than before.

Russia recently wrote to Hungary in the context of Ukraine asking the Hungarian government not to send arms to Ukraine because Ukraine will use it for human rights abuses. They actually specifically referred to the ATT. Russia is also signatory to other agreements that have the same principals as the ATT, so you kind of have a strange contradiction there. Hopefully there is some opening in their thinking.

The US announced a policy directive in January of this year, which actually has all the elements that we are pushing for in the ATT. So I'm hopeful. Let's not forget that when the International Criminal Court and Rome statute came about, a lot of countries didn't sign, but subscription has grown.

I always say this when we have conversations with Russia and China: there's no question that Western countries have used human rights selectively, and that they have serious double standards. That shouldn't become an excuse for China and Russia and developing countries who don't want to observe human rights to continue to do what they do.

The US is completely silent when Saudi Arabia and Bahrain violate human rights. When it's Iran, they start jumping up and down. But Bahrain and Saudi Arabia they don't mind.

North Korea just released a report lauding its own human rights record that made this point as well. How has this double standard harmed the cause of groups like Amnesty?
For human rights writ large, there certainly is a problem. It's seen as a Western agenda. That's why I'm very keen to build this in a much more bottom-up way. I mean, if you take the way in which the US is dealing with Guantanamo Bay, if you look at the drone attacks they have in Pakistan, as such this whole "war on terror" business — they've just created their own rules. It's a complete breach of most international human rights laws.

This month, Amnesty put out a report about the Chinese industry that produces "tools of torture."
China and human rights has always been a kind of challenge in itself. On the one hand you've had amazing economic success, so that's helped tens of millions of people come out of poverty. I wouldn't want to minimize the importance of that, because we do believe that poverty and human rights are deeply and inextricably linked. Having said that, on the civil political rights side they have a very peculiar understanding of how they're going to sustain this development. Our view is you might be able to get bursts of development and economic growth — and that's as true in a place like Rwanda as it is in China. You can get structured economic development, but you end up with huge inequality and ultimately an unstable situation.

So on this question of the torture equipment, there has been a kind of massive increase if you compare it with what was produced even ten years ago. There were only about 30 companies manufacturing what I would call torture equipment. Now there are 130, and it's totally unregulated. This is linked very much to their idea of economic growth at any cost. You can manufacture whatever, you can trade whatever.

It's things like electric shock, stun batons, metal batons that have spikes on them, which are really inhumane — cruel equipment. We've called for a complete ban on those. For more legitimate law enforcement equipment like tear gas and those kinds of things, we're calling for them to be sent on a precautionary basis, which means there has to be some due diligence.

Amnesty has outspokenly called for an arms embargo on South Sudan. The ATT seems like a prime example of where this might be effective.
In South Sudan the situation has really gotten out of control. We have tens of thousands of people in camps. We still have arms flowing liberally, and the South Sudanese government seems to be completely irresponsible in the way they're dealing with the crimes and human rights abuses happening. We called for a comprehensive arms embargo against South Sudan a while ago.

I think the fact that the ATT has come in force will put some additional pressure on that. Of course, we cannot forget the Chinese involvement in South Sudan, which is kind of interesting. On the one hand they've recently announced they're actually going to send peacekeepers; on the other they recently sent a massive shipment of arms to the South Sudanese government. So we're very concerned about the situation there, and we feel it's something that the Security Council should push through.

What do you think should be in the international response in Syria and Iraq?
Our views have been consistent. There has to be sanctions against the Assad regime, and now increasingly you have other forces. You call for a comprehensive arms embargo and a referral to the International Criminal Court. If the Russians and the Americans and the Europeans blame different sides, the ICC referral is not for one side — if everyone is blaming the other, let's have an independent process. Unless you have accountability and justice, you're not going to find a solution to the problem. So now you have the Islamic State doing one set of war crimes. Western powers are going to bomb them, you are in a cycle of violence.

What of the US decision to bomb Syria?
We don't take a view on wars, but our call is that given what's happened in the past, if there is going to be bombing such as what has already started, protection of civilians has to be paramount, otherwise you are creating a cycle of violence. We've gone through this time and again.

Do you think the US and its allies will protect civilians?
If you go by what they did in Afghanistan, completely not. We've done a detailed report recently on the killing of civilians by US forces in Afghanistan. Their track record is extremely poor. There's no reason for any confidence.

You wrote recently about the UN's Millennium Development Goals — eradicating extreme hunger and poverty, achieving universal primary education, reducing child mortality, etc. — and how they failed to incorporate concerns about human rights. What did the framers of these goals miss in 2000, and what do we need to incorporate in the post-2015 agenda?
When the MDGs started, people said this was one of the most useless set of things, one more set of UN declarations. But actually, if you look back, there have been significant achievements — no one can deny that. There are lots of weaknesses and problems, but let's in no way understate the achievement of the goals. It's created a unified goal of shared purpose.

But the goals are all separately stuck; there is no interconnection between them. They are seen as eight independent goals. But poor people, human beings don't live like that. They don't have "Health," "Education," and "Environment." That's how ministries and the UN are organized — human beings are not. So there needs to be an integrated approach, and the glue between all the pieces has to be the rule of law, has to be human rights, has to be inclusive development, participation. These are the core principles, and that's not coming through.

Irrespective of whatever goals you're going to end up with post-2015, there needs to be a floor. There are already existing human rights treaties, so for any goals, those should be the floor. That means once it's taken from a human rights framework, there is enforceability and accountability. There needs to be a remedy. If it doesn't have justice, it can't work.

Can you point to an example of this?
There are many, many cases. Take the example of forced evictions of slum dwellers. You have a great goal of improving slum conditions, but if you look at the number of forced evictions that have happened — we've documented case by case — it was a ridiculous target to begin with. A hundred million slum dwellers were to be given housing. If you don't link that to the right to adequate housing, all you have is evictions. So in order to achieve a goal, you kind of take shortcuts.

We've documented [forced evictions] in Kenya, in Nigeria, Cambodia, and many parts of the world. It's even in Europe, when it comes to communities like Roma.

Take Tunisia, for example. Tunisia was hailed as a great success: the highest economic growth rate in the region, MDGs almost all achieved. You should read the reports for Tunisia. It's delusional. The whole place is blowing up. If you don't connect civil and political rights with economic rights, then you're failing.

South Sudan seems like an acute case. They were so focused on constructing water wells while the government was a kleptocracy riven with divisions.
The society is fractured and they don't have institutions in place. This idea that you can just independently keep digging wells or running schools — it's as if that's happening on a different planet. This is the problem that I have with Rwanda and Ethiopia as well. They are very strong on the development side, and hats off to them. I've seen the work they do. Relatively low corruption, very delivery focused. A lot of the problem with the goals is the delivery and implementation is poor. But they are brilliant at that. But if anybody has the slightest dissent, they will be jailed. This is ridiculous. You had a point in Ethiopia where almost all the elected members of parliament were in jail.

You just returned from El Salvador. Amnesty released a report last week on the total abortion ban there.
If you look at the MDGs that we did badly on, they were all ones related to structural discrimination against women, which is precisely why the maternal mortality rate goal has not done well. So in El Salvador, with the total ban on abortion, approximately 30,000-40,000 women go through unsafe abortions every year. Ten percent or so of them lose their life. That's equivalent to torture, the pain and suffering they go through. We're saying this is a breach of the UN convention on torture, Article 2 and Article 16. El Salvador goes and signs the UN Convention Against Torture in one place and violates it in another, so it's a very disjointed way of looking at it. Abortion is one of the biggest causes of high maternal mortality. If you don't deal with the issue of sexual reproductive rights of women, how are you going to achieve the MDGs? We have to link development to human rights in a very explicit way.

This was also true for people with disabilities. They didn't have a place in the MDGs.
They always say everyone should have equal opportunity, but that means you have an equal starting point. If people have different starting points and everyone runs the same race, it doesn't make sense. There's a definite inequity that is seen.

Earlier this month you travelled to Moscow and Kiev. Amnesty found evidence of both Russian encroachment in Ukraine and war crimes taking place in eastern Ukraine. What's your sense of the situation there?
You have war crimes on both sides. For Ukraine, most of the violations are taking place in the volunteer battalions. It looks like the Ukrainian military and police don't have any control over them. I think the Ukrainian government is now acknowledging there is a problem and they have to deal with it.

The Russians are sending denials that they are involved, which seems to be the most ridiculous thing. You have Russian soldiers taking selfies and putting them on Facebook with geolocation. You have secret funerals happening. You have a demonstration in Moscow last week against the war. That's because people are losing family members and they're coming out….

You have abductions, extortions, all of these kind of crimes that are happening on both sides. Again, if you don't have investigations, if you don't have accountability on both sides, it's going to lead to a spiral of violence and conflict.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford