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Amnesty International: Human Rights Careers

Governments are failing to prevent serious violations of the even the most basic human rights. Activists from Amnesty International UK discuss the role of education in breaking the patterns of discrimination and hatred from which many of these abuses stem.

Politicians, commentators and celebrities and are now more likely than ever to affirm their commitment to the protection of human rights. A concept of rights figures increasingly in international and domestic legislation. While this is very welcome to activists, events in Rwanda and Kosovo serve as a painful reminder that the mere existence of legislation is almost meaningless without a more general demand for its observance.

For the human rights campaigner, knowledge of international or domestic law is a useful — if not essential — tool of trade. This may be developed in practice or through one of the numerous degree or postgraduate programmes in a related field. With this knowledge, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and individual activists can lobby for new legislation or elucidations of existing treaties. Only two decades ago there was, quite remarkably, no international agreement to prohibit torture. The adoption of the UN Convention Against Torture in 1984, as a result of lobbying by organisations including Amnesty International, is exemplary of this technique.

While an endorsement of the work of an organisation like Amnesty International by a celebrity can add to its appeal, it remains necessary for dedicated and expert fundraisers to underpin activities. In addition to their ability to raise cash, the fundraiser must also be prepared to act as a representative of the organisation. Strong analytical skills are necessary in dealing with often complex issues, as well as sensitivity to cultural and ethical concerns. These features are equally necessary for information or media liaison staff, who in addition must be aware of the requirements of news editors or the public at large.

There are exciting prospects ahead for NGOs in the future. In Rome in 1998, 160 nations committed themselves to the creation of a new permanent International Criminal Court. When up and running — hopefully within the next few years — the court will have the power to indict, apprehend and try those suspected of crimes against humanity. Not even heads of state will be immune from its jurisdiction, and future Pol Pots may have to answer all the accusations levelled against them.

Here, members of Amnesty International UK describe their experiences in three different areas of the human rights organisation:

The Campaigner
Matthew Hobson is a Crisis Response Campaigner working on issues generated by the September 11 attacks on the US. Previously he had spent the best part of a year working as a volunteer for the organisation.

After four years of postgraduate study (in an area unrelated to my present job) and three years working as a solicitor in private practice, I began volunteering in the Parliamentary Office of Amnesty International. Volunteering inevitably involved a large amount of administrative work. I was able to do work that included research work into human rights violations, lobbying the Government and MPs and meeting with Ambassadors.

For me, experience far outweighed any postgraduate study that I have done; one of the best ways you can gain experience is through volunteering. The problem is of course being able to fund yourself while gaining the necessary experience to then find paid employment at Amnesty International.

The Fundraiser
Jane Goodwin has a BA Hons Business Studies and Diploma in Marketing (Chartered Institute of Marketing). She now works within the marketing department of Amnesty International UK, which raises funds for the organisation through activities such as direct marketing appeals, helping to organise events, trading activities and — most importantly — finding new members. Jane works with the corporate sector.

On a day-to-day level my studies have been most useful when discussing sponsorship or cause-related marketing proposals with potential corporate supporters. In these instances, companies are looking for very real, measurable business benefits. Theoretical and practical experience of formulating business plans and formulating marketing strategies allows me to work with them to come up with viable proposals. From my own perspective, skills as basic as carrying out cost-benefit analysis have given me confidence to say no to offers of support which are of more benefit to the company than to Amnesty International.

In general terms my study improved my ability to research, analyse, problem-solve and communicate ideas. These skills are useful in any field, but especially useful when you are looking to find and then convince companies why they should be supporting our organisation.

Like all graduates, sometimes I’ve wondered whether four or five years of study really made a difference to my career. I do remember realising that I was repeatedly told that all you really need to understand is ‘how your consumers think’ and ‘how marketing is about creating a demand and then providing solutions’. I think you can relate that to Amnesty International’s work very neatly — it’s about making people realise that everyone has the right to basic human rights and empowering people so that they can be part of the overall solution.

The Press Officer
Neil Durkin works in the Communications Department of Amnesty International UK. He came to the organisation in 1995 as a post room volunteer and began volunteering in the press office in 1996. He has been a Press Officer for the past four years.

During an MA in the ‘Sociology of Literature’ course at the University of Essex, I became pretty well immersed in literary theory. Aspects of this are still helpful now. One course was ‘Orientalism’, based on Edward Said’s groundbreaking study into the construction of powerful (and often negative) stereotypes about the Middle East by scholars and experts in the ‘West’. This has provided a useful background to my press work, helping me to view approaches to the Middle East in journalism with what I hope is care and sensitivity.

A lot of human rights work involves balancing cultural particularity against universal values, something that a lot of my literary theory reading has helped me to do.

Sometimes the two spheres come together completely. For example, Edward Said’s present political journalism on the occupation of Palestinian territory bridges the gap between literary theory and my present work.

Overall, it is the small things from my postgraduate studies that help now. Attention to detail, care over linguistic constructions, developing communication skills and speaking in public situations like seminars.

Author: Anna Stenning, Amnesty International


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