Why Amnesty’s word still matters – #ICM2015

Normative Power Europe? Really? |

Amnesty International held its International Council Meeting (ICM) this last week in Dublin.

The Strategic Goals were the most important issue under consideration, but Amnesty delegates from all over the world also talked about internal governance nationally and internationally, fundraising, austerity, resource allocation, and the work on individual at risk, for example.

Yet, one other issue stood out: sex work. After months of preparation and internal and external discussion, Amnesty was presented with the guiding principles of a draft policy to decriminalise sex work in order to protect the rights of women and men in this sector.

The proposal had generated massive interest not only among Amnesty members, but also far beyond. Social and conventional media bustled with comments for and against the resolution, or perceptions and reinterpretations of it.

After hours of face-to-face discussion, way beyond the time initially allocated, a decision was finally made yesterday afternoon.

Let’s be clear about this: Sex work is not going to radically change Amnesty’s advocacy-oriented research. It is not and will not be a priority for Amnesty in the foreseeable future.

The truth is that the decision is far from revolutionary. Other global actors have said similar things before: Human Rights Watch, the World Health Organization, UN Women, UNAIDS, the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Health…

Many had adopted a decriminalisation approach to sex work before, but people wanted to know what Amnesty would say about it.

Why does Amnesty’s word matter?

The human rights movement is vast, and it has an array of larger and smaller, international, national and local groups within. Due to its size, history and reputation, Amnesty plays a big role in the global movement for human rights.

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But there are other important players in this movement. Many other groups uncover human rights violations, lobby governments effectively, carry out insightful research, or provide human rights education. Nevertheless, I believe one particular feature makes Amnesty unique: Amnesty is a membership based-global movement. And this does not mean that it has a lot of members (which it does); it means that these members make decisions that define the strategic direction of the movement as a whole.

Excellent legal and policy officers had drafted a proposal based on international human rights law. Yet, these human rights experts, the International Board and the world had to wait for 270 Amnesty representatives from all over the world to come up with a decision about it, assisted by 150 or so more people in the room. The decision had to be based on international human rights law, but risks and opportunities had to be assessed carefully, thinking globally and locally at the same time to come up with the best approach to defend rights-holders at risk.

This is why Amnesty’s word still matters. That is Amnesty’s secret ingredient, where its legitimacy resides. The one thing I am personally most proud of.

I write these lines from Dublin Airport, waiting for my flight back home, next to one of the guys who has been very much involved in the policy drafting. A week ago, he lived in uncertainty, and probably a bit of fear as well. Now he has an ICM decision to work from. And he is emailing Amnesty colleagues from all over the world so we can all walk together on this.

Thank you for another excellent ICM.

Koldo Casla