The power of words in a silent world

Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Awards – Berlin, 21 May 2015



21 May 2015

By Steve Crawshaw, Director of the Office of the Secretary General at Amnesty International

It sometimes feels that the world divides into two sorts of people.

There are those who insist that positive change, through the actions of individuals, is unlikely or unachievable. And there are those who remain convinced that change can – perhaps, somehow, sometime – be achieved, and they will take risks to get there.

The sceptics love to deride those who believe in the possibilities of change as “naïve”.

In my lifetime, I have heard intelligent people give persuasive explanations as to why anti-apartheid protests would never achieve much in South Africa (the regime was said to be too strong); why protests in eastern Europe could never end Communist one-party rule (ditto); and why protests in Burma against the brutal ruling junta would change nothing there (ditto). On each of those points, the sceptics were proved wrong. The local and global pressures combined to make change inevitable.

In that context – if or when change comes to Hong Kong — it will be interesting to see how Margaret Thatcher’s former private secretary, Charles Powell, will gloss his categoric and faintly contemptuous statement last year that protesters in Hong Kong were “unrealistic”. He told them they should be grateful for what they had because pressing for change was pointless. There was, he conceded, “a small black cloud” in Hong Kong, but, he concluded, “that’s life”.

The truth is, however, that nothing is inevitable. From the hundreds of thousands who died in the Rwandan genocide in 1994 to the thousands who risked and lost their lives in the Mediterranean in the past few years — the indifference of governments and their advisers to human suffering has been the common factor. Edmund Burke’s dictum — “all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to stand by and do nothing” — has been proved right, over and over.

Amnesty International – described, at the time of its foundation more than 50 years ago, as “one of the larger lunacies of our time” – unsurprisingly stands in solidarity with those who believe in change and take risks to make the world a better place.

Every year, Amnesty International chooses an Ambassador of Conscience. Past honorees have included Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Aung San Suu Kyi. This year’s awardees, to be marked with a ceremony in Berlin next week (eds: 21 May) are the US singer Joan Baez and the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Both have achieved remarkable things in very different contexts. Both have spoken out when it would have been easier not to do so.  

Joan Baez was an icon of the civil rights movement. She sang the anthem “We Shall Overcome” before a crowd of hundreds of thousands civil rights protesters in Washington, DC. She spoke at the famous Selma-to-Montgomery march which so dramatically confronted racist violence, 50 years ago. She has continued to speak out, on a range of human rights issues, over the decades.

Ai Weiwei could have chosen simply to bask in his success – including as designer of the famous and spectacular Bird’s Nest Stadium at the Beijing Olympics. Ai Weiwei chose a very different path, however. Again and again, he spoke truth to power. That outspokenness comes at a cost. Ai Weiwei has been harassed, beaten, jailed. Today, he remains under surveillance. But he is unrepentant. In his own words: “Never retreat. Retweet!”

Irreverence – what the Serb activist and author Srdja Popovic calls “laughtivism” – is at the heart of much protest today. But irreverent is not the same as un-serious. The connections between apparently trivial actions and larger social change are difficult to overestimate. Equally, it is impossible to overstate the importance of the readiness to speak out. As the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz noted: “In a room where people maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.”

In a world where silence is always the easiest option, we should honour the importance of making political noise.

Steve Crawshaw is the Director of the Office of the Secretary General at Amnesty International and the co-author of Small Acts of Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity and Ingenuity Can Change the World, which comes out in Chinese next month [June]

First published in International Business Times/Yahoo News, to coincide with AI’s Ambassador of Conscience award ceremony in Berlin.