In a speech for Amnesty International’s International Council meeting in Dublin yesterday Michael D. Higgins called the EU response to the migrant crisis ‘shameful’:
We must acknowledge that the European response as a whole has been grossly inadequate….This failure can only be described as shameful and undermines both the ideal of the European Union and any prospect of that Union being an exemplar for international law and its instruments.
On his twitter account today Colm O’Gorman the Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland quoted this line from Higgins’ speech in an apparent affirmation with the Presidents’ sentiments. Where there is clearly nothing to fault about such sentiments, their expression by these two well-known political figures should be fortified by an equal measure of action, and particularly moral leadership when it comes to a crisis that so visibly challenges the universality of the concept of human rights. However, the words of Higgins and their echo by O’Gorman are nothing more than pretence when not forged within meaningful commitments to action or to support individuals whose lives are gripped by such pernicious failures.
Amnesty International began in 1961 after an article about two Portuguese students imprisoned for holding a ‘toast to freedom’ sparked a British journalist to author a piece which inspired the ‘Appeal for Amnesty 1961,’ launching an international movement highlighting the plight of prisoners of conscience. That movement today is Amnesty International (AI), one of the most well-known human rights organisations in the world.
Since its founding AI’s work has evolved in many directions, yet there has always been a consistent core focus on incarceration especially for those imprisoned ‘in defence of freedom of opinion and religion.’ The focus of AI on prisoners of conscience has raised awareness worldwide about the right to freedom of speech, and more generally over the importance of narrative in the shaping of political events and consciousness.
This is precisely the reason that Higgins’ speech is in some ways exceptionally critical at this juncture, where there is a pressing and crucial need to challenge the rhetoric of European leaders who would use the migrant crisis to further deflect from the growing indignities resulting from austerity and its grounding in neoliberal capitalism.
In contrast to the racist conclusions that groups such as Identity Ireland peddle in their misguided attempt at political populism, an appeal to ‘human rights’ and commitment to ‘anti-racism’ cannot be faulted—everyone from Fine Gael to the Socialist Party can agree that racism is ‘wrong’ and that human rights are ‘good’. Yet it is precisely what those values mean in practice that produces their most consequential significance as concepts we have come to see as so fundamental to our world-view/s, and thus so important to examine.
Which is why I feel it is critical to challenge both President Higgins and AI – Ireland in drawing the perceptible lines of connection between a commitment to human rights in word and its exercise in deed. To me this means where Michael D. Higgins calls the ‘migrant crisis’ shameful I do wonder why there is a studied silence as to how those migrants are treated after they have been ‘rescued’? Does their being locked away in detention centres or concentrated into camps such as those in Calais or across Greece or Italy with no recourse to social protections not also shame us?
A few weeks ago a letter went out to the Department of Justice calling for the immediate release of an Afghan refugee found in Naas. Many will know what subsequently happened to him being imprisoned on the criminal charge of not having documents, and then subsequently brought three times before the court on the same charge only for the reason that the person responsible for his welfare was incompetent and refused to file the paperwork that would see his immediate release.
The letter warned against the dangerous precedent of further criminalising migration and compounding trauma through treating refugees in this manner, and while multiple NGOs who advocate for migrants, refugees and human rights signed, AI – Ireland remained silent.
This failure provokes questions over how an organisation so dedicated to the issues of imprisonment, protection and human rights can so thoroughly fail at connecting those values on which they claim their organisation’s founding principles and ongoing legitimacy. As Angela Davis has said, ‘prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear people,’ and claiming the prison system is an adequate place to address the myriad of issues presented by an undocumented, traumatised and extremely vulnerable Afghan refugee not only shows a lack of understanding of contemporary migration, it reveals a poverty of compassion.
Amnesty claims that its work today has grown
from seeking the release of political prisoners to upholding the whole spectrum of human rights. Our work protects and empowers people…from combatting discrimination to defending refugees and migrants’ rights. We speak out for anyone and everyone whose freedom and dignity are under threat.
I hope that AI – Ireland takes the opportunity afforded by the attention shone on its work through Higgins’ remarkable speech to nuance its understanding of contemporary migration and to speak out against the many forms of imprisonment, from direct provision to the criminalisation of the undocumented, that present contemporary examples of ‘prisoners of conscience’ upon which their movement moves.