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‘These experiences made human rights real for me'

During a year of travel around the world, Bermudian journalist Robyn Skinner saw first-hand the need for better human rights. For example, on a bus in India she heard a man loudly complaining that women had been given recourse to complain to the authorities if they were abused. She met female lawyers who could not wear skirts due to fears of being harassed, and in many countries she witnessed extreme poverty. Now back in Bermuda, she is bringing lessons learned from her journey to a new position as director of Amnesty International Bermuda. She took over from longtime director Lucy Attride-Stirling. The Royal Gazette's Jessie Moniz recently met with Ms Skinner to learn more about her work with Amnesty International Bermuda

Can you explain what Amnesty does?

It is a human rights organisation. It is very much on the advocacy side, concerned with raising awareness of human rights issues. It is about holding governments and countries accountable for human rights violations and failure to protect human rights. Locally, we are very interested in campaigning on four areas in the coming year and forward. Those areas are violence against women, migrant worker rights, freedom of expression, and sexual orientation. Amnesty really started by looking at prisoners of conscience. Since 2001 Amnesty has been looking at womens' rights and expanding their focus.

What will your duties as director entail?

I am interested in getting the name of Amnesty more out there. I want more interest and understanding of what we do on the Island. I also want to better utilise social media networks such as Facebook, and I want to get into the schools more.

What is the membership list like for Amnesty International Bermuda?

We have about 200 people on the membership list and we want that to grow. We want to give people reasons to join Amnesty. We want to be active and show that we are working locally for concerns of local interest, but we have a global aspect. We are the wingman of the greater Amnesty International organisation. They set the agenda about particular goals and human rights standards and we are here to translate that locally and report back to them about human rights issues and concerns in Bermuda.

Is the sexual orientation focus a new one for Amnesty?

No we were working a bit when there was a push to include it under the discrimination act in Bermuda. We are very much focused on doing that, getting that changed in the future.

Are there any concerns locally that Amnesty is dealing with?

Sexual orientation is a massive one. There are also migrant worker issues here. Violence against women is a growing concern. We have heard in the past year about the violence in general in the community. The women's organisations are seeing it touch the women they work with. I think that is an incredibly important concern and something we need to address. I think there is a serious lack of respect for women, in general, in the community. That is my personal view. I think that needs to be addressed. Disrespect for women can be everything from calling them 'baby' to physical violence against them.

What does campaigning locally look like? Doesn't Amnesty have people write letters to different governments?

We do write letters, but campaigns can also involve marches or an event that raises awareness. It can be information campaigns about what is going on here. We can also go back to the international organisation and say we have this concern in Bermuda, would you support us?

Was travelling the world an eye-opener for you?

I have been travelling since I was 16 years old. I lived abroad for a year. I lived in Turkey for several months, and I also travelled around India for several months. These experiences made human rights real for me. It is different from what you see on television. As a female travelling the world, and even living at home, you always have to be more careful then men will ever have to be. Coming from a place like Bermuda that is fairly wealthy by anyone's standards, you really notice the poverty. You see what it does to people's human rights if they are poor. You see how people stay poor if their human rights aren't protected. Amnesty has the 'Demand Dignity' campaign.

Tell me about that.

[It] works to end the human rights abuses that imprison people in poverty. Those abuses affect the full spectrum of human rights like the rights to health, housing, and freedom from discrimination. Governments and corporations alike must observe human rights standards.

How long has Amnesty International been campaigning for better human rights?

This year is especially important for us because it is our 50th anniversary. Amnesty International started in 1961 on May 28. They started in Bermuda in the 1980s. We are hoping to have celebrations to mark that anniversary this year. We want to celebrate everyone here who has worked on human rights and worked with Amnesty over the years.

Is it dangerous to belong to Amnesty?

You don't work on an individual case within your own country. Here in Bermuda we would never comment on a local person's particular case. We might look at an overarching problem associated with that case. However, we can comment on cases in other countries. We can write letters to the government asking for the release of people who we feel have been unfairly imprisoned, for example. We are out of the country and it is safer for us to do it.

How is the internet changing Amnesty?

We have our own website, AmnestyBermuda.org, and we are also on Facebook and twitter. For some of the actions you can send e-mails, but for other campaigns you still have to write letters. The internet is allowing us to get our message out quicker. We would like the internet to become a place where we learn about who we are. Amnesty has been in Bermuda a long time, since the 1980s. We want to use the internet to remind Bermudians of who we are.

Does it make a difference if a government receives a lot of letters about a particular case?

Amnesty never claims that it frees anyone, but you can't hide the fact that sometimes governments act different when they feel there is international awareness of an issue in their country. There are often a lot of different organisations working on one case. There can be lots of different reasons why someone who was released. Some of the people that Amnesty has worked to free from unfair incarceration have said that receiving those letters and knowing people were thinking about them did help them get through a difficult time. So it is not just about the government that Amnesty targets, but also the people who are incarcerated.

For more information visit www.amnestybermuda.org, telephone 296-3249 or e-mail director[AT]amnestybermuda.org.

Robyn Skinner

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Published March 21, 2011 at 2:00 am (Updated March 21, 2011 at 9:22 am)

‘These experiences made human rights real for me'

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