Amnesty’s Adotei Akwei

"You want to celebrate and support his work, and his work is aimed at building capacity."

“People are for the most part decent and want to do the right thing,” says Adotei Akwei. He should know. As the Managing Director for Government Relations at Amnesty International USA, getting people to do the right thing is his job.

Adotei was born in Ghana. His father was a Ghana Foreign Service officer who later worked for the U.N. “I’ve been involved with international relations for as long as I can remember,” he says. After seeing a documentary about the Vietnam War called, “Hearts and Minds,” Adotei decided to devote his life to human rights work, beginning with the anti-apartheid movement and moving to other conflicts like the genocide in Rwanda and the conflict in Sudan. We called him to discuss another documentary, “The Heart of Nuba,” and ask him about his experience promoting freedom, security, and human dignity around the world.

When you pressure the U.S. government to be more involved in Sudan, what specifically are you asking for?

It’s slow, it’s grinding, but it’s the small things that change a government’s behavior, that eventually lead to the protection and respect of human rights.

With Sudan, we have not called for any kind of economic sanctions unless they are approved by the United Nations Security Council, we said they have to be applied in a way that is just, and that sanctions are just one of the options on the table. And we are talking about targeted sanctions, against individuals, not whole countries, because there’s clearly going to be a large part of the population that has no influence and no responsibility for what the government does that could be badly impacted by a wholesale economic sanctions.

One of the things we have consistently called for is an arms embargo, not just for Sudan, but for South Sudan as well. The region was Africa’s longest running conflict. It has huge amounts of weapons that are readily accessible and available, and it has very opportunistic suppliers coming from different parts of the world. An arms embargo is not going to solve Sudan’s crises, but it is going to make it harder to get weapons to groups that are committing abuses.

We are also pushing the United States to work with members of the Security Council to put pressure on Sudan’s allies — to have a united front to change the behavior of the Sudanese government.

There’s nothing new here, and certainly these countries the US would have to work with are well known in their reluctance to support this kind of action. But what this campaign should do is bring people back very sharply to the appalling loss of life, destruction of livelihoods, and unnecessary suffering that is going on and remind people that the world can and must do more.

What are some things people who see this film can do?

Once it’s personal and you see the positive, amazing story of Dr. Catena, you begin to see the impact of the lack of medical care, the impact of full-scale aerial bombardment and other war crimes, it moves from a list of human rights abuses to “look at what they’re doing to this child.”

Once the movie makes people connect on a personal level, the first thing they can do is bring along the rest of their communities and their friends. Grassroots matter because it mobilizes a common perspective aimed toward a goal, and here you want to have more people realize that Sudan is committing war crimes and getting away with it, that people in Sudan are still catching hell and that the United States has played and can play an important role in doing something about it.

That leadership is going to require people to get in touch with their members of Congress and the administration and press them to take leadership and act. It’s really about getting people to say “enough is enough. We want change in Sudan. We want the United States to refocus its attention and exert its leadership at the international level, towards an arms embargo, towards increased and improved humanitarian assistance, towards funding for the resettlement of displaced persons, and to press the Sudanese government to do the right thing.”

As someone from Africa, does it bother you that people tend to view the continent through the lens of genocide, conflict, disease, etc.?

There’s a stereotypical view of the continent that has all sorts of ripple effects that are incredibly important to combat. You may recall that when the Ebola crisis was scaring everybody here earlier this year, it was the continent that had Ebola, as opposed to three countries. Those kinds of attitudes have to be rejected

It was a striking and powerful reminder of how far we have to go in terms of the continent being seen for what it is, which is a complex collection of 47 states, with different languages, cultures, different governments, and different conditions. But that still doesn’t take away from the fact that there are these millions of people who are suffering unnecessarily as a result of a government that doesn’t give a damn about them.

Over the years we as an organization have learned that we need to be careful about how we portray these conflicts. It’s important in this effort to remind people that there are Sudanese organizations that are fighting the good fight, that are being detained and killed, that are providing services to displaced people, challenging their own government, and trying to provide access to humanitarian aid. We are working with, and to support, our Sudanese colleagues. We are not coming in to save the people of Sudan we are supporting their efforts to save themselves.

What are some successes you’ve seen in the human rights movement?

There are a couple of areas where there’s been remarkable success, on two levels. There’s been a change in mental attitudes about rights. Trying to change the individual’s perception that the government is all-powerful, all-knowing, and beyond the law. It’s an area where Amnesty has begun to see people—not just in Sub-Saharan Africa, but in other parts of the world—begin to demand accountability. If you don’t have that fundamental perception that the government is there to take care of all of us and is accountable to us, then there’s no place to question the government about your ability to enjoy rights.

In the 50-plus years Amnesty has been in business, we have fundamentally changed people’s perception that they indeed hold rights, that governments can’t take them away, and that governments are accountable to laws, just like everybody else.

More specifically, two years ago we passed a global arms trade treaty that regulates the global trade in small arms and light weapons. Many people laughed at that campaign, but we were able to do it.

We managed to get the trade in conflict diamonds to move a huge step forward from complete opaqueness to some transparency and accountability, so that weapons were not able to be purchased by the sale of blood diamonds.

We also had a victory on the issue of child soldiers, with the ratification by the United States of the optional protocol of child soldiers.

All of those issues impact Africa directly. So we’ve seen some big global successes. At the nation state level, we’ve had amazing successes in terms of truth commissions in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda. Even in Sudan, one could argue that the cessation of the war was a huge achievement given how many lives have been lost but the people of South Sudan did in the opportunity to choose whether they wanted to be part of Sudan or independent. The problem of course is that no one stayed focused long enough to make sure there was a real justice component and accountability component with it, and that’s contributed to what’s going on in South Sudan.

Do so-called first world countries like the United States get a pass? Are we doing enough to hold them accountable?

Amnesty has been challenging the use of lethal force here by police in the United States. We have been doing work on mass incarceration, the use of solitary confinement, the use of Tasers, and the continued use of the death penalty. All of these are significant and very alarming human rights abuses.

Probably the most alarming one, which connects with the rest of the world, is the war on terror, which has resulted in terrible violations of all sorts of human rights standards, including the rule of law — with regard to Guantanamo, the lack of accountability and transparency in the use of drones, the increased scope of surveillance — so there are huge challenges here that are being challenged and need to be addressed.

We as an organization have increased our focus domestically, not only to address the needs here in the United States, but also to show governments in other parts of the world that we make no distinction between abuses committed by the United States and those committed by Nigeria. We fight them both pushing for police reform and accountability in Ferguson and Baltimore as well as in Brazil and Nigeria.

There is a fundamental benchmark of integrity that we have to meet and we are committed to doing our best to meet it.

Dr. Tom is concerned that he not be seen as a savior, that people see what the Nuba are doing for themselves to survive and heal each other. Do you ever worry about that?

It’s an important issue and one that all of us have to be cognizant of and try to overcome. One of the things Amnesty has done is keep the focus on individuals in the country who are leading the fight and catching hell. Being detained, being disappeared and tortured. The organization over the years has built up an incredible body of work that has promoted and celebrated individuals themselves to help address what you’re referring to. Amnesty is not saving people. Amnesty is trying to work with people who are trying to save their own countries and doing whatever we can to make sure they can keep on fighting.

It’s important for all of us to keep our eyes and antennas on high alert to pick up other individuals who are doing other initiatives in other parts of Sudan, so we can celebrate them, too. You don’t want to isolate Dr. Catena. You want to celebrate and support his work, and his work is aimed at building capacity. Not just taking care of people, but building capacity.