The Power of Amnesty


The Power of Amnesty
by Saab Lofton

He worked for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from 1966 to 1967 ("the most important experience of my life" as he put it). His 1972 documentary, It's Ours Whatever They Say, won the Silver Medal at the Venice Film Festival and his column regularly appears in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe. He is Jonathan Power, Amnesty International's point man, and I feel so honored to have been able to interview this real-life superhero.

And if you don't know, Amnesty International is the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Human rights organization which began in 1961 with its late, great founder, Peter Benenson and now has nearly two million members around the world. Since y'all are going to throw raves, keggers and house parties anyway, charge a buck a head and donate the money to Amnesty! If you're in a band, book some benefit concerts for A.I.! Save some lives while you're getting wasted!

Lofton: Olusegun Obasanjo likened Amnesty International to "water on stone." He was once a political prisoner Amnesty helped free -- now he's the democratically (re-)elected president of Nigeria. How is HIS Human rights record? Has power corrupted him or has Olusegun Obasanjo become a role model A.I. can be proud of?

Power: He has not been corrupted by power, but it has been an uphill battle to restore Human rights. Nigeria is much better than it was.

Lofton: As a rule, Amnesty doesn't fight to free political prisoners who advocate violence, but I must know: How do you personally feel about legends such as Che Guevara, the Black Panthers and the S.D.S./Weather Underground?

Power: I feel there was always a better way to achieve the same goal without violence.

Lofton: You've written that, "Most of the letters go unanswered. Groups can work for years on behalf of prisoners and never know whether or not their work had achieved anything. Even if they are actually released, it is hard to know if the group was responsible for their freedom. Amnesty is always reluctant to claim credit in such circumstances. So keeping up morale is a major problem." If low morale is a problem, what can be done to raise it? As a storyteller, this is a major concern of mine, so would a major motion picture from Hollywood making the members of A.I. look macho and sexy help?

Power: Of course a major film would help!

Lofton: You were a foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune for almost twenty years -- now your column is syndicated worldwide ... how do you feel about the fact that a handful of corporations own every major MASS media outlet there is?

Power: I am fighting Rupert Murdoch in my column (To quote Power from the column in question, "Freedom of the press is a phrase that Murdoch only uses to fight off privacy laws. Long ago Murdoch became a danger to both democracy and good taste. Why, they must ask themselves should the family owners of The Wall Street Journal want to be remembered for selling out to him?").

Lofton: As I'm typing this, it's the eve of America's Independence Day -- what would you say to those in "the land of the free" who STILL refuse to admit the United States in general and the C.I.A. in particular were involved in the worst Human rights abuses in history?

Power: They had better get themselves educated [In his book, Like Water On Stone: The Story of Amnesty International, Power calls America, "the loudest contradiction of them all," since it's, "hijacked the traditional Human rights vocabulary and the rhetoric of Human rights, while permitting atrocities to continue."].

Lofton: How much of Cuba's Human rights abuses can legitimately be blamed on the paranoia caused by the embargo, American imperialism and the decades of attempts on Fidel Castro's life? Most? Half?

Power: More than half.

Lofton: I realize the danger of playing favorites, but since Amsterdam has free speech and free health care AND decriminalized marijuana/prostitution, is it not the best example of a place that actually takes the values of Amnesty seriously (especially seeing as how poverty in the Netherlands is so very low)?

Power: Absolutely.

Lofton: Talk about irony: Chile's General Pinochet of all people died in 2006 on Human Rights Day of all days -- wouldn't it be safe to say God is on Amnesty International's side?

Power: God doesn't need to take sides.

Lofton: How familiar are you with Star Trek? Its creator, Gene Roddenberry, depicted a future in which Humanity eventually eradicated poverty, bigotry and atrocity -- isn't Roddenberry's utopian vision the ultimate goal of Amnesty International (before you answer, please keep in mind A.I. was once called "one of the larger lunacies of our time")?

Power: Yes.

Finally, be on the lookout for Power's book, Conundrums of Humanity, The Quest for Global Justice.