Residents throughout the Mid-Hudson Valley are invited to help get prisoners of conscience freed during an event to be held December 4 at Cafeteria, in New Paltz. By now, representatives of eleven different national governments are probably already receiving a number of letters asking for the release of prisoners described as “human rights defenders,” but that trickle will turn into a flood by mid-December. It’s the expected result of this year’s Global Write for Rights campaign, which is orchestrated through Amnesty International. Members of the small, but extremely active, Mid-Hudson chapter will be hosting the local event from noon until 3 p.m. this Sunday, Dec. 4, at 58 Main Street in New Paltz.
Global Write for Rights focuses efforts of people around the world on a handful of cases that are selected democratically by Amnesty International members. This year letters are being written on behalf of 12 human rights defenders, requesting that they no longer be subject to imprisonment or prosecution for their actions. They include activists in China, Iran, Cameroon, Turkey, Indonesia, Canada and the United States. The name most familiar to American readers is likely Edward Snowden, now living in Russia to avoid prosecution for stealing and releasing classified material about American programs used to spy on American citizens; in his case, a pardon is being requested. While it’s not always the case, these efforts have led to people being freed from imprisonment, including four of the cases from 2015.
It is possible to participate in Global Write for Rights by visiting write.amnestyusa.org, but members of the Mid-Hudson chapter aim to make the process as simple as possible. During the December 4 event, information about each of the 12 cases will be available at Cafeteria, including portraits of each created by Ai Weiwei, who himself was a prisoner in China. Materials for writing the letters will be on hand, and volunteers will see to it that they’re mailed. Paying postage for these letters, which can run up to a dollar apiece, is one of the main reasons that chapter members engage in fundraising, according to president Ilgu Ozler.
Ozler was instrumental in launching the local Amnesty International chapter, after serving as faculty advisor to the club on the SUNY New Paltz campus. “As students came and went, I thought it might be good to have some continuity and start a local chapter,” she explained. The idea caught fire, and the Mid-Hudson chapter now stands out due to the large number of events put on each year, of which Global Write for Rights is but one facet. Members who attend monthly meetings — held at New Paltz Village Hall, 5:30 p.m. on the third Tuesday — do get regular opportunities to hone those letter-writing skills, to be sure. As Ozler explains, “Our chapter gets together every month to write on behalf of the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado in Colombia. This community has been caught between the paramilitaries and their fight with FARC guerillas.” The letters are sent to government officials asking for them to intercede, as well as members of the community itself.
Letter writing is far from the only way the Amnesty International members work for peace, and those in the Mid-Hudson chapter are doing quite a bit more. Each spring they screen a film with a human-rights film at Rosendale Theater, followed by panel discussions and guest speakers. Past topics have included women’s rights, the Syrian conflict, immigration, and the American-run Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba. This past spring, members also successfully lobbied local elected officials to pass resolutions welcoming refugees to New Paltz. That effort led them to join with the Mid-Hudson Refugee Solidarity Alliance, members of which are working toward getting refugees settled in this region.
One member of the local chapter, Diana Zuckerman, has involved students from the Rondout Valley High School, where she teaches Spanish and advises the Human Rights Club, the members of which have participated in Global Write for Rights as well as focusing on other issues, such as rights for farm workers. “My students are my hope for a better world,” she explained. “Young people should not have to wait until college to participate in activities that can have an impact on decisions made.” Zuckerman shared thoughts from several of her current and former students.
Daisy Walermaurer wrote, “I’m currently writing an argumentative essay for my English class about including farm workers in the federal labor standards act. I’ve been thinking about how important this is now with everything that’s happening in politics.”
For Tori LaFiandra, working on such issues “gives me an opportunity to raise awareness for people who don’t have their human rights, and also the ability to learn about current events happening in our world today.”
“Not until I started actively participating in human rights-related activities and becoming more aware, did I realize how underappreciated they are by those who have them, and how badly they are needed by those who don’t,” observed Katie Brantmeyer.
Stella Picuri seemed to agree, writing, “I think it’s important for privileged people that have a voice, whether it’s politically, economically, or socially, to use that voice to help and advocate for the people who don’t have a voice.”
Another way that local Amnesty International members use their voices is in speaking with elected officials, particularly those on the federal level. Member Nick Crocitto, who spearheads that effort, was unavailable for comment in time for this story, but Ozer painted a picture of how that works. The goal is to identify areas of common concern, which Ozer said is not difficult given the commonalities between the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Conversations with Congressional representatives have, thus far, yielded the best results.
Maurice Hinchey was once persuaded to write to the president of Colombia, encouraging him to pay closer attention to paramilitary activity and to take steps to safeguard his citizens. Hinchey’s letter carried some weight because he was on the appropriations committee, and could conceivably influence foreign aid spending. His successor, Chris Gibson, agreed that the Guantanamo prison was not ideal, but was reluctant to push for closure without an alternative. He did agree to pressure President Obama regarding U.S. drone strikes, which have since been dramatically curtailed. Gibson was skeptical when they asked him to support the International Violence Against Women Act, but after reading it through he became one of its few Republican co-sponsors. When it was not passed into law, Gibson got some of its key language into the National Defense Authorization Act.
All told, the Mid-Hudson chapter of Amnesty International packs a powerful punch: there are less than a dozen active members coordinating these many efforts. Others are welcome to join them, and discover how much greater an impact they can have with a few more hands stirring the pot. Find out more at one of their monthly meetings, but by going to Cafeteria on December 4 and writing letters to make a difference.