Amnesty International looks to next 50 years

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Growing up in Cleveland, Larry Cox remembered watching the Browns battle a Steelers team that would "just grind you down until they won."

Today, as executive director of Amnesty International USA, Mr. Cox finds himself in a smash-mouth game of his own.

"We just keep grinding and grinding and grinding until we get a victory," Mr. Cox said Saturday at the group's Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference at the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown.

The conference gave a few hundred participants an opportunity to reflect on the accomplishments of Amnesty International's first 50 years and consider the challenges of the next 50.

Ellen Dorsey, a former Amnesty International official who's now executive director of the Wallace Global Fund, said those challenges will include famines and "water wars" wrought by climate change, human-rights abuses by multinational corporations and global poverty.

"Our challenge is really to look at the systemic causes of human-rights violations and try to tackle them," said Ms. Dorsey, a former official of The Heinz Endowments whose affiliation with Amnesty International goes back about 30 years. The Washington, D.C.-based Wallace Global Fund is active in environmental issues.

A special guest of the conference was Rodolfo Montiel Flores, a Mexican subsistence farmer and activist who in 1999 was arrested with an associate, Teodoro Cabrera. The two were charged with drug and weapons offenses.

"But the only thing we did was fight for our forests," Mr. Flores said through an interpreter.

Amnesty International labeled the pair "prisoners of conscience" and worked for their release, saying they were tortured and forced to confess to crimes they didn't commit because they opposed international logging operations in their community. Besides the trees, Mr. Flores said, the loggers "exterminated ... all of the springs and all of the vegetation."

A series of workshops gave veteran activists and neophytes the opportunity to sharpen their advocacy skills. Ms. Dorsey urged the crowd to recruit friends as Amnesty International members and to help expand the group's network through partnerships with union, environmentalists and religious groups.

Veronica Montecinos, professor of sociology at Penn State Greater Allegheny in McKeesport, attended with four students who are interested in starting a campus chapter of Amnesty International.

The students -- Audia Robinson, Miranda Mellor, Heather Bittner and Rachael Grasso -- said a campus-wide program called Teaching International already has exposed them to research on subjects ranging from the gender wage gap in Russia to the troubles of the Roma in France to domestic violence in Russia and Poland.

In some ways, Mr. Cox said, the challenge of fighting human rights is greater today than it was 50 years ago. He said the United States' war on terror is partly to blame.

"We have now joined the ranks of countries that have officially carried out torture and equally refused to hold anybody accountable," he said.

Ms. Dorsey said the bad conduct of global corporations rivals that of the old colonial powers.

"They buy off politicians. They fight off regulations," she said, suggesting that the human-rights codes long applied to governments be imposed on companies, too.


Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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