What human rights mean to me
My life today is complex. It is a life in three parts, everything is either my life before the war, my life during the war, or my life after the war. All three aspects, including the negative parts, have shaped me and my views, they make me what I am whether I like it or not.
I have come to know what it means to have peace in your life, because I have experienced the lack of it and what that does to your spirit. And I have come to understand that when people disregard or lose respect for their own life they are damaging something that is sacrosanct.
Before the war I just remember the peace, the day-to-day life of going to school, and on the way back playing football and swimming. Simple. I don't think I had any idea how privileged and special that was until it was no longer happening. For me, from a very early age, there was an appreciation for life itself all around me. There was a care from all of our community, not just from my immediate family. All that changed so quickly and suddenly, and horribly, but the early years grounded me and really helped me later.
Human rights are about recognising human dignity and the right to life. When people are unwilling to pay attention if others are abused, killed, this brings out the worst in everyone and eventually affects the type of society.
For me, human rights are very real, because I have seen the suffering that happens when they are disregarded.
People who live in comfort often take a lot for granted. Not everyone can wake up in the morning and turn the tap on and see water pour out. And just the privilege of being able to dream, and being able to achieve that dream. I have seen people lose the strength to even dream, I have seen people who feel completely hopeless.
My own hope is that I can help make people around the world aware of other people's situation, so that no-one turns a blind eye when terrible things happen. I hope to have people who care, a generation with more of a world view, who think beyond their own environment. Our common humanity and human rights are more important than our nationality or socio-econ status. Once we all know that, it will ground how we treat each other, respect each other.
Actor and rapper
I was born and grew up in North West London. My parents immigrated from Pakistan. Their families were originally from North India - they crossed over after the partition of India and settled in Karachi, a group known as 'Muhajirs' or 'refugees'.
Growing up I heard stories about their families getting away with just the clothes on their backs, and about the horrific riots, clashes and pogroms of partition. In my early teens I got vivid news of the worsening situation in Pakistan. The Muhajir rights movement in Karachi had become violent. Paramilitary forces under Benazir Bhutto were ethnically cleansing Muhajirs in certain areas of the city - one of my uncles was kidnapped, beaten, and injected with hepatitis by the army. I had only visited Pakistan a few times, but growing up with an awareness of this bigger picture instilled in me a kind of solidarity for the persecuted and oppressed.
The absurdity of inter-Pakistani racism was not lost on me as a teenager. I had come into contact with violent racism from an early age. When I was eight, my brother saved me from an attack at the cost of a knife being put to his throat. Racist treatment during some teenage encounters with the police, and casual racism at a private school compounded my desire to see a more equal and just world. I became quite passionate about human rights and campaigns for justice.
I started university just after 9/11, and was alarmed at the dangerous new discourse, and the 'War on Terror' that unfolded in its wake. Being Muslim brings an immediacy to the fear - but I'd like to think I would feel the same outrage at abuses like Guantánamo no matter what my background.
I wouldn't describe myself as an activist, but I'm inspired by people who are consistent and tireless in their campaigning. I am hugely inspired by Mark Thomas. He delivers a message through comedy and reaches people who wouldn't normally think about those issues - but then goes a step further and backs it up with action.
I didn't become an actor and rapper to try to change the world. But knowing the impact on hearts and minds that film, theatre, and music can have, that attracted me.
Road to Guantánamo and Britz were dream jobs - artistically and because they were about issues close to my heart. As stories they reaffirmed our common humanity at a time of 'us and them', and the importance of our fundamental rights and habeas corpus. Over the past few years in the UK, we have eroded the right to a fair trial and protection from arbitrary detention, with draconian anti-terror legislation. When returning from the film's premiere, I was illegally detained and physically assaulted by Special Branch officers at Luton airport.
This gave me a glimpse of the horror and humiliating limbo of arbitrary detention. And working on Britz alerted me to the terrifying loopholes that have formed in our UK laws - we cannot allow habeas corpus to become a distant memory.
Learning of the abuses the Tipton Three suffered, and experiencing a tame version of them first hand while filming, also hit home the importance of maintaining the illegality of torture. In the years ahead I fear a consolidation of these legal aberrations, which have crept up on us in a climate of fear. My hope for 2008 is that Guantánamo Bay, Bagram airbase and other black sites are closed, and the detainees safely returned to their families if they have not been charged. And an end to collective punishment in Palestine and the lifting of the Israeli blockade of the Gaza strip.
To hear Riz's songs, see www.myspace.com/rizme
When things fall apart
If you are lucky enough to live in a reasonably well-ordered society, it is easy to take human rights rather for granted. But as soon as things start to get rougher they quickly become more and more important. And when the situation really falls apart, the fundamental human rights are all that matter.
I am thinking, for example, of what I saw in Afghanistan under the Taleban. The small number of Afghan women who had managed to carve out a limited amount of freedom saw even that swept away. The Taleban were banning education for girls and largely confining the female half of the population to the home. At the same time they were prohibiting music, and television and much else. The Taleban were in many ways, of course, an utter disaster in human rights terms. But it has to be said that in those early days significant numbers of Afghans welcomed them in Kabul and the south and the east. And this was in part because the Taleban had imposed a rough kind of order that meant people felt a little safer. In the previous years the country had fallen apart so badly that many Afghans craved above all else those fundamental human rights - the right to life and a degree of security.
Last year I was kidnapped in Gaza and held captive for nearly four months by a group called the Army of Islam. During that time I did not have the freedom to choose anything. What I ate, what I drank, and whether I lived or died - all of that was decided by my captors. For me personally, things had very much fallen apart, and in the starkest terms I was forced to appreciate fully the meaning of the most basic human rights.
But long before I was forced into that cell in Gaza, my view of the world had been shaped in important ways by those who had done most to expand the boundaries of freedom. There was Gandhi marching to the sea - on his way to make salt in defiance of unjust colonial laws. There was Mandela passing a quarter-of-a-century in his cell before emerging to bring down the Apartheid system that I had seen as a child. And in Alabama there was Rosa Parks saying 'no', she should not have to give up her seat on the bus for a white man.
If you want to believe and argue that mankind is advancing - if only very gradually -- towards something better, then surely the best evidence of that is the rising, worldwide awareness of the notion of human rights. We have a long way to go, but the universal declaration of those rights helps shine a light on the path ahead.
BBC correspondent Alan Johnston's book Kidnapped is a selection of his best journalism from Gaza and Afghanistan, a moving account of his 114 days in captivity, and his reflections on survival, solidarity and freedom. Kidnapped and other dispatches. Ed Tony Grant. Profile Books. £7.99 (from bookshops). ISBN 987 1 84668 142 4.
Bill of Rights
I live and work in the loyalist working class estate Old Warren in the affluent city of Lisburn, just outside Belfast.
It was not until the late 90s that I fully understood the power of human rights and the benefit that a Bill of Rights could bring to our community.
In the early 90s our estate was considered the 'second least popular housing estate in Northern Ireland' because of the poor housing. It is also a community that has been stigmatised as a direct result of the conflict. I worked as a volunteer and then as the community worker.
In 1998 we developed a programme for young men in the area. As part of it the young men asked to learn more about their rights in relation to the police. We invited the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) to speak to about 40 young men and CAJ director Maggie Beirne responded. Maggie initially talked about and answered questions on policing powers and then opened up the debate and asked the young people what they believed they needed to 'flourish as human beings'. The list that came out of that group was then linked to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The first campaign the young men carried out was the right to heating. They forced the housing authorities to reverse a decision and to fulfil their obligations to consult tenants about changes to heating installations in their homes. Buoyed by their success and with the support of Maggie and the CAJ the young men pressed on and campaigned on Social Housing for Social Justice. The housing authority was challenged regarding its intention to sell off public land, part of Old Warren Estate, to private developers. Again the young men were successful and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, instead of selling the land, invested in the estate thereby transforming the image of the area and increasing the social housing stock.
Maggie Beirne leaves CAJ soon, but what she and others have given to my community is the dignity and respect and the power to effect social change that comes through using the language of human rights. As a community closely associated with the conflict we are aware that injustice can lead to violence. Old Warren Partnership is a member of the Human Rights Consortium which is campaigning for a strong and inclusive Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.
If our country can deliver a strong and effective Bill of Rights people will be able to address today's problems together to make a better future for our children, and for their children!
My enemy, my friend
Once I politically campaigned against human rights, and considered them as part of a colonial onslaught against Islam and the Muslim world. Now I am delighted to write here about what human rights mean to me today.
I was a leadership member of the international radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. The basic aim of this group is to overthrow governments in Muslim majority countries with a view to replacing them with a global ideological Muslim state. This state would implement a medieval version of Islam blended with very modern political ideals. This totalitarian ideology is known as Islamism. Islamism rejects modern standards of rights and justice for a primitive blend of religious reasoning and political paranoia. We rejected democracy, human rights and freedom as colonial tools designed to rid Muslims of the liberation that stoning, chopping hands and lashing would bring them. Ironically this group's name means the Liberation Party.
On a visit to Egypt, on 1 April 2002, I was arrested, subjected to abuse and witnessing torture, and was eventually sentenced to five years in an Egyptian prison for my membership of this non-violent group. Not long after, Amnesty International adopted me as a prisoner of conscience. Initially, I saw this as political expediency, as part of a strategy to help get me out of prison by using my 'enemies'. Slowly, however, things began to change. This was mainly when we made personal contact with an Amnesty man, and now good friend, John Cornwell.
Hizb ut-Tahrir was embarrassingly yet consciously neglectful in adopting our cause, despite the fact I had dedicated most of my youth to this group. To them, such issues were a distraction from the struggle. Once detained each member should be responsible for themselves. Our own 'enemies', like John, were helping us through the goodness of their hearts, yet our brothers were leaving us to rot. In truth, they were even criticising us from their armchairs for not presenting a defiant enough face for our 'enemies' before the world's media. This left us wondering what sort of human beings are created by this 'divine' ideology.
Every month or so, without fail, we would receive letters from John, listing for us all his humble efforts in securing our release. If no news was due on that front, he would tell us of his children, or their travels and their daily lives. For prisoners with no contact with the outside world, this was wonderfully refreshing. Such glaring contradictions to the assumption I had made about 'the other' lead me to begin questioning what I had been taught about my religion, Islam. For four years I embarked upon a detailed study programme to learn more about my faith, and the more I learned, the more I realised that Islamism, that modern cold political ideology, was not Islam, the religion of my heritag.
Soon after my release from prison I announced my unilateral resignation from Hizb ut-Tahrir, but more so I declared my intent on challenging their ideology headon. In stating what Human Rights mean to me, I say: Human Rights as practically demonstrated by very good people such as John Cornwell is what helped deliver me from the fringes of hatred and paranoia, to an appreciation for my fellow human beings.
I am now setting up a soon-to-be launched think tank aimed at countering the Islamist ideology and presenting mainstream Islam as the alterative. I hope to amplify this simple message of humanity, and continue to remain inspired by a good man from Buckinghamshire. I salute you Amnesty, keep up the good work!
Born free, born equal
The world came together after the Second World War to craft a Universal Declaration of Human Rights out of respect for the dignity of each human being. Remember Article 1: Every human being is born free and equal in dignity and rights.
This was the strength of the Universal Declaration, that it looked to the great religions in the world at that time and drew from them, that it did not just talk about rights but also, in Article 29, reminded people that everyone has duties to the community without which you don't reach the full expression of your personality.
During the UN Millennium Assembly when the largest ever opinion poll was carried out, the results showed that an overwhelming majority of people from all over the world identified the need for greater protection of human rights as their top priority. 9/11 did not in fact change much in the lives of most people on the planet. Human insecurity was already a daily reality before 9/11 for the hundreds of millions who live in absolute poverty or in zones of conflict and it remains so.
For these people insecurity is not equated with where a terrorist may strike, but instead with where tomorrow's only meal may come from or how a decent job may be found, when you've got 80 per cent unemployment, that will provide enough income to buy live-saving medicines, maybe, for a dying child.
For women gender is itself a risk factor threatening their security. The secret violence of household abuse, the private oppressions Article 20 Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association Article 21 Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country. The will of the people expressed through elections shall be the basis of the authority of government of lack of property and inheritance rights, the lifelong deprivations that go with a lack of schooling, and the structural problem of political exclusion.
The world needs to be reminded that every government in the world accepts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Making a difference
I get most of my values from my mother, Jenny - she has a strong sense of justice - and my Christian upbringing. I grew up in Leicestershire. I have two younger brothers - I am the only one who has gone into politics but the family is political with a small p. We always watch the news, argue about events (in the nicest way!).
Lots of people have inspired me along the way, people who campaign for change. My mum was among the first women to be ordained, she was campaigning for women rights even if she didn't know it. People in Brent, my constituency, such as Patsy Hopwood whose son was shot, and who set up an organisation to campaign against gun crime. The struggles in local communities may not hit the headlines but can be very potent.
My involvement in Guantánamo began because one of the detainees, Martin Mbanga, is my constituent. When I started working on his case I was quite a new MP, it was hard to know how I could help. I felt strongly that Guantánamo was abhorrent, but there was not a lot of information coming out. His letters were not even coming out to his family. The story Martin told when he was released, about how he had been mistreated, the hot and cold treatment, the humiliations, made it much more real and made me begin to understand what Guantánamo Bay did to people.
Jamil el Banna's family moved into my constituency before Martin was released. Guantánamo has taught me what you can achieve as an MP, about working with organisations like Reprieve and Amnesty, the breadth of links you can form and the enormous amount that was done behind the scenes to get Jamil released.
At the start of 2006 lawyer Clive Stafford Smith encouraged me to get my local paper to join me on campaign. The editor agreed and my fortnightly deadline gave me the focus to keep the momentum. This radically changed my ability to take action - and it also changed perceptions in the community. There was more of a sense that Jamil was one of our own, who was taken, and we wanted him back with us and his family.
Emotionally I got more and more involved, but it was bigger than getting to know the families well. It was the realisation of what can go wrong: Guantánamo Bay is a compelling symbol of what can happen when you lose due process, it is like standing on the edge of a human rights precipice.
About 18 months ago, we realised there was a deadline: Jamil was going to get cleared for release - but what if the British government wouldn't accept him back? He faced being sent back to Jordan. We had to build up as much pressure as we could. The news that Jamil was coming back to the UK was overwhelming. On 7 August, when the woman from the Foreign Office phoned to tell me - I just sobbed and sobbed! I had begun to give up hope. There is still the extradition issue, but at least he is in Europe, with some due process. I saw the family before Christmas: They were very happy, Jamil looked very tired - and the children were nagging him to cut his hair!
In the year ahead, I hope the government will encourage other governments to take back their refugees; we will only get Guantánamo closed if they do. But we also need to maintain pressure on the US to remove the other illegal detention sites. I hope the government will ratify the European Convention against Human Trafficking. And I am concerned about DNA datadase - three-quarters of young black men have their information held without having committed a crime.
Sarah Teather MP is chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Guantánamo Bay. See www.sarahteather.org.uk
Doctors and human rights
When I was in primary school, in white-ruled Rhodesia, you had to try and excel - even in primary if you failed the annual exam, you were kicked out. So I knew I had to stay in the system - and if I came out the other end, the options open to me would be doctor, lawyer or economist.
These career choices were to do with a free Zimbabwe, but in order to be free, one had to fight the system by being independent of the government.
My family home was always very political. One of my earliest political memories was when Ian Smith became Prime Minister - a lot of people coming and going at our house, talking about what to do. It was clear that Smith wasn't someone you could negotiate with, so there was a big struggle ahead. And of course injustice was made clear. My father Daniel was a leading nationalist and had been in prison since 1959, but that didn't stop the police from constantly coming to search our house in the middle of the night. At the end of each prison term my father would be released maybe for a week or for a day, and as soon as his stuff arrived at the house police would come and re-arrest him
. My father was an Amnesty prisoner of conscience. In 1969 he was the longest serving political prisoner in the world, by then 10 years in prison without a trial or conviction. He was eventually released in 1975. The Rhodesian government offered to release prisoners, usually into exile, if they renounced politics but my father refused those conditions. Amnesty offered to help, and he asked for help with our education. In 1969 when I finished primary school, the children of political prisoners were not allowed in the education system. An Amnesty group in Scandinavia arranged for me and my sister to be educated abroad, so I came to the UK. My sister's passport was blocked, but she eventually went to school in Botswana.
So in 1976 I came alone, at first to a boarding school where I was extremely lonely. Martin Ennals (former head of Amnesty) arranged for me to come to London and put me in a state school with his children - which was much better for me. There were people who understood what was happening in Zimbabwe, and I made friends with kids from many different backgrounds.
After independence, a lot of us were surprised and disappointed to find that many people who had been supported by Amnesty when they were oppressed did not take on board a lot of the human rights principles Amnesty stood for even leaders who enacted some of the progressive postindependence laws. This started me thinking, and in the early years of independence, I got involved with Zimbabwe's first human rights organisation, Zim Rights - which immediately came under attack from the establishment. For Zimbabwe ever to be truly free, human rights have to become part of the culture, and for me it is now more important to build up those institutions.
When I was in the medical school, the World Health Organisation slogan was 'Health for all by the year 2000', and in the early 1980s in Zimbabwe there was much talk about a people-centred health system. But this faded. In 2000 when violence erupted with government starting to torture people and beat people up, the role of health professionals began to be discussed again. We set up Doctors for Human Rights in 2002. It was extremely difficult to be openly associated with what we were doing but we persisted. Now, even with the current climate in Zimbabwe, we have gone from talking about the violence to issues like the number of women dying in pregnancy and HIV/AIDS.
I feel hopeful because people have made a stand. What people in Zimbabwe have done has been really brave. I feel disappointed that we don't have enough people standing up, and not enough of those who have left the country have interacted with the global human rights struggle. So in the event of political change, the benefit of the struggle in last 10-15 years may again not be translated into a new Zimbabwe. But Doctors for Human Rights has been able to link with other people regionally and globally and I hope we will keep the profile of health and human rights on the agenda.
In Zimbabwe and much of Africa, economies are poor and the people are poor. Poverty and poor health combine to make the poverty worse. But a lot of medical problems these days can be treated quite simply, quite easily. To give people the chance to be healthy, is to give them the chance to pick themselves up, to break a cycle. Health is central to turning the situation around in Africa, and certainly in Zimbabwe.
That knock on the door
My father was executed when I was five years old. One day, after lunch, when he was teaching my brothers Arabic grammar, someone knocked on the door and asked for him. We thought it was just a friend, but he was taken away and three days later we were told he had 'committed suicide' in custody. Looking back now, it is strange to realise that even at that age I was aware of torture and political prison.
My father was a trade unionist. From a very young age we were all exposed to ideas of human rights, justice, equality, democracy, oppression, prison. It was in the background all the time - as normal as talking about the weather, and not censored for children.
Our family was blacklisted officially, and socially too. My brothers would get upset, telling my mum they greeted a family friend, who just turned away. All my four brothers are older than me - the eldest was born in 1966 and I was born in 1975. I hated boys when I was growing up!
We weren't allowed to leave Libya as a family, and were under surveillance a lot. I was protected from it - but even so I was aware of it all. I look at my little daughter today and find it amazing to think a child of that age could know about all that. When he was five, Omar had an accident and the only solution in Libya was to remove his eye, but my father took him to Switzerland where they were able to save his eyesight, with many operations. That was why I was born in Switzerland. Every year as a family we went back for Omar's laser treatment. Omar's eye was central to our family life, my father had worked so hard to save it.
After my dad died, my mum requested permission to take Omar to Switzerland for his treatment. They allowed my mum and Omar and myself to go, but it was never straightforward, day after day, being passed from one official to another. In 1986 they relaxed on our visa, I remember being told we were going on holiday, but we were not coming back. Even at the airport the officials were arguing, 'they can't go they are on the blacklist', 'yes they can, they have a visa'. My mum was really scared.
I felt safe when we escaped to the UK. My biggest problem was getting used to a new language and culture; from being a good student in my country, I was the idiot.
Later at university I did human rights law. I did immigration work because I wanted to help. But it became too much for me, listening to people's accounts of torture every day was overwhelming, and I began to suffer depression. When we found out that Omar was in Guantánamo, it shocked me deeply, suddenly everything seemed completely mad. Suddenly our asylum law didn't apply to my brother, the UK government would not represent him, and said he should be helped by the Libyan government! Where were his human rights? It was a horrible time.
But the people I met in campaigning for Omar restored a lot of my hope in humanity. Many people really believe in human rights and fight for them in whatever way they can. That was a positive experience even in the horror of my brother being in Guantánamo for all those years. I have seen that the average person can make a difference even just by signing a petition, Omar was in a hopeless situation and all the campaigning and support made a difference.
My dearest hope now is for Omar to be cleared and that he can get better and get back to normal life, and most of all that he can turn this around and be productive and not let this ruin his life.
I hope people round the world take an interest in human rights, which seem to be eroding even in countries where they are well established. Once you lose a right you have to fight to get it back - I don't want my children to have to do that.
Words through walls
Solitary confinement is the worst experience I can think of. Our sanity was intact when we were released from prison because of developing an effective communication method which we called 'conversation by knocking on the wall' or 'Wall alphabets'. Many prisoners who did not discover this method became insane before they were released from solitary confinement.
When we were freed, we could not enjoy that freedom because of the news of what happened in the North (bombing, shelling and killing of thousands of people during the 1988 war between the Somali National Movement and the government forces in the major cities of the North). All our people were in refugee camps in Ethiopia, parents, relatives, friends and all those who survived the civil war. My father and elder brother died while I was in prison. The shock of that news helped us to forget about what happened to us during the solitary confinement because we realised that our people came through worse sufferings.
We decided to form a relief organisation to help our people in the refugee camps. That work helped us to rehabilitate psychologically and physically. Talking about our experience was another way of coping with post-stress traumatic syndrome. When the country was liberated from the dictator Siad Barre and everybody returned to their homes, we continued our humanitarian work.
My hope is that Somaliland will be free from human rights violations, which I still find not possible because of impunity. Many of those who committed crimes against humanity during the dictatorship have become senior officers in the current Somaliland government. The President of Somaliland was ex-Colonel of the National Security Service during the government of Siad Barre. These people have the protection of their clans and clanism is the curse of the Somali nation wherever they are.
But my greatest hope is that there will always be people who will fight and resist those human sufferings and rights violations. I support human rights organisations and other civil society organisations in Somaliland and they are making a difference in monitoring human rights standards, in visiting and monitoring the prisons and courts. And that is the least I can do to achieve 'Never Again'. I would not allow that the young people of this country to experience the inhuman conditions we came through.
When I was released from prison, I heard a lot of stories about the number of appeals and letters the government was receiving from thousands of Amnesty groups all over the world. I am sure that had an impact on our release in 1989. Many POCs go to sleep in their cells at night with the hope that Amnesty is addressing their cases and appealing for their release. I was one of those POCs.
I met the Amnesty group that supported my case in UK and I felt so grateful for their support and effort to help a person they have never met. That itself makes this world still a safe place.
Adan Abokor is the Somalia and Somaliland country representative for Progressio. He was director of Hargeisa Group Hospital in 1980 where he organised a self-help group to improve hospital conditions. In 1981 he and other members of the group were arrested. He was held for eight years. www.ciir.org