10/01/2013 03:47 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Sarah Beamish On Why She Fights For Human Rights at Home and Abroad

Sarah Beamish is the newest member of Amnesty International's International Board. She is the second Canadian in Amnesty's 52-year history to be on the International Board. She reflects with me on her long service to the cause of human rights here at home and abroad as well reflects on the voice she wants to bring to the world arena as a proud Canadian human rights activist.

Congratulations on being elected as a member of Amnesty International's International Board. What are some of the signature initiatives you would like to bring to your new position?

Thank you. I have ideas and opinions about Amnesty's future, but no "signature initiatives" that I would like to bring. That is partly because the Board makes decisions as a team and so I think I would be getting ahead of myself to assume that the whole group would support and put resources towards something. It is also because any decision about what to do should be made in a context of knowing what the needs, resources, and existing initiatives are, and so I'd like to spend some time in the role watching and learning first.

I think that it is more important to elect board members with particular skills and approaches than those with particular campaign promises, since some of the board's most important work can be reactive and unanticipated.

You have spent over three years as President of Amnesty Canada, and have much experience in the field of human rights with groups like the Center for Public Interest Law in Ghana and with One Justice Project, along with being a JD and MGA candidate at the University of Toronto. Share with me some of the highlights.

I have been a human rights activist for at least 15 years with many different organizations. The great news is that the highlights during that time are too many to list! I can list one highlight with two of the organizations you mention.

With Amnesty, one big highlight is every time I have had some sort of contact with someone for whom I took an action. Sometimes that has been receiving a handwritten letter from someone in prison, and at even better times it has been meeting them or hearing from them in person when they were in a safe place. Some of these people include Naser al-Raas, Jenni Williams, Maher Arar, Shirin Ebadi, Jacqueline Kasha Nabagesera, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Sister Maudilia López Cardona.

Earlier this year I was at a hotel in the United States and I looked up at the breakfast buffet and across from me filling up his plate was Father Alejandro Solalinde Guerra, for whom I had written several letters over the past few years. It was a wonderful moment, so rich with feelings of human connection and hope.

With the Centre for Public Interest Law, one highlight was meeting human rights defender named Stephen who lived and worked in the Western Region of Ghana. I met him while I was there researching the impacts of a gas infrastructure project, and he was invaluable in helping my team make connections with local communities and gain their trust. This man was a teacher from a community that had been badly impacted by a gold mining operation, and for over 7 years he had been educating others about their rights and fighting for justice and accountability for the harms suffered by his community and other mining-affected communities in the region.

He did this work at great personal cost. He had been bribed, intimidated, slandered, demoted, and had personal relationships strained. He was tired and had nearly lost hope that mining companies would ever be held accountable in Ghana - yet he continued to do this work. He was such a principled person, and some of the most important and thankless human rights activism is done by people like him.

You have had an interesting life as a human rights activist for a long time. It must be a fulfilling journey. Why is the cause of human rights important to you?

There are many reasons. My involvement with human rights activism as a very young person was rooted in both my strong sense of fairness and justice, and my do-something attitude. Both of those have remained important drivers of my activism, and as I got older I think the idea of rights was also a useful tool for helping me understand why and when I should be respectful of authority and why and when I should challenge it.

In more recent years as I have studied political science, law, and global affairs, I have appreciated how essential human rights are for achieving so many of our most fundamental collective goals like security, peace, justice, prosperity, and development, in a way that is inclusive and sustainable. I am also a human rights activist for some more personal reasons because of various ways that my loved ones and I have had our human rights denied.

Certainly my understanding of human rights has become more complex, and I have been challenged to think about the difficulties and limits of human rights in theory and practice, about the potential of human rights to be used for both conservatism and for radical change, and of how we embrace the empowering and equalizing potential of human rights when much of the power and resources needed to realize that potential are in the hands of actors that benefit from various kinds of inequality and oppression.

These are complex things to address. But in my experience, life as a human rights activist has been a life dedicated to challenging oppression and to promoting equality, dignity, and freedom. For me it is fulfilling because it is a way of life that is constructive, principled, engaged, challenging, and connected to others. I can't imagine not being a human rights activist.

There are many people who question whether AI is still effective in fulfilling its noble objectives. Looking back on the last decade, what is some of the work of AI that motivates you to continue your activist journey?

My motivation as an activist is rooted in my principles and my drive to engage with the world, and is not inherently tied to any particular organization. However given that I volunteer hundreds of hours with Amnesty each year, I obviously get a lot of inspiration from Amnesty's work and my fellow members. Amnesty work offers such a compelling mix of both immediate and long-term victories. In recent years I have been particularly drawn to our economic, social, and cultural rights work, and our corporate accountability work.

I would challenge anyone who questions whether Amnesty is effective in fulfilling its objectives. Amnesty envisions "a world in which every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments. In pursuit of this vision, Amnesty International's mission is to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of these rights."

We can always improve and we actively do so, but as a whole our record of effectiveness in achieving our vision and mission is solid. We make a positive difference in a substantial portion of the individual cases we work on; just today I received news that Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, a Canadian who was on death row in Iran, has been released after his family and many Amnesty members campaigned on his behalf for several years. We are active at national and international levels in encouraging law that respects human rights. We have been instrumental in the campaigns for things like the Arms Trade Treaty and the International Criminal Court.

We are a trusted source of research and analysis, often sounding the alarm about human rights crises before the world media or major political actors are paying attention. We are a valued and sometimes lifesaving partner to many grassroots human rights organizations and defenders. It is also important to recognize that much of our work is less tangible because it is done through things like human rights education projects and public awareness campaigns that contribute to building a global culture of understanding, valuing, and claiming human rights.

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