Amnesty in action

Alumni — By on October 20, 2017 1:27 pm

Alumnus Grant Bayldon (BA/BCom 1998) speaks to Judy Wilford on freedom and the fight for human rights.

“It could hardly have been a more tumultuous time. From Yemen to Syria to South Sudan to Burundi we’ve seen terrorism at its ugliest, war that has descended into the moral abyss of bombing hospitals and schools and behind it all the stench of superpower politics.”

These are the words of Grant Bayldon, executive director of Amnesty International, in his powerful introduction to an opinion piece published in the Dominion Post in July last year on New Zealand’s obligations and achievements during its two-year term in the UN Security Council.

He continues: “The biggest cause of horror has been the rise of explosive weapons in densely-populated areas, many of them dropped by plane. An astonishing 92 percent of the victims of these attacks have been civilians. Families like yours and mine, queuing for food, walking to school, running for shelter.”

His words are clear and strong. They are also an example of one of his own obligations in the position he holds – and of the main function of Amnesty International – to campaign to change the structures and systems that keep people oppressed, using strong, truthful voices to hold governments, businesses and organisations to account.

Grant’s conclusion on New Zealand’s Security Council performance, looking back from now, was, on balance, favourable: “The NZ Government did good work on practical steps to improve civilian protection. It also helped progress the move towards getting rid of the veto [the power given to each of the five permanent Security Council members to veto any UN resolution]. Now there’s a new initiative led by the French of voluntary veto restraint. And at least the UN is talking about it now.”

Amnesty International is not a thinktank, says Grant, and it doesn’t establish development projects or give aid. Its work is based on the International Declaration of Human Rights, and its purpose is to create a chorus of voices to make a difference, with a focus on really tangible change that will affect individual people’s lives.

“One of my roles is to keep us focused on those campaigns where we can achieve wins,” says Grant.

And one of the recent wins has been on the “Double the quota” campaign, designed to persuade the New Zealand Government to lift the quota of refugees (unchanged for 30 years) from 750 to 1,500 – at a time when more people are being forced to flee from their homes than at any other time since World War II.

Amnesty is glad to have the support of other organisations such as AVAAZ (a US-based group that campaigns on issues of conservation and human rights). “What we’re trying to do, especially with government, is demonstrate that people really care about what we’re attempting to change. The more voices we have the better. And in this case, some quite unlikely allies came out: we were supported by celebrities and businesses, plus every political party except the government – including New Zealand First. It’s very powerful when you get voices from places you wouldn’t expect.”

Though the numbers weren’t doubled, they did go up to 1,000, which still gives reason to celebrate. “That’s 250 extra people each year who can restart their lives and get to safety. That’s not a small thing. And we haven’t finished yet,” he adds with a smile.

Another current issue close to home is the abuse of asylum seekers and refugees in offshore detention by the Australian government.

“We definitely need to hear much more from the New Zealand government on this issue,” he says.

From Grant’s own life there’s at least one lesson to learn: if you want to have a mid-life crisis, best do it early.

At age 33 and at a high point in a successful career – as CEO of a Christchurch-based national law firm with a long history and a proud reputation – Grant was in a department store buying carpet for the lifestyle block he and his wife had recently bought, when he was suddenly struck by a compelling realisation: “This is not the life I intended to lead. What am I doing here? How did this happen?”

Not that it hadn’t been a great life so far, but he wanted something different, “something more” – something in tune with the conviction he’d had, even as a schoolboy at Auckland Grammar, that success was about much more than having a comfortable professional career.

With immediate, warm encouragement from his wife, Helen, he started exploring a whole new set of options which led him first into a fundraising role with Tearfund, an international development organisation. This meant relocating to Auckland – “at a third the pay and with houses at twice the price,” Grant says ruefully – but with an unrepentant smile. He now cycles to work and lives “the good life” in Mt Roskill, with his wife, four children, bees, chickens and a dog.

Next was into marketing at Oxfam, where he later became deputy director (and director of operations) before being invited to take his present position, which he describes as his “dream job. Amnesty gives the ultimate environment for working on systems and structures and creating change, because that’s what it’s all about.

“It was also a chance to lead an organisation that has incredible international respect and a wealth of global knowledge and experience. We’re present in 70 countries and work in about 150. The name, Amnesty International, opens doors with governments, media and decision-makers in ways that few others do in the international space.”

Though the tradition of writing floods of letters (originally mainly to help free “prisoners of conscience”) has been largely replaced by on-line communication, members are encouraged to use both: “As mail volumes go down, letters become more powerful because it’s becoming much rarer to receive them.”

I ask about the challenges, which he admits can be confronting.

“You can’t overstate the levels of abuse and damage that human beings will do to each other – and working for a human rights organisation we see every day what that means. Here in New Zealand we’re insulated, but those are the issues we’re working on.”

Grant’s most recent trip overseas was as part of a mission to Sri Lanka, where a report was being launched on the history of disappearances.

“Tens of thousands of people have disappeared over the years – perhaps hundreds of thousands – many picked up by death squads and bundled into white vans, never to be seen again. The civil war finished in 2009 and a lot has improved since then, but there is still in many places a climate of fear and intimidation by security forces, and there’s been almost no justice for what’s gone on in the past.”

Grant met with quite a few groups of families, mainly mothers.

“Some of them are still holding silent vigils, holding photos of their loved ones, holding onto hopes that they are still alive, still imprisoned somewhere. Often the women are within a few kilometres of a military base: they’re seeing the people go past every day that they think are responsible.”

One of the paths for bringing the Sri Lankan Government to account has been international pressure, so Amnesty International sees its role as part of that.

“We can come in and say things it’s not safe for the local people to say,” says Grant, though he adds a hasty proviso. “We always have to take the lead from those who are living there. We need to be sure that what we do makes them safer, not less safe.”

Is it difficult to stay politically neutral when speaking out strongly on human rights abuses?

“I don’t find it a challenge because we can absolutely take sides on issues,” says Grant. “If a government has closed its borders and is turning back refugees, probably sending them back to their deaths, then we can and do take sides on that. What we can’t do is endorse any particular party or leader.

“We still get constantly criticised for being biased, but it’s quite reassuring that we get accused of bias by both sides at the same time.”

Grant, who majored in sociology for his arts degree and always had an interest in social justice, is “a big fan of a liberal arts education. There were real challenges for a 17 or 18-year-old going into courses like sociology, or even economics or political science. They made you really think about your assumptions, and question things you’ve never questioned before about the way the world works. It was quite a defining experience for me. But I was also keen to do something that would give me a good professional start, so I did a Commerce degree as well – I guess it was a buck each way.”

Grant sees the universities and Amnesty International as closely aligned in the value they place on freedom of thought.

“In so many countries academics are persecuted, along with journalists and human rights advocates. There’s not the freedom to explore ideas in the way we take for granted in New Zealand. An example is the sweeping purges taking place now in Turkey, with thousands of journalists and university staff fired or in prison.”

Grant has good reason to be aware of this. His counterpart in Turkey, the executive director of Amnesty International, and its chairperson, are both in prison now for speaking out to protect human rights.

“In New Zealand we’re very lucky,” says Grant. “We don’t have to be brave to criticise the government. In a lot of the countries we’re working in you do absolutely have to put your life, your family, your freedom on the line.”

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