NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK — Kumi Naidoo spent his Sunday working on the speech he will deliver before the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit at the United Nations General Assembly Monday morning — his first in his role as Amnesty International’s secretary general.
For a life-long activist of his stripe — who fought apartheid in his native South Africa since the age of 15 and climbed Russian Arctic oil platform as the executive director of Greenpeace — facing a roomful of suites (diplomats and heads of state) might seem like a sedate mission.
But in going over the key points of his speech, Naidoo, 53, told ThinkProgress that he planned to praise the declaration (“it has all nice sounding words about peace, addressing poverty”), but then using quotes from Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. (in which King called on people to refuse to adjust to injustice), he will make the point that “Most of the world have heard this all before — it’s words not backed up by political will.”
In other words, Naidoo intends to make people feel very uncomfortable, touching on a number of issues: Climate change, the hell being lived by Rohingya people chased out of Myanmar at gunpoint, the treatment of Palestinians, and more.
He sat down with ThinkProgress to share his thoughts on the week to come at the United Nations, the effects of Donald Trump’s presidency, and how rights groups can effectively operate under the current political climate:
ThinkProgress: Much of of our news cycle is dominated by the words of one man… You’ve been in this game for a while…you’ve seen a lot of different types of leaders… What’s your perspective?
Naidoo: Firstly, I think the long term negative effect of Donald Trump will be a tragedy for the American people more than for the people of the world because…the most long-standing negative effect of Donald Trump will be the composition of the Supreme Court.
In the immediate and short-term, Donald Trump’s influence on the world is absolutely negative, more negative than any other U.S. president before him, but the rest of the world will recover, because, unfortunately, what Donald Trump is doing is actually undermining U.S. influence around the world, he’s not enhancing it… And some countries, where in the past they were worried about criticisms of them on media freedom or their policies or democracy and so on are like, “OK, we’re off the hook now.”
TP: Amnesty International has a local mandate, but…often times international human rights organizations put a lot pressure on the U.S. because it has a lot of power in the U.N. and in other realms, such as trade…. With the U.S. pulling out of the U.N. Human Rights Council and with National Security Adviser John Bolton saying the International Criminal Court is irrelevant to the U.S., how does that change how you operate?
Naidoo: In some ways the U.S. has always been inconsistent with how it plays on the international level — President Obama acknowledged that during his presidency, President Clinton acknowledged that after he left the presidency… So, for us, it’s not as if we’re in an entirely new position, but the way we will operate is where we can make common cause with the U.S. or any country on an issue, we will. So [U.S. ambassador to the U.N.] Nikki Haley has been positive on the Rohingya, so we’ll bank that, if you will, and work that. But where the U.S. is contrary to human right frameworks, we will oppose them as we would any other country.
TP: Is it possible for civil society groups, activists, and workaday people to really hold the U.N. accountable for its inaction or glacial movement?
Naidoo: This is an analytical issue: When the U.N. fails, whose failure is it?…I’ve worked with three secretary generals at the U.N… They would tell you, “What can we do when we have a system of governance at the U.N. which gives veto power to five countries?” …So in terms of holding the U.N. accountable, civil society has the only possibility of doing that …Look at the International Criminal Court. The U.S. opportunistically uses it when it suits them. They are not signatories. The International Criminal Court wants to prevent genocide and big-scale violence, but three of member of the P5 [Russia, China, and the U.S.] won’t sign it.
TP: What are three things you would like to see happen at this year’s UNGA and three things you know are going to happen but wish they wouldn’t?
Naidoo: Three things that I would like to see happen: A clear statement and commitment by the U.N. to act on the situation of the Rohingya people and to facilitate their return home [to Myanmar]. Secondly, to move beyond some of the broad statements made in the Sustainable Development Goals and begin to make progress with specific plans to implement at least a substantial number of goals. And third, to realize that [the U.N.] has a role in accountability and to stop impunity…
Three things that will happen, but I wish wouldn’t: Overall, there will be a lot of nice words not backed up by any plans about many issues… The second thing that won’t happen is a serious conversation about the reform of the U.N. Security Council… The third is that lip service will get paid to the role of civil society, but in effect, it’s just to tick off a box, to placate.
ThinkProgress: You’re concerned with the danger and obscenity of people becoming more comfortable with increasing levels of injustice and violence. Why is this happening?
Naidoo: Quite often we make the mistake of thinking that governments control us, through what you might call the repressive state apparatus… But actually, the more insidious and the more powerful form of control is in the deployment of the ideological state apparatus. We’re talking about the framework for education and the framework for media… So the U.S. does not need to deploy its repressive state apparatus because its ideological apparatus is so daunting… And the corporatization of media means people don’t get the diversity of opinion that they need. The other reason is the sophistication of state-controlled surveillance, which has also discouraged certain people from taking a public stand [on issues] because it means you get vilified.