Steven W. Hawkins To Highlight the Connections with Human Rights Abuses in the U.S. As Crucial Step Toward Increasing Activism on Global Stage
(NEW YORK) - Taking the helm of Amnesty International USA, Steven W. Hawkins, the veteran social justice leader and litigator, said today he wants to harness the commitment and passion of young people concerned about human rights issues at home - using digital tools in a "borderless world" - to join the global fight against threats to the human rights of migrants, women, the LGBT community and people living in poverty and abuses by repressive governments.
Hawkins, an attorney at the forefront of civil liberties in the United States who also witnessed the struggle against injustices in Zimbabwe and South Africa, said young Americans who want to make a difference are connected as never before through the digital world and Amnesty is uniquely positioned as the world's biggest grassroots human rights organization to empower them to take action to protect human rights at home and overseas.
Sending a hopeful, inspiring message to young Americans, Hawkins said: "If you're outraged by the way immigrants are treated in the United States, you can make a difference by engaging in the fight to protect migrants around the world. If you care about LGBT rights at home, you must get involved in this life-or-death rights struggle in other countries. If you want to end the exploitation of workers at home, help Amnesty amplify its voice by taking action in support of factory workers in Bangladesh and other places. If the abuses in the U.S. criminal justice system ignite your passion, you can join others engaged in this struggle elsewhere around the world. Together, we are a powerful force and together, we can protect the freedoms of people everywhere."
Hawkins said his vision for Amnesty USA - to "Bring Human Rights Home" - will rely heavily on the use of innovative digital platforms to connect human rights activists across the globe.
Speaking on his first day as Amnesty USA's Executive Director, as Secretary of State John Kerry was expected to sign the Arms Trade Treaty, which Amnesty fought for 20 years to see adopted, Hawkins said: "The human rights movement has no borders, and there are no limits to what we can accomplish. Though our accomplishments are many, our challenge today is to use the extraordinary power of our digital world to open the eyes of young people who are concerned about rights here to fight alongside those who are waging similar struggles around the world. We must harness the passion and commitment we see at home and connect these voices to millions more demanding respect for the same rights in distant places."
He noted the outcry in the United States over the jailing of the punk group Pussy Riot as one example of the extraordinary power of a connected world to fight abuses of human rights.
"There are abuses like those against Pussy Riot in Russia happening in other places. If we can ignite passions over this case, as we have, we can do so in Bahrain, in Brazil, in India, in Zimbabwe - in countries all over the globe."
Growing up in Ossining, New York, Hawkins' lifelong commitment to social justice was awakened in high school on a field trip to the notorious Sing Sing prison.
"I had conversations with inmates whose freedom had been robbed at an early age by an unjust legal system, but who still maintained a value for human rights," he said. "They saw potential in me - treated me like a younger brother and helped me find a passion to fight injustice at a critical turning point in my life. Their faith and commitment to justice continue to inspire me every single day."
Hawkins has defended civil liberties and human rights for 25 years, most recently with the NAACP and in the past, with the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. As a lawyer, he won the release of three black teens wrongfully convicted in Tennessee. He also taught in post-apartheid South Africa during the early stages of Nelson Mandela's presidency and spent a year in Zimbabwe where he witnessed violence and threats against people in the first independent vote.
"He was selected from a field of candidates because of his experience as an advocate in grassroots movements and his deep personal commitment to social justice," said Ann Burroughs, chair of the Amnesty USA board and herself an activist, who was imprisoned in her native South Africa during apartheid and freed when Amnesty supporters and volunteers protested and appealed for her release.
"In a very dangerous world, we need many more people to defend individuals and communities under threat for demanding their rights," said Burroughs. "Steve has done so for decades with an exceptional vision and commitment. We are thrilled to have him guide us to help inspire many more activists to join our cause."
Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million members in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth, and dignity are denied.