Bringing Human Rights Home: A Message From Amnesty USA Executive Director Steven W. Hawkins

September 25, 2013

I grew up in the shadow of Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York. As a boy, I would walk by Sing Sing and hear the inmates talking, a stark and sobering reminder of the dashed dreams of the many men I knew growing up who ended up impoverished, incarcerated or killed. Young men like my childhood best friend, who is currently serving a life sentence.

For many activists who join the struggle for human rights, there is a transformative moment, which inspires a lifelong commitment to social advocacy. For me, that moment came inside the walls of Sing Sing prison.

Steven W. Hawkins, Executive Director of Amnesty International
Steven W. Hawkins, Executive Director of Amnesty International

In high school, as a NAACP youth member, I had the opportunity to visit there. The voices I overheard outside the penitentiary became deep and personal conversations with inmates during my trips inside. Through my conversations with these men, many of them Black Panthers or inmates from Attica who fought inhumane prison conditions, I learned that prison bars are not a barrier to activism, that a life sentence is not a roadblock to compassion or to making a contribution. The inmates of Sing Sing 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.

After my visits to Sing Sing, I knew I could no longer be a passive witness to injustice. I became an avid reader and student, eventually earning my law degree. The courtroom became my first battleground for fighting injustice.

For the past 25 years, I have defended civil liberties and human rights both here and abroad and today, I am honored to be joining Amnesty International USA as its Executive Director to continue that fight.

The human rights movement is “borderless” and we have the opportunity to educate and connect more people on a very personal level to injustices globally by bringing human rights home. 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.

Together, we are a powerful force and together, we can protect the human rights of people everywhere.

Amnesty International USA is uniquely positioned to connect discrimination against the LGBT community here in the United States to the discrimination and the LGBT community in Russia, Uganda, and Honduras experiences. We can connect police torture and illegal surveillance that occurs in the United States to similar abuses occurring in China, Egypt and elsewhere. We can connect a young woman in the U.S. fighting for reproductive freedom to women in El Salvador, Ireland and other countries who are fighting for the same rights.

The commitment to justice I learned from the men of Sing Sing continues to inspire me every single day. It is because of them that I am committed to making these connections and reinforcing that the struggle for human rights is personal and relevant to everyone.

We have to see injustice against any person’s human rights regardless of where they live in the world as a personal affront to our own rights. We have to view human rights abuses as a call to action to do everything in our power to improve the world until we achieve Amnesty’s vision of 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 standards.

Now more than ever, the U.S. and the rest of the world need the voices, the grassroots advocacy, the activism and the commitment to justice that Amnesty represents.

I look forward to working with you to fight for OUR rights and ALL rights at home and around the world.