A month after Kumi Naidoo took over at the helm of Amnesty International, the humanitarian organization’s new secretary-general visited the refugee camps on the Greek island of Lesvos in the northeastern Aegean. In spite of his long experience in the struggle for human rights, the Durban-born Naidoo was shocked at the living conditions he encountered at the facilities. “It was horrible and shocking,” he said of conditions at the island’s notorious Moria facility, pointing out that they were worse than those he found in similar camps in Africa.
A few days later, Kathimerini caught up with Naidoo on the sidelines of the One Young World Summit in The Hague, where he moderated the panel on human rights. We discussed the conditions in island refugee camps, the responsibilities of the Greek state and the European Union, and the future of human rights against a backdrop of growing challenges.
The latest reports from Moria have confirmed an atrocious reality with extremely unsafe conditions for the migrants and refugees. A recent New York Times article featured an Afghan migrant who fled from war saying that the camp is so despicable that “it would have been better to drown while crossing the sea.” Having visited the camp earlier this month, do you confirm this reality?
The question of refugees globally but specifically what is happening on the threshold of Europe today is a big priority for Amnesty International. Indeed, I visited Moria about three weeks ago and I can confirm exactly what you said. I was horrified to see some of the worst living conditions on one of the richest continents in the world. I have been to African refugee camps in Kenya, with over 30,000 people. Though they were no paradise, refugees enjoyed significantly more dignity in those camps compared to the hell of Moria.
We need to urgently rectify the situation, especially with winter approaching and bearing in mind that many people died in those camps last year. The call that Amnesty is making echoes the call of Medecins Sans Frontieres. We are asking for people to be evacuated off the islands, to close the island camps and to cancel the EU-Turkey deal, which was set up to create such an atrocious situation.
Recently there have been allegations, and now an ongoing investigation, on the potential misuse of EU funds by the Greek government that could explain the horrible conditions in the camp. In your view, who is responsible for the situation at Moria?
Such a situation can only have multiple parties responsible. We are definitely waiting to see what the investigation reveals, but regardless of that, it is not simply a question of the Greek government’s responsibility. The terrible thing here is that the Greek government was probably the least prepared economically to handle the situation given what the country has gone through, and that Europe is complicit and enabled today’s terrible reality. If the European Union as a whole cannot respect international refugee law – which was designed historically for European migration before, during and after WWII – then the EU that once won the Nobel Peace Prize has absolutely no legitimacy.
An increasing number of EU governments are taking an anti-immigration stance and xenophobic narratives are heard more and more frequently. How would you respond to those?
I think we all need to look at the concept of international refugee law and international humanitarian law. It was very much set to protect European migration when European people were facing the terrible aftermath of the World War. Governments and people in Europe need to remember how much they needed the solidarity that Argentina, the US and elsewhere offered at the time to absorb people that needed to migrate. If it was right for Europe at that time, then surely people facing similar circumstances today need to be treated with the same respect.
In Amnesty’s latest human rights report, you mention that the challenges human rights are facing today are continuously expanding. In Turkey, for example, Amnesty International’s local chairman Taner Kilic was detained for more than a year. With continuously shrinking democratic space around the world, what is the future for human rights?
Indeed situations like what happened to Taner in Turkey are an alarming global trend. We are seeing many countries around the world – the latest being Hungary – crushing the peaceful right to protest or any advocacy of alternative views. This is something which we all have to resist, and I see that resistance building up globally. I hope that it will continue to rise with momentum.
Despite those trends, the concept of human rights is not dying out. Though it is being challenged severely, that challenge does not necessarily weaken it. You see, even though it might set it back for a while, in the long term it could actually strengthen it. In a way we are seeing more and more people globally who want to be a part of the human rights struggle. For example, when US President Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris agreement, that didn’t weaken the climate change treaty but it actually strengthened it and called more attention to it.
Given that we met in the context of the One Young World Summit, and in order to end the interview on a note of optimism, what is your message for young leaders around the world?
They must not accept that they will be leaders of the world tomorrow – they should embrace their leadership today. Young people today have something that my generation didn’t have: a freshness of perspective on older problems. In my generation, people stayed around for too long and kept offering old solutions to old problems. Today, more than ever, we need young leaders and their new solutions.