“At its Core Amnesty is About Human Rights”

In Conversation with Margo Dmochowska

It was a pleasure to meet Margo Dmochowska (she/her), via video call, to discuss her role as the President of Amnesty society. It was a joy to have her as the final interview in my Women in Activism series. Margo is a second year Politics and International relations student. We discussed human rights, the myths and misunderstandings surrounding refugees, and current events which Amnesty seek to aid. I was keen to meet with Margo after listening to Radiolab’s podcast series The Other Latif, which I wholeheartedly recommend. The podcast explores, in part, Guantanamo bay, the abuses of human rights which take place there are one of the many issues Amnesty seeks to change. For more information see the Amnesty website. Margo expressed to me clearly that “at its core Amnesty is about human rights, which is so universal, and can be supported by anyone, no matter where you are on the political spectrum.”

Margo explained that just as Amnesty is a grass roots movement internationally, that is emulated at a university level, with the society being member-led. Members have a chance to vote on what the society does. This year some of the key campaigns are: ensuring maintained momentum of Black Lives MatterLet’s Talk About Yes, which promotes consent culture; and Stop Killer Robots such as drones and bombs which often target civilians. In a world where instances of human rights abuses are terrifyingly high, I asked Margo how she and the society navigate the expanse of issues, “Living in an age of saturated media it can make you feel bad – like a bad human – for not knowing about everything that is going on. But this is why discussion with other members of the society is so important, learning from each other and finding out about issues which someone may have a particular interest in.” We explored the idea of saturated media that Margo referred to, raising the question of how to add to the conversation in a useful way. “You have to think actively about how you are using your privileged voice, without centring yourself in the story. And that is difficult because you can never completely dissociate from your ego, so it’s something you need to be mindful of”. Margo reminded me that trying to do good while you feel like everyone is watching is hard, so perhaps we should forgive ourselves when we are not perfect. 

Margo and I discussed staying motivated in activism work, “Amnesty hold annual general meetings for the whole of the UK, and one for students, and others for regional branches as well. At these conferences you can see the changes that have been made – you can see the value in the work. At the South West Regional Conference last March, a woman from Venezuela came to speak, she told us that she had been working to offer education for disadvantaged children, but her government had feared that she would turn children against them, so they imprisoned her. Her family reached out to Amnesty, and they began the Write For Rights campaign, people could write to her or write to their own governments in their own country. Write for Rights showed the human-rights-abuser, in this case the government which had imprisoned her, that people were watching and did not support them. On a more personal level, the woman told us that it had sustained her to receive these letters and know that people cared. She appreciated the work so much, and it put these little acts into perspective. You might think ‘what’s the point?’ and be disheartened but it really does make a difference. No one person can fix a big problem, but when we all get together it really can make a difference.”

I asked Margo how she became interested in Amnesty International, “I became part of the Amnesty committee at Durham, before Exeter, and went to my first student conference, I loved it so much – there was an amazing energy and I left the conference feeling so hyped up.” It is clear that Margo’s love and commitment to Amnesty has been sustained, “Something really wonderful about this society is that it brings branches of the university together – at our Jamnesty event students from across the university attend. There are talks where lecturers and students can be united in something that interests us all.” Jamnesty is an annual music variety and spoken word event to raise money for Amnesty International. 

One human rights crisis which has been in the public consciousness recently is the crisis in Yemen, Margo and I discussed the situation, “The UK send weapons to Saudi Arabia which they know will be used to bomb Yemen. And this is illegal, this is against international law. The government were actually taken to court”.  The court ruled the UK arms sales unlawful, read more here, but the UK has decided to resume the sale of arms. You can petition British complicity in bombing here. Margo explained a problem which can arise in law: “The law is a contentious place. We think that because something is written into law it will be respected, but it can be re-interpreted and side-stepped. This is why human rights are so important because they are indisputable.” 

Amnesty International regularly work with refugees, I asked Margo what she feels are regular misunderstandings surrounding refugees, “People often assume that refugees are the same as economic migrantsmoving to seek a career, they don’t realise they are actually fleeing from something. And what they are fleeing is even more terrifying than a refugee camp where they may be stuck for years. They knowingly go to a camp where fires and covid and many other risks are high, because it will still be better than the situation they are currently in.” Margo and I discussed the way in which framing refugees in this way allows individuals to care less, and to feel less empathetic towards them, as they may see refugees as responsible for their own destiny. 

Photo by Nicola Fioravanti on Unsplash I asked Margo what people can do to get involved, “We have started a campaign called Share Your Story, where people can right about their own experience of human rights or just their own reasons for interest in human rights, so we would love to hear people’s stories there.” Some might feel that people writing their own personal stories of human rights abuses here in Exeter is unlikely, however as Margo expanded, this is not the case: “I credit this point to the society vice president (Giulia Valentina) who raised at a recent meeting that many people are unaware of how many refugees there are at the university, either students or professors. And of course, we would never force people to come out and tell their stories if they didn’t want to, we just want to challenge the preconception that refugees would be easy to spot – when in reality they are just normal people.”  We discussed the dehumanisation and exploitation of refugees, “Recently the UK government decided to accept about 50 refugees from a camp in Greece who were all qualified doctors, it was only when we were low on doctors, they decided to see the refugee’s worth, that is an exploitation of refugees. Instead of basing the decisions of who is allowed into the UK on upholding individuals’ human rights they appear to be based on contingent politics which are changeable.” 

Amnesty seek to bridge the gap between the personal and political, at times taking ideas of personal freedoms out of the space of politics, because human rights are certainly not debateable. One thing was abundantly clear to me when I spoke to Margo: she was absolutely correct in saying “nice people care about human rights”.

Membership for Amnesty International Society is just £2, and they accept new members at any time. 

Margo’s Recommendations: