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Fotis Filippou: Change needs to come through people power

By - 22.12.2018

Amnesty International’s European campaigns director talks mass mobilization, targeted messaging and the democratization of protests in the digital world.

For human rights defenders and activists, December 2018 marks a time to reflect on achievements, changes and activism over decades. Exactly 70 years ago, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which serves as a milestone document in the history of human rights, and sets out the fundamental human rights to be universally protected.

As the year draws to a close, an overview of the protests and the demands for a dignified life and respect shows that the world is far away from putting a stop to violations. When violations occur, human rights defenders such as Amnesty International’s Fotis Filippou try to shed light on the issues and demand change through advocacy work and campaigns.

Earlier this week, Filippou was a guest at K2.0’s last Volume UP edition of public talks and masterclasses of the year. The deputy regional director and campaigns director for Europe shared his experience on developing successful advocacy campaigns and effectively mobilizing people for human rights issues.

He has been leading the organization’s campaigns in the region over the last 12 years and has managed campaigns that have mobilized people around the world to take action; his actions have led to changes in policy, as well as improvements in people’s lives.

He has led campaigns on several human rights issues, including freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest, protection of human rights defenders, the rights of refugees and migrants, LGBTI people and minorities such as the Roma. He has also trained hundreds of activists and campaigners to use collaborative methods to plan effective, people-powered campaigns.

Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

K2.0 talked to him about women’s resistance in 2018, campaigns that have brought changes and how to communicate with the people who are needed to make change happen.

K2.0: Amnesty’s end of year annual report gives a lot of space to women’s rights. Is this a result of women-led activism in 2018, which has been very much highlighted through the many protests that have taken place throughout the whole year in different parts of the world? Or did the report just correspond with this by accident?

Fotis Filippou: It’s definitely not an accident. On the actual 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights we published “Rights Today,” which is our overview of the state of human rights in 2018 and we decided to focus it on women because obviously women were at the head of social change this year.

There were women’s rights movements across the word — from South Africa to India to the U.S., and to Ireland, Poland — who took to the streets and showed that change is possible. They demanded change and also demonstrated that despite the fact that we have had this Universal Declaration for 70 years, women’s rights are still not being fully recognized, still aren’t being fully respected and the struggle and fight for full equality and non-discrimination is still ongoing.

Reviewing the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, Amnesty made the question “How far have we come?” almost a motto, suggesting that there is still a long way to go. When we’re seeing the way in which minority groups and immigrants are being used as scapegoats today, there are some shadows of the years that led up to World War II. Isn’t all of this depressing in the 21st century?

It’s alarming. What we are seeing is basically politicians and leaders that want to present themselves as tough guy leaders attacking and using misogynistic policies, xenophobia and homophobia in order to push agendas … and spacegoat people in society.

Looking at women’s rights, for example, and the rhetoric around women in places like Poland and Hungary and other parts of the the world, this is something definitely raising alarm bells but it’s also part of the reality that women across the world, including in other countries, are still suffering abuse and discrimination but it is not being addressed.

One of the issues that we have looked at, for example, is online abuse that women face in several countries, including in the UK for example. Women, trans individuals and non-binary people are more likely to face that kind of abuse and at the same time, we are seeing that companies such as Twitter for example are not taking the necessary action to prevent it.

"Social media has definitely made campaigns much more democratic, much more open and much more accessible."

On one hand, social media creates the space for furthering the use of hate speech but on the other hand it also helps online activism and campaigning.

Social media has been a force for good in many ways when it comes to movements for example … women around the world raising their voices and speaking out against abuse and harassment. It has been a great way for people and movements to organize and mobilize. We have seen millions of people going out on the streets and protesting against restrictions to abortion and mobilizing against sexual abuse in places like Ireland for example, and we have seen women taking to the streets in Argentina and protesting against restrictions to abortion.

This is is something that has triggered, in a way, positive cultural change, which is absolutely necessary. A lot of these issues — when it comes to discrimination against women, when it comes to rape, when it comes to sexual harassment — of course we need to address changes in laws and policies but we also need to shift the conversation and culture around these issues, and social media has been key in contributing toward taking steps forward in that direction.

What is the most important change that social media and the internet have brought to campaigning?    

It’s made it more open. More people, not just big organizations or professional campaigners, can now access tools that can help them organize, communicate and mobilize for pushing human rights causes, environmental causes and basically push for social change. We are seeing platforms that offer the possibility for anyone to start their own campaign.

Obviously, social media can be used by anyone to connect and bring together the community of people that are fighting for the same cause and this has definitely made campaigns much more democratic, much more open and much more accessible to people who wouldn’t necessary be able to do that without being connected to specific groups or organizations in the past.

What do you consider to have been a successful campaign this year?

One of the biggest victories in 2018 was the abortion referendum in Ireland. This is something that women’s organizations and women activists have been fighting for years and something that Amnesty has been working on for a number of years now.  

One of the biggest successes of that campaign was connected to the stories that courageous, brave women were sharing, bringing the issues and the impact that the eighth amendment of the Irish constitution [which made abortion illegal] was having on them. It was a campaign that inspired a lot of people to vote and a campaign that inspired a lot pf people to make that necessary change based on values, compassion, dignity, equality, and respect. This is something that inspired many of us watching and following the campaign.

Obviously, the struggle for sexual reproductive rights continues in different countries and Amnesty and others are campaigning to change this.

Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

The referendum to legalize abortion in Ireland was a big success for human rights activists, but protests in Argentina didn’t bring about the same change. What is crucial for change to happen?

The reality with these issues is that change doesn’t happen from one day to another. In Ireland, change didn’t happen overnight. And women’s groups have been campaigning for this for a long time to make the change in the constitution.

Amnesty started its campaign quite a few years ago and joined the women’s rights movements who were [already] campaigning for this. In 2018, we reached a moment when the people in Ireland took a stance for this significant change to happen, which is of course a historical victory, and is something that we’re now campaigning to ensure that women in other parts of the world have the same rights.

And in Argentina, what we’ve seen is that of course it was not the end point, we didn’t see the final win but we have seen that wave of change getting stronger, all these women basically raising their voices, and this is something that is going to happen.

Change is coming. And we are seeing progress as a result of this mobilization.

In practice, how do you plan a campaign? What are the things that are necessary to be foreseen and thought of?

The main question is having a good understanding of the problem and the system in which the problem is operating, and to try to see what needs to change in order for that issue to be effectively addressed. And that should include not just a symptom of an issue.

For example, let’s say we are looking at rape laws — that many countries in Europe do not recognize that sex without consent is rape. Looking at changes in legislation is one aspect of it, but looking at wider structural issues, including gender norms and stereotypes, is equally important. So we are looking at what the change is that we want to bring about and what levels of change need to happen.

And we need to identify who are the different audiences that can help us get to that. Who can help us make that change, and then we come out and identify what the issues are. We are seeing that change in many of these issues needs to come through people power.

So in order for us to be able to get people with us we need to look at how people understand these issues, what would motivate people, what would be a barrier for people to take action, and then we need to come up with messaging, framing, communication, tactics and activities that speak to the understanding of the issues by these people, that speak to their needs, that connects their hearts and minds behind a very clear call to action.

"We're trying to break down what it is that connects us as people and the common humanity that we all share."

You mentioned campaigning for changes in legislation in EU countries to recognize that sex without consent is rape. The Findings of Amnesty’s analysis were alarming and triggered an urgent call for action.

Out of 31 countries that were part of that study only eight recognize in law that sex without consent is rape. And this is something we are working with women’s groups about on the ground. We are listening to brave women, survivors of rape, who are speaking up, who are raising their voices and we are standing with them in their efforts to change the legislation but also to change public attitudes.

We have seen that in many countries … a lot of these attitudes are based on gender norms and stereotypes that women are responsible for the way they dress, responsible for having to say no. And what they are saying actually is ‘no’ — unless there is explicit consent, unless there is a ‘yes,’ sex is basically rape.

So we launched the campaign Let’s Talk About Yes to generate conversations, to get people to talk about these issues and to acknowledge in law, but also in attitudes, that sex without consent is rape.

[The result of not having rape defined in legislation is] people being acquitted, people being charged with different offenses, but not with rape. This means that women survivors of rape cannot find justice, but also they might not report it. They might not seek justice for what they suffered. That’s why it’s so important to have changes in laws because it can help to push change in attitudes and behaviors.

When you think of the state of human rights in Europe, would you point to countries that you think have the need to more urgently address violations or that are more concerning in terms of their respect for rights?

It’s very difficult to point to a particular country. Because obviously we have seen human rights violations and different issues at different levels in different countries and change in many of these cases is never easy.

Even in the places where there are a lot of human rights abuses that we are working on, you can still see that fighting and mobilization and people’s activism can bear fruits, like in Turkey, for example. And people being defiant despite restrictions, oppression, might still gain some victory.

We have definitely been struggling in the context of where we are in Europe right now with all the scapegoating, spreading of fear, hate and demonization. And things when it comes to the shrinking space for civil society, for example, are becoming increasingly difficult. The issues relating to refugees and migrants are increasingly toxic and we are seeing the EU continuing an approach that is about building a fortress, keeping people out, with little regard anymore to the naming and shaming approach that potentially worked more in the past.

So, what we are focusing on is building, not just Amnesty but all of us that are working in these issues on strengthening movements, strengthening people’s ability to mobilize and campaign on these issues and supporting grassroots initiatives that are emerging, that are resisting that kind of direction, that are promoting a positive vision of what our societies look like, societies that are built on the principles of solidarity, dignity and compassion.

One the things that you need to reflect upon when planning a campaign is how to communicate to people that don’t necessarily support the cause but that are on the other side. How do you target the mindset of those people?

What it comes down to is the shared values that people have on any issue. Shared values of respect, dignity, equality and compassion are the things that make the difference. This is what we are trying to do across all the campaigns that we’re working on. To identify what are the shared values that are at the root of the change we want to address, and what are the shared values of the people we are trying to mobilize and engage.

We have been working, for example, on migration and the rights of refugees, and this is where we’re trying to focus on the values of solidarity and community and to focus on the many people who are actually ready to welcome refugees in their communities, who are ready to offer help and solidarity to people that are seeking refuge and a better life in Europe.

These are the principles and values that we are talking about, and we are trying to communicate with people that might have other problems in their life and may not necessarily immediately care about this issue, but ultimately we are trying to break down what it is that connects us as people and the common humanity that we all share.K

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in English.

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.