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English speakers gather for human rights

AITEN offers English line of communication to Amnesty Int'l

by Minoru Matsutani

Amnesty International Tokyo English Network offers English speakers, both native and otherwise, an opportunity to participate in the activities of the worldwide human rights organization Amnesty International while in Japan.

AITEN holds monthly meetings, open to all and free of charge, at the Amnesty International Japan office in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward. The meetings are usually held on the second Tuesday of the month, excluding August.

At the meetings, newcomers are briefed on the group’s activities, which involve such human rights issues as the death penalty and refugee acceptance. Reports are given on other recent developments as well.

The July meeting welcomed six newcomers, including an Amnesty International Japan volunteer. The meeting was chaired by Chris Pitts, associate professor of English at Kyoritsu Women’s Junior College in Tokyo.

Pitts has been organizing the AITEN, which was founded 20 years ago, for 14 years. He explained that normally active members are present at the meeting but that many were out of Japan for summer vacation. “We have lots of enthusiastic people from many different countries,” Pitts said and introduced the meeting’s six participants, one person each from the U.S., Italy, Taiwan, and the Philippines, and two from Japan.

AITEN boasts over 40 members from more than 10 countries, including Japan.

At the July meeting, Pitts did not report on AITEN’s recent events because all the participants that evening were attending for the first time. Most of the meeting was taken up by a lengthy explanation of Amnesty International’s activities, one of which involves writing protest letters to governments and other organizations that infringe on human rights, such as when people are detained for expressing their opposition to their governments.

“If you take action you can make things better,” Pitts emphasized. “We do know from feedback we get that Amnesty’s letter writing is effective.”

The reason for its effectiveness, he believes, lies in the fact that not just one person is writing, but hundreds of thousands of people are writing. “All of them are confident it’s something worth doing,” he said.

London-based Amnesty International, founded in 1961 by a British lawyer by the name of Peter Benenson, also holds public meetings to raise awareness of human rights issues and to raise funds for its activities, Pitts explained.

AI, according to Pitts, never accepts money from governments and rarely from corporations.

All Amnesty International activities are based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948, he said. AI now has 2.2 million members. It won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 and the U.N. prize in the field of human rights in 1978.

Amnesty International Japan was founded in 1970, became a nongovernmental organization in 2000 and has 6,500 members and 20,000 supporters, he said. Supporters pay a ¥1,000 membership fee but do not have voting rights in the annual general meeting.

Amnesty International Japan’s focus this year is a campaign against the death penalty. Pitts said that an Asiawide anti-death penalty conference with delegates from other Asian countries to Japan is in the works.

Japan is one of the very few developed countries where the number of executions is on the rise. Pitts said that the global trend is to abolish the death penalty.

Lin Pei-Lin, a 19-year-old Taiwanese student sporting a T-shirt for an AI-organized music concert, was accompanied by her friend Yralyn Kaye Quiban, 23, a Filipino student. They were both AI members in their home countries.

“People say Japan does not have many human rights issues compared with the Philippines. Most of the campaigns of AI Japan are internationally focused and yet, there are a lot of local issues. I’m interested in both international and local issues,” Quiban said.

Maria Elena De Matteo, 25, from Italy, has lived in Japan for two years and volunteered for AI Italy for about two years.

“I’m interested in politics in Japan. I am also interested in how Japanese think about the death penalty. It’s different than Europe,” she said.

Sharmeen Jones from the U.S. is an English teacher and actively involved in labor issues.

“I thought today’s presentation was very informative. One of the reasons I am joining is because I am really interested in fighting the child sex trade. I am not very informed about it. So by joining Amnesty International, I could get more information about it, and know exactly what I need to do and how to get more involved in the issue,” she said.

Ken Ito, 26, a Japanese student, came to the event because he happened to see a notice for the meeting on the Internet. Mio Koyanagi, a 21-year-old university student, volunteers for a group promoting refugee acceptance at AI Japan.

After the meeting, Pitts proposed the party move to a nearby restaurant, as is the usual practice. Although it was entirely optional, every person joined in the fun.

The next meeting of the Amnesty International Tokyo English Network will be held Tuesday, Sept. 8 at 7:40 p.m. with an introduction from 7 p.m. See www.aiten.org for details.