Salil Shetty took over in July as secretary general of Amnesty International, which describes itself as the world's largest human-rights organization. He is in Montreal for the CIVICUS World Assembly, a gathering of civil society groups aimed at bolstering citizen participation in justice, the economy and development. Mr. Shetty, a 49-year-old expert on human rights and poverty, will today deliver the keynote address to the conference, which is co-hosted by the Montreal-based Institut du Nouveau Monde.
Amnesty International has been vocal in its defence of Canadian Omar Khadr, who faces a war-crimes trial in a military court at Guantanamo Bay. This month, his long-delayed trial was put on hiatus when his defence attorney collapsed from illness. What do you make of this latest interruption?
It's one last chance for the Canadian government to do the right thing, and that is to stand by international legal standards on child soldiers and ask the U.S. government to release Mr. Khadr and return him to Canada. It's a combination of an unjust arrest of a child in the first place, compounded by an unfair trial and an unlawful detention, and fairly credible claims of torture as well. All in all, it's a pretty messy affair.
Mr. Khadr's treatment isn't the only issue that's put Canada in Amnesty's bad books. The country appears each year in your annual report for its treatment of aboriginal peoples.
[It's not just]the whole issue of indigenous people's rights. We are increasingly concerned about a real change for the worse in the Canadian government's approach to human rights. Domestically, there have been cutbacks in funding. There has been a shrinking of democratic space and space for dissent. There has been quite a lot of very targeted cutbacks on funding of organizations that have been asking difficult questions.
What about Canada's international record?
There are many examples both domestically and internationally where we are concerned about the way in which the Canadian government is approaching human rights. On the death penalty, and on [the issue]of child soldiers, the paradox is that Canada used to be one of the big leaders - a very progressive leader - on these issues. There is a growing gap between the actions of the Canadian government and the historical record of Canada on human rights and dare I say, where Canadian citizens' values are.
Amnesty International turns 50 next year. It's got 2.8 million members in more than 150 countries. Where do you see its biggest challenges?
The important focus for the coming years has to be how we can strengthen Amnesty in the developing world. The significant numbers of human rights abuses stand to be much more concentrated in the developing world. The historical model of people from Europe or North America supporting people in the developing world has been very important from a solidarity point of view, but we need Africans and Brazilians and Indians - people from these countries - to become a part of Amnesty and the global human rights movement and resist human rights violations.
You are the first Indian to lead Amnesty International. How might your personal background influence your vision for the group?
We simply have to take head-on the notion which a lot of governments from the developing world put forward: That human rights are a Western agenda. That view is something which works very conveniently for the elite in poor countries.
Activism is part of your own background. Your father is an activist journalist and writer in India, your late mother was a women's rights crusader, and your home was a hub for activism. How did your upbringing impact on your work?
Most of the human rights violations we're talking about today are fundamentally an issue of abuse of power. What organizations like Amnesty are trying to do is speak truth to power, and hold them to account. That's in my DNA. The only way you can resist power at the end of the day is by people coming together and collectively resisting it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.