Akwe Amosu: Hello and welcome to Strength and Solidarity,
AA: I’m Akwe Amosu… here with episode 33 of our podcast about the tools, tactics and strategies being used to advance human rights around the world… And today –
- When changing your organisation’s strategy makes sense, even though it makes everyone upset
- and in the Coda, the country where you convince your opponent by reciting a poem.
In human rights circles, it is commonly observed that the political environment is changing fast. In the past several years, we’ve seen a shift – creeping or sudden – towards greater authoritarianism all over the world, and a reduced willingness on the part of states to abide by their internationally-agreed obligations. Yet a great many human rights organisations have as their primary purpose, holding governments to account for meeting those obligations, using tools like research, advocacy and strategic communications. If your organization is one of them, it has probably crossed your mind that with so much backsliding going on, those tools, indeed the whole approach, may not be working well enough anymore. But what should you do about that? Your board, your team, your donors, and your peers in other organisations have expertise in that approach, and they know and trust their preferred tools. Plus, no-one loves the upheaval that comes with a major redesign of strategy, and resistance is almost inevitable, setting up a grueling transition process. One organization that has nonetheless revamped its whole approach in the past five years is the UK’s Freedom From Torture, so I was very curious to learn more, from Sonya Sceats, its chief executive.
AA: Welcome, Sonya.
Sonya Sceats: Thank you, Akwe.
AA: So you lead freedom from torture. Um, it’s undergone quite a transition, under your leadership. What did you see in the field of fighting torture that made you think you needed to make a change?
SS: Well, to start, I think it’s really important to emphasize that it wasn’t me thinking alone. There were a number of us in the organization who were observing political currents and starting to ask questions about whether the model of influencing we’d been using until then was continuing to be effective in a context where the power was seeping out of the sort of evidence-based policy-influencing work that we had been doing successfully for so many years.
AA: What do you mean the power was seeping out of that tool-set or that place where the work had been going on?
SS: So I think to, to answer that, it’s really important to go back to the origin story of Freedom From Torture. We were originally the Doctor’s Group of Amnesty International UK, and we spun out and became our own entity in the 1980s. And that’s really important because although our primary business has always been, and continues to be, frontline service provision for survivors of torture to help them recover, rehabilitate, and rebuild their lives, campaigning had always been part of our DNA from that early history, if you like, embedded within the Amnesty International family. And so we’d for years had a model, uh, in which we were drawing evidence from the service work in order to influence change, to call out torturing states, to put pressure on the British government, to do more, to promote accountability for torture and to ensure that the rights of survivors of torture as refugees were protected, within the context of the UK asylum system. And that had been really effective. We had used forensic evidence to call out patterns of torture in many of the countries that our clients come from. Torture facilities in the DRC had been shut down, according to the Foreign Office, based on evidence that we supplied, we, you know, achieved something that many others had tried and failed to do, which was to secure an admission from Iran, on the floor of the United Nations, that torture might be happening in their country. You know, we were really, really proud of that impact. But something really profound has shifted, over the last decade or so in, in our context in Britain. And what we started to observe about four or five years ago was that policy makers were becoming less interested in what service-providing NGOs like Freedom From Torture had to say about problems and solutions that were needed. And this is part of a much wider kind of authoritarian drift that we are seeing across the world, including in liberal democracies, and a decreasing interest in advocacy derived from facts and evidence and standards-based arguments. And so that was the, that was the thing that we observed that caused us to rethink our theory of change.
AA: So would it be too much to say, essentially, there had been a consensus somewhere in the system before that torture’s bad – when this organization comes to us, we don’t want them to make big public statements about who’s doing what, we want them to tell us, and we’ll get onto it, we’ll put pressure to try and stop it. But that stopped working. They stopped caring enough. And that made you need to rethink.
SS: Precisely. And we date the origins of that erosion back to 9/11. And we saw it very, very clearly in the polling, which showed that after 9/11, the British public stopped caring as much about the absolute ban on torture. Britain became complicit in some of the torture committed by the United States and the outcry, you know, wasn’t as enormous as it would’ve been back in, say, the 1980s when there was a really strong anti-torture movement that Freedom From Torture was a part of – that movement had died. And that’s one of the really important learning points, you know, for us, and maybe one that others in the human rights sector, um, are also reflecting on – that over that time since the 1980s when we achieved great things like the Convention Against Torture, the torture sector became so overly focused on standard-setting, monitoring, uh, Geneva-based processes of, you know, calling states to account for their compliance or otherwise, with human rights standards, we lost touch with ordinary people who had been really activated, you know, in the period of the 1970s and the 1980s, who felt so strongly about the issue that they were prepared to bring pressure to bear on political leadership. And over a number of decades, the work of the anti-torture sector became so focused on multilateral institutions and monitoring arrangements, et cetera, that public support started to soften. And then 9/11 happened, and then public support for the absolute ban on torture actually plummeted. I mean, you can see some of the longitudinal polling that groups like the ICRC, you know, have been conducting, which bears that out very strongly. And so that I think is one of the reasons political leaders in our states became less sure about the norm. They started to sort of think about exceptional circumstances in which torture might be permissible. The public stopped caring as much, and that kind of led to a situation where the kind of evidence that we were furnishing policy makers with became so much less salient. And we started to see a real dilution in the kind of impact that as an organization we could bring to bear in pursuit of our mission.
AA: I mean, I, I, I really like this analysis because it acknowledges that all the context for human rights work can shift, does shift, um, evolves, and you have to constantly reevaluate. Whereas I think sometimes the way we talk is that there’s a permanent universal abhorrence – in this case of torture – and so the people can always be relied upon to care about it. It’s the politicians who don’t care, or it’s armies or military, uh, personnel who’ve changed their position. The whole environment can change, is what I hear you saying, and that necessitates a rethink. And so going back to where we started, you and your colleagues look at this situation – what do you decide is missing in the way you tackle the task?
SS: Well, one of the really interesting things that we did early on was we commissioned a social listening exercise, which basically showed us that there was no anti-torture movement in Britain left anymore. Nobody was talking about torture. Except for key moments where something would spike in the news and then you’d get a little bit of organic social activity, and otherwise nothing. And that was a really, really critical turning point for us in realizing, um, that the activist space had effectively disappeared. And that caused us to do some really hard thinking about what might be required to rebuild a public constituency prepared to proactively defend not only the absolute torture ban, but also the right to protection, for those who had survived torture and reached our shores and, and needed to claim asylum. Because of course, we’ve seen a real degradation there in, in Britain’s commitment to those fundamental norms.
AA: So, so what would that mean for you? The rethink, where does that lead for you?
SS: First of all, it involved some really – if I’m honest – difficult conversations inside our organization about whether we needed to shift resource and focus away from the painstaking task of analyzing the forensic evidence of the torture, being produced by our doctors who run our, really important forensic medical legal report service. And to embrace much more strongly the need to explore effective campaigning methodologies. As I said earlier, we’d always done campaigning, but our model of campaigning had been very much about policy campaigning: “we want this particular rule changed in order to benefit survivors of torture. And we are going to launch a very specific, very advocacy-driven influencing strategy – a research report, little bit of communications, go and meet policy makers, convince them to make the change.” That’s expensive work, the production of lengthy research reports costs a lot of money. Um, and there was a really deep weddedness inside the organization to those methodologies, including because of the strong moral sense that we needed to be shining a light. But the problem was that shining the light wasn’t any longer delivering the impact. We’d been producing these research reports, and we started to see that press weren’t interested any longer, that policy makers would pay lip service, but weren’t prepared to, to make any change. Um, we saw that the UK government was disinclined to be placing the kind of pressure they used to on torturing states because these particular norms were, were less salient. And for various other reasons, Britain was turning inwards at this time as well.
AA: So, so you could say the thing you were engineered to do was no longer what you needed to be doing, but you weren’t organized to do something-else.
SS: Precisely. And so we embarked on an exercise of soul searching. We had those conversations. I mean, personally, I was, um, at times accused of, not caring about, um, the truth and, you know, that all I cared about, or all my leadership cared about were tweets. Um, that’s definitely subsided now. And I think that, um, that soul-searching period was very staff-led in a lot of ways. I mean, the people who had been running the work, rooted in the kind of older model, were really empowered by us to lead the theory of change rethinks. And, and they led to the same place – that indeed we needed to be refocusing more of our energies on movement building. And so we worked with an organization called Purpose who helped us to understand some of the mechanics of successful movement-building. Uh, we made some forays into this. We started beefing up our campaigning resources. We started dialing down the level of resource that we were plowing into research. Our advocacy, operation began to be much more focused on supporting the effort to be mobilizing and organizing members of the public. Um, we thought long and hard about the importance of survivor leadership because that, had been, a journey we’d been on as an organization for a very long time, you know, at the forefront, really in the global torture rehabilitation world of embracing empowerment methodologies, passing the power to survivors in our organization, handing the keys over to them when it came to the formulation of our new clinical model, um, you know, the, the nurturing of survivor-led advocacy. So that had been a journey we’d been on for a, for a long time but through working with Purpose, we understood as well how important, centering and empowering survivors in the movement-building agenda was going to be. So that was a stream of work already well-grounded in Freedom From Torture, that then came to be much more focused on, the campaigning work and bringing survivors together with ordinary concerned members of the public to build power.
AA: So what, what was the practical implication of that recognition that you needed to center survivors in the campaign work? What did that mean in practice?
SS: Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, in some ways it was a continuation of business as usual for us, because for years we had been, supporting, a self-led, survivor advocacy group called the Survivors Speak Out Network, to be building its, agenda for change and to be driving advocacy itself with, with actors like, the Foreign and Commonwealth office as it was then, in Britain. So it was more of that, if you like, investment in, survivor advocacy via the Survivor Speak Out network. It meant a lot of ceding power, space, agency to our survivor activists when it came to thinking about what our priorities for campaigning should be, and certainly in the execution, of advocacy, for example. But also it meant, um, whereas previously the survivor advocacy had been very much focused on to-government advocacy in line with the old model, we realized actually that, real power could be built if we were supporting survivors to be talking with and creating bonds of empathy and understanding and solidarity, with people in Britain who abhor torture and who were prepared, to start becoming more proactive in their defense of that norm and, and in defense of the rights of survivors to be able to secure protection in Britain. So that work started to become much more public-facing, as opposed to sort of inside track.
AA: It, it sort of sounds a little bit like recognizing that people who are literally on the front line of an issue are the best advocates to pull others in to the cause and that speaking on their behalf is much less effective.
SS: Exactly. I mean, this was the number one lesson, you know, from the work that Purpose had done analyzing the critical success factors for social movements over the last 100 plus years. The most important thing that they identified was that the movement needs to be led by those who are most affected by the issue. This was one of the, the big learning points. And so for us, that, that gelled very nicely with our philosophy and our core values as an organization – the journey that we had been on. Um, we’ve still got a long way to go, in that respect, particularly with the, the movement that is really kind of taking shape now in Britain to defend the rights of refugees. The leadership of that movement is still very much concentrated in the hands of organizations that are led by people like myself. We need to shift that. There is so much work that needs to be done to ensure the deep leadership of the movement, the strategizing, – not just who’s standing up on the podium, but who’s doing the thinking, who’s doing the organizing, who is going out and connecting with ordinary people and convincing them to start moving, you know – that needs to be survivor-led. And we are really committed to that at Freedom From Torture.
AA: So far, we’ve really been talking about why you needed to make a, a strategic change, um, but I’d like to just ask you a little bit about the organizational change. You said it was a painful conversation. You said you had to, have some, you know, hard exchanges with teams that thought differently about how to affect the mission. Could you say something about what you think has been the hardest part of the organizational change in terms of your leadership figuring out how to keep people on board and make the change? What are your learnings from this process?
SS: First of all, the importance of having an inclusive conversation. It’s so important. You know, the risk in these kinds of big moments of organizational transition is that everything is top down and in human rights organizations, that is anathema, uh, to what people are signing up for when they join human rights organizations. Um, and so we did that and, and as I say, initially there was a lot of pushback and a lot of concern that we were denigrating work that really, really mattered. But as we enrolled those who were leading our influencing work, you know, it was really interesting to see them relaxing into an analysis that we did need to rethink how to deliver the change that we were all there to deliver for, for survivors of torture so that was really important. Secondly, conversations with partners and allies, we ran a whole series of workshops that were co-led by survivors with, partners, for example, in the anti-torture, sector globally. There were so many interesting things that came out of that, including, first of all, some reticence about what we were saying. Um, some of the global bodies are really, you know, concerned, that if we were going to be writing off UN processes, which was the fear they had, we weren’t doing any favors to colleagues in the global south for whom those processes were all that exists. So there was a lot of reticence that we were moving away from a model that if, if, if we let that erode, the consequences across the world would be terrible, and then we’d find ourselves in a situation 20 to 30 years down the track where it all had to be recreated again because it had been allowed to crumble. Secondly, there was strong signal from them, which we really heeded, which is, if you really want to make a contribution to the worldwide effort to stop torture, sort out the United Kingdom, stop the backsliding on the part of Britain when it comes to the torture ban. And so that was something we very much took on board. But what I’m seeing now is that four or five years on, actually many other organizations, including some of the global organizations, are also becoming very alive to the need to rebuild active public constituencies who are prepared to defend the torture ban. So organizations like OMCT are thinking very, very hard about movement-building around centering survivor narratives, um, you know, reconnecting with public mobilization, work. And so yeah, we, we, we feel less like an outlier now, and we’re seeing it in other sectors as well in Britain, um, you know, a, a real knowledge that more effective public campaigning work is what we need to do now if we are to, preserve, human rights standards as, a basis for, state practice, in our country and beyond.
AA: And just at the level of staff management, personnel, did you have to go through a lot of pain in terms of change? Did you have to, uh, see a number of people depart and hire different types of people in order to deliver the kind of change you wanted to see in the organization?
SS: Yes. Um, but I would like to stress that from the start. I, I made it a personal commitment that I wasn’t going to drive people who dissented out of the organization, and I’m sure there are people who perceive that that is what we did, because there were quite a few departures, um, over the time, particularly on our clinical side, because at the same time as we were undergoing this transition, we were fundamentally reformulating our clinical model. And there were, over time people who just decided that the kind of new rights-based model that we were driving through with the agenda set by survivors just wasn’t, you know, for them. Sometimes those departures, were quite painful. Um, but they weren’t because I required them to leave, if that, if that makes sense. And I didn’t restructure people out of the organization either, if they were taking a different view, but we did restructure the organization to align the spend with the theories of change and, and the strategy. And so that has meant that over the last few years we have reduced, the level of spend that is going into research, for example. And we’ve radically increased, the amount of spend that is going into campaigning, and into survivor activism, for example. But from a staff management point of view, yeah, it’s been really difficult. I mean, torture rehabilitation centers at the best of times are really difficult places to manage. There is a really deep, ingrained tendency to project onto the organization, the drama triangle, if you like, the perpetrator, victim, saviour. Um, and so, you know, the flexing of power by leadership inherently triggers concerns about abuse of power. And so organizational change is often very difficult in these kinds of settings. I mean, there’s a lot of literature on this. This is definitely not specific to Freedom From Torture, but we are one of the largest. And so these things can be more acute because the distance between me, for example, and our frontline staff is so much greater than in smaller organizations where leaders have much more personal, contact with, everyone who, sits within their command, if you like.
AA: But having gone through that pain, having made the transition and weathered the, challenges, is it working? Are you seeing the dividend that you hoped for when you started on this journey?
SS: Absolutely yes. And, and the point is that our staff, our supporters, the Freedom From Torture community see it because we are delivering wins, in a context where very few other, uh, social activism organizations are delivering wins because of the size of the conservative majority at the moment, and their resistance to civil society and their disinclination to listen to evidence coming from service-providing NGOs. We have delivered some stunning wins over the last few years. So last year we were really thrilled to be awarded the Sheila McKechnie campaign of the Year award for a campaign that we led with survivors and supporters, bringing them together to build power to stop Boris Johnson from effectively decriminalizing torture for British troops who had been serving abroad in places like Iraq and, and Afghanistan. It was a victory against all odds that came from the model that we had painstakingly been building, over the years prior. In 2022, we had a stunning victory in mobilizing tens of thousands of people standing alongside survivors of torture to bring pressure to bear, unbearable pressure as it turned out, on the airlines who had been signed up or who had been entertaining the thought of being complicit in Britain’s unconscionable plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda without even considering their asylum claims. We got Privilege Style, this Spanish-based, private airline who had been on the tarmac ready to fly that plane last summer to pull out of the scheme because of the pressure we brought to bear through disruptive tactics, through, damaging their brand and for our staff, seeing that has been the most energizing experience. So, so that has really helped – the model is working, and that has really consolidated, if you like, the consensus in the organization that this shift was, was necessary.
AA: I mean, I think this ought to be quite interesting for many people working in the human rights field because the journey you are describing is one that has been advocated in several places. The sense that, if I understood you correctly, that the sort of professionalization, process that took place in the human rights movement, in the last, uh, decades of, of the last century, uh, has in some way weakened the people power element of defending rights – and that it’s important to change, however hard that is. And I, I, I guess for people who are looking at this and recognizing that it’s going to be a painful and, and difficult, argument to win with their staff or with their boards or with their donors, I suppose your message to them would be, “go for it, do it.”
SS: Follow the analysis and don’t be dissuaded, you know, by vested interests inside an organization, um, that are struggling initially, to accept the consequences of models failing. It’s so important to keep a critical inquiry happening at all times in an organization. And that extends to the transition that we’ve just been through. Like, it’s not “job done.” We have some of the smartest minds I’ve ever worked with, you know, collected inside the organization. I want them asking the question constantly, “how do we improve the efficacy?” You know, if, if we are doing something and it’s not working, why and what do we need to do instead? So, we’ve had a culture change inside the organization. Now the organization, um, really embraces the imperative to continue evolving. Prior, the, the culture and the organization had always been to hark back to the halcyon days: “We’ve always done it like this. We should always do it like this.” That has shifted. And that’s one of the things I’m most proud of because when I move on from Freedom From Torture, I will be bequeathing, to my successor, successors a culture in which people are ready to question and follow through, the logic of the answers that, you know, coming up from within the system. It doesn’t always need to be top down. And in fact, it’s much better if it isn’t.
AA: Thank you so much, Sonya.
SS: Thank you Akwe.
AA: I was talking with Sonya Sceats, chief executive of the UK-based Freedom From Torture. A full transcript is available on our website, Strengthandsolidarity.org.
AA: For the coda this time, we’re in Tajikistan where, in common with other countries in the Persian world, poetry is a central part of daily life. Whether it is in the contests where rivals compete over how many lines they can recite, at wedding ceremonies and other rites of passage, or even amid the dry business of bureaucracy, it is always the right time for some verse. Dilrabo Samadova is a human rights lawyer who regularly advocates for the rights of military conscripts at Tajikistan’s ministry of defense and yes, poetry comes in handy there too. She begins her reflections by reading the famous poem, Bani Adam, by Sa’adi Shirazi, that hangs on the wall at the entrance to the United Nations in New York.
«Бани одам аъзои якдигаранд
ки дар офариниши зи як гавҳаранд
Чу узве ба дард оварад рӯзгор
Намонад дигар узвҳоро қарор.»
[ “All human beings are members of one frame,
Since all, at first, from the same essence came.
When time afflicts a limb with pain,
The other limbs at rest cannot remain.
If thou feel not for other’s misery,
A human being is no name for thee.”][i]
DS: It means that people cannot just think about their own problem. We are all created from one thing, we all belong to one God, and it’s about the solidarity, and one nation cannot be happy, safe and rich when another is suffering, because we are all together, and all in one. And you cannot call yourself human if you don’t care about the suffering and problems of another person.
DS: The first words we learn start with the poetry. We learn the poetry, which is very important for our nation, and they are all about the life, about the friendship and freedom, dignity, supporting each other, about what the justice is. We use, read, sing poetry during all events. Even during the funeral, there is a special poetry to say goodbye, that we are going to meet in the next life. So, this is very emotional stuff, cultural stuff which connects people, people trust a lot to poetry because it comes from our older generation. A lot of wisdom are in the poetry, and very often we look at the argumentation for our advocacy in the poetry, when we do advocacy in the national level.
DS: All meetings start with poetry. So very often when we go to the Ministry of Defense, we start with this poetry. It’s very important to find the language, find a way where we can talk as friends, as citizens of one country, because they and us, we have the same goals. And sometime even when we start with the poetry, we sing first line, and then the, let’s say, opposite side has the second line. It means that we already connected in the same level.
DS: As a human right defender, they have great impact, because poetry from the ninth, sixth, seventh century, even earlier, shows that people all time fight for solidarity, justice, friendship, dignity, tolerance, equality. And this is not something new, this is belong to people all the period of existing, of nation and human. And this is not something which come to my country through the globalization or in the 21st century through the UN. No, this belong to everyone and doesn’t matter which language, they speak, what they do, simply because we are human and all this stuff belongs to us. So in poetry really shows me that they already knew about this terminology, about, uh, how important they’re for the human.
DS: I also write poetry. Sometimes I really feel that when I’m tired, when I’m sad, I want to put my mood through the poetry, make some lines. So I think this is in the blood of Persian people to write poetry. Some nations have like say collective mood or character. And for the Persians, I think the most important thing is poetry.
We have battles called beit barak, when two teams come together and they have to tell poetry, four lines or two lines to each other. So, some people know more than thousand because this is very popular. And the person who know a lot of poetry and who can use poetry to express his view is very respected.
DS: I have a cousin, he knows more than 1,500. He wins all battles on the poetry and this is so interesting. Anytime you speak to him, he can bring the poetry. It’s difficult to argue with him because – you can argue with him, but you cannot argue with poetry!
AA: Thank you Dilrabo Samadova – here’s hoping that human rights advocacy teams in places like Addis Ababa, Washington and Brussels might feel inspired to deliver their asks in verse for greater impact.
AA: That’s it for episode 33 of Strength and Solidarity… but for those of you who are regular listeners, I have a request. Is there an episode from past seasons that you really liked? We plan to re-run a few favourite episodes during our summer break so if you would like to propose one, do write and tell us – at email@example.com. For now, though, from producer Peter Coccoma and me Akwe Amosu – Thanks for listening – join us again next time.
[i] Bani Adam, Sa’adi Shirazi: https://www.un.org/ungifts/persian-carpet