I’d always intended to join Amnesty International, the human rights organisation, but I’d never got round to it. During my search for information about charities that might help children like those I’d seen in Bombay, I came across a discarded Amnesty application form and decided that this was the jolt I’d needed to fill it up and send it in with an annual subscription fee. On the front page of the form were a series of boxes inviting new members to tick any special interests where they might have some professional or other reason for campaigning on those cases. Because of my encounter in Bombay, I ticked the ‘children’s rights’ box.
Five weeks later I received a phone call from someone in the Amnesty International UK office in Rosebery Avenue, London, advising me of a meeting to be held about children’s rights and inviting me to attend. I was impressed that a large bureaucracy like Amnesty was so ‘on the ball’ in welcoming a new member and noting my interest, and decided, as the meeting was in London, that I could go there after my day’s work finished at the BR office in Euston before travelling back to my home near Crewe. I was anticipating a public meeting of some sort, and was a little perturbed to find that the meeting was in a small room above the main bar of a public house just opposite the Amnesty office. I entered the room and found about half a dozen people round a table, most looking as bewildered as I felt. A guy called Brian Wood introduced himself as the Amnesty staff member responsible for liaising with a number of specialist networks within Amnesty and then, and only then, did it dawn on me that I had been co-opted - along with three or four other people present - to Amnesty UK’s national network for children’s rights - or the ‘Working Group for Children’ (WGC) as it was then called.
Amnesty had started in the 1960s from the idea of a British lawyer, Peter Benenson. He’d been angered by a press report of two students in Portugal, who’d toasted ‘freedom’ in a local café and had been arrested by the Portuguese dictator’s police and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for propaganda against the state. From the response to his letter to the newspaper, Amnesty had been formed to campaign for ‘prisoners of conscience’, people imprisoned or murdered by the authorities for expressing non-violent views that were deemed unacceptable.
As membership grew and Amnesty extended its mandate to campaign on a range of human rights abuses, a British man named Alan Grounds had persuaded Amnesty to take up cases of children whose rights had been violated by state agencies and he had formed the first ‘Working Group for Children’ in the British Section around 1984. He had gathered a committee of like-minded people around him to identify and publicise cases researched by Amnesty’s International Secretariat and his team had produced regular communications to a number of Amnesty members who had expressed interest in belonging to the ‘WGC’ network. Unfortunately Alan had died suddenly in 1989 and being one of those charismatic characters that are full of action, but rarely write anything down, he’d left a void in the organisation and the WGC committee had not met for more than a year.
Brian Wood had decided to reinvent the WGC committee and had therefore invited a number of potentially useful members with a professional interest in children to become members of the new committee - a social worker, a teacher, a children’s lawyer, the director of a street children charity - and, I gathered, they’d sought to co-opt a businessman and had come across my recently submitted application form and had invited me. I was a little out of my depth - from new member to the national committee for children’s rights in five weeks was somewhat daunting and I wondered whether I could really make any contribution. I was inclined to apologise and suggest that I had insufficient experience of either Amnesty’s practices or children’s rights to be of any use. However, as they talked about some of the children’s cases they were campaigning for, I realised that street children were on their agenda and the plight of the girl in Bombay came back to my consciousness and stopped me leaving the room.
It took me a time to make any contribution. We met monthly and two volunteers would produce a newsletter outlining cases for action by our network members. Amnesty, like most other large organisations - especially my own railway industry - was full of acronyms and it took time for me to really follow how Amnesty chose which violations to prioritise and the processes through which activists operated throughout the organisation. One of the highly motivated members of that committee was a British businessman, Fred Shortland, who was also the English Director of an American charity, Casa Alianza, a branch of Covenant House working with street children in Central American states like Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and Mexico. His organisation had a legal department in one of the states that was regularly challenging the government and justice departments about the abuses that were perpetrated by the police and vigilante groups condoned by the police, who were regularly beating up, torturing and even murdering the street children, treating them as vermin.
I was impressed and moved by one of Casa Alianza’s managers based in Central America, Bruce Harris, who spoke about the beating and killing of a 13 year old boy, Nahaman, by four policemen in Guatemala City and the efforts being made by Amnesty to bring the police concerned to justice and protect Bruce and the three boy witnesses to the murder. I was horrified by evidence produced by Amnesty that 4,611 street children had been found murdered in Brazil around the time of the Rio 1990 ‘Earth Summit’ when the authorities had ‘cleansed’ the streets of undesirables including street children to avoid criticism of the international media and politicians.
I also met a Catholic priest, Father Shay Cullen, who worked in the Philippines for an organisation called PREDA and who was taking major risks by going under cover and posing as a tourist seeking child prostitutes in the bars of Manila and Olongopo City (near a US naval base), so that he could bring the abusers to justice and rescue the child victims. From these meetings and experiences I began to get a feel for the extent of the problem of street children in many parts of the world and the rejection that they felt.
One of the Amnesty WGC’s main bases for judgement was the 1989 ratified UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, 54 articles of which the first 41 outline the protection, provision and participation rights of children and young people under the age of eighteen. I compared these rights with the violations commonly experienced by street children and found that at least 50% of the articles were regularly flouted by governments and individuals in many parts of the world - the right to life, an identity, education, health care, protection from discrimination, forced labour, physical and sexual abuse, humiliating punishment and the right to support and representation when accused of activities against the law. Amnesty was at that time campaigning against a number of child rights abuses - in conflict situations and when refugees, children in detention with adults or involved in violations aimed at their parents. However, in the early 1990s most of the cases researched and put through our committee for action by our network were on behalf of street children from several countries in Central and South America.
Then, in 1992, Amnesty International UK received an invitation from a newly formed organisation called ‘The Consortium for Street Children’ to send a representative to join that group. Without knowing exactly what it involved, I decided to volunteer to be that representative - still guided and motivated by the encounter with the small street child in Bombay.