Keep an eye on incoming Amnesty International secretary general Kumi Naidoo

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      One of the more intriguing developments in the nongovernmental sector was the recent appointment of Kumi Naidoo as the next secretary general of Amnesty International.

      Naidoo was the executive director of Greenpeace International from 2009 to December 2015.

      In this role, he played a key role in advancing international momentum toward the Paris climate agreement.

      As the head of Greenpeace International, he also encouraged religious leaders to take up the cause of global warming. In fact, he bluntly told the heads of faith-based organizations that their silence on environmental organization was a violation of their job.

      This set the stage for Pope Francis issuing an encyclical on climate change in 2015 and linking this to the plight of the poor.

      Naidoo also played a significant role in persuading money managers to divest from the fossil-fuel sector. He educated founder Bill McKibben about the history of the divestment movement in South Africa and supported McKibben's campaign to force colleges and universities to sell shares in coal, oil, and gas companies.

      The movement has since spread to the broader investment world, most notably to those who oversee the Rockefeller Brothers fund.

      But Naidoo, a South African born in 1965, never lost sight of the links between climate justice and human rights.

      He's not speaking to the media until he becomes Amnesty's de facto CEO in 2018.

      But back in 2015, I was able to conduct a lengthy interview with Naidoo during one of his visits to Vancouver.

      Even though he was heading a major international environmental organization, he was keen to discuss human rights.

      Naidoo's family suffered under apartheid

      Naidoo is from Durban, which was the centre of South Africa's Indian community for generations. His own family roots go back to the Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

      In that interview, he recalled that the repression was so great after the 1976 Soweto uprising in South Africa that most public engagement took place through sporting bodies, which his father was very active in.

      "We thought of it as just sports and fun," Naidoo recalled. "But now when I look back at it, it was a way of keeping the community organized."

      Naidoo and his younger brother, Kovin, were expelled from school in 1980 for leading a student uprising. And they were "freaked out" about how they would tell their father, who always emphasized the importance of education.

      "My mom had just died a few months earlier," he recalled.

      However, Naidoo and his brother were quite surprised when their dad attended rallies to get them reinstated.

      "He never said 'you did a bad thing'," Naidoo said. "Then somebody said to me two years after we got expelled, 'Well, your father was grudgingly proud of what you did but he was never going to tell you.' "

      After Naidoo fled South Africa in 1986 and became a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, Kovin was arrested and spent a year in prison.

      Their father could visit Kovin every two weeks for 15 minutes. Afterward, their father would contact Naidoo to report on his progress. 

      Naidoo recalled his dad telling him that Kovin "is okay" but added that it appeared that his son was "losing his mind".

      That's because Kovin kept telling his father that Naidoo's "legal career looks promising".

      The reality was that Naidoo was working on a PhD in political science.

      His brother knew that Naidoo wasn't studying law, even though that's what his first degree was in.

      The father couldn't understand why Kovin kept repeating that Naidoo's legal career looks promising.

      Naidoo, however, realized what was going on but couldn't tell his father because his father's phone was likely tapped.

      "My brother and I had a code about if we got arrested, how we would communicate," Naidoo recalled. "I used to say if I end up in prison and I'm there for three, five, or 10 years, I'll use that to study law, but I don't think I'll ever go back to law."

      In other words, Kovin was telegraphing to Naidoo that if he returned to South Africa, the authorities have enough information on him to send him to jail.

      "In the old days during the struggle against apartheid, if you were not being monitored by the intelligence operators, there was something wrong," Naidoo said. "You felt that you were not doing enough."

      Now, Kovin chairs the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness in Africa and is an associate professor of optometry.

      Naidoo linked rights to environmental activism  

      Later in the interview, Naidoo explained how state security organizations have expanded their surveillance and penetration of the environmental movement in recent years.

      "I think part of the reason the environmental movement has become more of a threat is because the environmental movement today is unrecognizable from the environmental movement of 20 or 30 years ago," he explained.

      As an example, he noted that Indigenous peoples are standing up across Canada and around the world to defend ecological assets. Faith-based groups have joined the fight. 

      The environmental movement also includes the women and youth organizations.

      "Let's be blunt about it," Naidoo said. "Climate change is a game changer on our side in terms of organizing because it's completely cross-cutting. Climate change is about the economy. It's about peace."

      As a result, Greenpeace transformed under his leadership into a "catalytic organization", sparking the movement but also creating space for others to take leadership roles.

      In that 2015 interview, Naidoo also criticized Canada's antiterrorism legislation, then known as Bill C-51, for being "tough on democracy and weak on terrorism".

      It was introduced into Parliament after an RCMP report claimed that a "growing, highly organized and well-financed anti-Canadian petroleum movement" was a rising threat to national security.

      Naidoo also revealed in the interview that the South Korean government had asked South African officials for a "security assessment" of him after Greenpeace had campaigned against South Korea's nuclear-power industry.

      This led him to quote the most famous Indian who lived in his hometown of Durban, Mahatma Gandhi.

      "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,“ Naidoo said. “In fact, for us, it would be worse if they were ignoring or laughing at us. It would mean we’re not having impact.”

      Amnesty and Greenpeace highlight Indigenous concerns

      Nowadays, Amnesty International Canada is focusing a great deal of attention on Indigenous issues, including violence against women and girls.

      It's also tried to generate international opposition against the Site C dam in northeastern B.C., which will flood the traditional territories of Treaty 8 First Nations.

      At Greenpeace, Naidoo also championed working with closely with First Nations to heal the planet from the ravages of industrial development and fossil-fuel consumption.

      It's one reason why Greenpeace campaigned to have the Arctic region declared a global sanctuary.

      "Before we actually finalized our asks and our demands, we had two Arctic Indigenous peoples' functions," Nadoo recalled in 2015. "We brought representatives all the way from Alaska to Russia."

      At another point in the interview, Naidoo said that if the history of humanity was ever written honestly, "We'd probably conclude that those who were deemed to be uncivilized were actually substantially more civilized than those who were trying to do the civilizing."

      So it's understandable why Amnesty International would look to a long-time environmentalist like Naidoo to become its senior leader.

      If he has as much impact in the human-rights field as he had on the climate file, expect to see some big changes in the years to come not only for political prisoners, but also for the world's Indigneous peoples.