Seminoles Against Torture is holding a Human Rights Conference, Saturday April 16th from 12:00 PM to 8:00 PM, at the FSU Law School. The conference will involve guest speakers, a short film, workshops, and more. To get a better idea of what the conference and the organization is all about, I sat down with the co-director of Seminoles Against Torture, Ambar Gizzeh Martin.
ROBERT: So what exactly is Candlelight?
AMBAR: It’s actually Seminoles Against Torture – the website is called Candlelight. We work a lot with amnesty USA – we got a grant from them to put on the conference. Their logo is a candle. We just liked the idea of calling the website Candlelight. The actual name of our RSO is Seminoles Against Torture.
ROBERT: And what role do you have in that?
AMBAR: I’m the co-director along with Lauren Watford. We’re cofounders or co-directors. We both have equal parts of us in terms of creating it, so that’s what would be appropriate for officer positions.
ROBERT: So what all is going to be happening at this conference? Can you give me a brief summary of the conference as a whole?
AMBAR: Yes, so it’s going to be April 16th from 12:00 PM to 8:00 PM at the FSU law school and we’re going to start with an opening speaker. That’s going to be Gizachew Emiru, the director of TASSC (Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition) and a torture survivor. That’s going to be followed by a short film, about 75 minutes. It was made by Dr. Val Richard, who works of the film school. That’s going to be followed by a panel of speakers which is going to be, once again, Gizachew Emiru, Dr. Val Richard, Professor Terry Coonan who works with the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, Megan Harrington who works with Amnesty International and Aliya Hana Hussain, who works for the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. After that were going to break up into workshops. We’re going to have 6 different workshops happening simultaneously. They’re going to cover things from refugee rights to torture survivor activism to lobbying – it should be interesting. After that we are going to have an RSO fair at the law school green, so that’s in front of the rotunda. It’s just going to be a bunch of different RSO’s and organizations from around Tallahassee all focusing on human rights. For example, the Tallahassee Citizens against the Death Penalty Board is coming. After that there’s going to be at dinner it’s going to be a total of 70 people – so there will be 50 students are allowed to be there. That’s when James Cook – a civil rights attorney from the Tallahassee area – is going to be speaking. He deals primarily with torture in prisons. And there’s going to be free food in the morning free coffee.
ROBERT: I always love free coffee
AMBAR: Everything’s free, so anyone’s welcome.
ROBERT: so what do you hope to achieve with this conference what is the goal?
AMBAR: For the most part it has to do with awareness. Human rights issues – we have some idea [about them], right? They’re dealt with on the surface by media, but not a lot. What we want to do here is really give people an education about certain issues. Some of them can be controversial – torture being the main issue that were addressing, especially because of how divided it has become. In our view, the position that we take, human rights issues are not generally a partisan thing. Human suffering is something that every politician whether they be a conservative or extremely liberal should be concerned about because they should be concerned about the world in general. So we just kind of want to educate people about these issues – to help them understand and also to encourage some action. I think there are a lot of people in FSU who are interested but maybe they’re afraid that there’s not a lot of future in it or they’re afraid to look like hippies or something like that. We really want to give people the opportunity, and to show that there’s varying ways in which they can be involved – as an super involved like Lauren and I are with the conferences and such, or just signing a petition and being aware about the issue and knowing when you do go to vote or do something, you’re aware. Because that’s what we need; we need people to be aware of these issues rather than not care about them or not know about them at all.
ROBERT: Okay. That leads me to the next question: what can talking about it do? What practical effect can we have coming out of this conference? What does that gain us in an actionable sense?
AMBAR: Well, from my experience and from what I see is that these things are a nonissue – particularly in politics – If it’s not something anyone talks about and it’s not something anyone addresses. For example, like Syria and the refugees there, that conflict of been happening for a while before it sort of blew up on the Internet last year. But it had been happening for a while, and a lot of these issues are continuous. Torture been taking place for a decade in United States before we even addressed it, and even when we addressed it, it was sort of shutdown. The Senate Torture Report came out in December 2014 and that’s kind of the last time we heard or talked about it. After that, it was not something we addressed again. And that’s really the issue. In my opinion, a lot of these things are things that can be fixed in the field of governance – but it’s not something that is fixed immediately if there’s not a public push to do so. Right? So that’s really when it comes from. And also in order to look into the future is not have that happen again, we have to notice that we have certain candidates that have certain views on interrogation techniques, or things like that, and understand that we’ve been through them already and it didn’t work. So we should probably avoid that. So I think it’s very practical.
ROBERT: So instead of repeating ourselves, we can fix it?
AMBAR: Yes. We can move on and not waste our time.
ROBERT: Okay, so then the way that you and I as students – who obviously aren’t in Syria – the way we can affect these issues is by essentially influencing politics. Is that what you’re going for?
AMBAR: Yes, and each other. It’s also because human rights vary so much when there’s so much going on. It might spark an interest in things like sweatshops, where you get your products from. There’s tons of issues to get involved in and be aware about. But the idea is to be aware about them in the first place. With FSU it’s a university where, potentially, a lot of influential people will come out of. People who will run companies, people that will run for office, people that are going to make a difference in the world and are going to make decisions about how we move forward. I think it’s important to kind of get to us first because, to an extent, it may be too late for that 60 year old in a seat in Congress, but it certainly is not too late for us. We have the opportunity, through media and through teaching each other, to be really compassionate about the way others interact with the world and to dispel that notion that we can’t do anything about it. I think that’s a pressing issue that a lot of people have – that they feel powerless. And then there’s a collective problem that we think were powerless, but if we actually get together we can make a huge difference. As sappy as that sounds.
ROBERT: That makes a lot of sense. A somewhat complicated question: how do you go about talking about such weighty topics? How do you think is the most effective way – because things like torture make people uncomfortable and it shuts them off very quickly from listening – but how do you continue to engage them?
AMBAR: Well, one way I think is not starting on the attack. That is something I have very difficult time with because that’s the way I interact with my family is just attack immediately. But it’s not Thanksgiving dinner. I’m trying to persuade others to think differently. What I start with is the idea that someone’s already talking to me about it, so I assume that they, in a sense, want to listen to what I have to say because otherwise they probably shouldn’t even be addressing me. So I would start with the educational portion of it. First dispelling that notion that torture, for example, is useful. That’s something to start with – getting away from those things that people think are true and are really not. With the case of refugees, a lot of people think that many of them are terrorists or that they’re dangerous or that there’s not enough security in the process of them seeking asylum. So those are kind of the first things I try to break down because that’s the most important part, right? In order to break down those beliefs that really have people concerned. But they shouldn’t be concerned because they’re not necessarily true. And I think the most important thing is adding a human element to it as well. I want people to not see just an asylum seeker or a migrant or a terrorist in Guantanamo Bay, because those are not people in the minds of some citizens. They are sort of shadows or ‘bad guys’ that are not real. What I want people to understand is that these are people. They are real and there is a very large risk that we are hurting many many children and families whose lives are worth just as much as ours. And that, I think, is ultimately the most important part. No one really wants to hurt somebody’s child – most people are psychopaths, right? We don’t want to kill someone’s brother or do something to someone that didn’t deserve it. It’s also addressing that we might’ve hurt innocent people in the past. And also – particularly with torture – I like to give them an understanding of what torture is. In the media there’s a lot of depictions of torture and often times there not they don’t match reality. They don’t really depict what the actual horror is. I sometimes explain it based on one woman. Her name was Diana Ortiz and she was a nun. She was tortured for 24 hours in Guatemala in the late 1980s. She was an innocent nun in Guatemala trying to help the native population. The government of the time found her threatening, and the ideology of the Catholic Church. So they kidnapped her and they tortured her for 24 hours straight, and she was 30 years old at the time. When she came back she didn’t recognize her parents. She forgot words in English and Spanish and she’d forgotten most of her childhood memories. So that’s a powerful account that I like to give because I think it exemplifies that it’s not something you should really want to do to anyone. Because it’s horrifying. So yeah, there’s a lot of things – it’s difficult. There are definitely trials and errors. Trying not to alienate people. Figuring out when you should maybe back out of the conversation because maybe if there’s not a possibility that they’ll listen. Yeah, it’s trial and error. You try and you try again. The only thing is, I think it’s bad to treat the other person as an enemy. You can’t treat the person you’re trying to convince of your view as ignorant or stupid or anything like that. You need to address them with the respect that you want to be addressed with… That was a lot of jumping around.
ROBERT: That’s fine. I think that’s all the questions I have for you. Is there anything else you want to say or would like to add?
AMBAR: You know, just come to the conference. Have an open mind. There’ll definitely be free food if that’s what you’re looking for. And I think this could really be a great opportunity for us, for FSU, for everyone to come together and really focus on these issues that are clogging our newsfeeds, you know? I think that this could be really interesting. Even if you’re an engineering major or something and you don’t think it has much to do with your life. I think everyone in every field should be interested in this kind of thing. In fact, I encourage people in the STEM fields to be more interested in it because typically human rights organizations need more doctors and engineers that they need international affairs majors, like, they need skills. I think it’s an issue for everyone to be involved with and you don’t really have to know everything about policy and law to get into it – you can leave that to other people. You can just go and learn and it’ll be fun.
ROBERT: Great! Thank you so much.
Special thanks to Ambar Gizzeh Martin. The conference will be held tomorrow, April 16th from 12:00 PM to 8:00 PM. More information can be found at the organizations website: https://thecandlelight.wordpress.com/
The Seminoles Against Torture Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/seminolesagainsttorture/?fref=ts
And the event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1567452600232450/
AMBAR GIZZEH MARTIN / Co-director of Seminoles Against Torture
ROBERT COCANOUGHER / Editor in Chief