London -- Last month I was in New York to support a group which we founded 15 years ago called WITNESS. WITNESS uses video technology to document human rights abuses around the world. I was there to co-host our annual benefit, this year highlighting the ongoing humanitarian crisis inside the Southeast Asian nation of Burma.
Not many people talk about Burma - but we should be. Burma, also known as Mynamar, is a country of 50 million people who are being systematically brutalized by their own government, a military regime known ironically as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The SPDC's army has destroyed over 3,000 villages in eastern Burma over the last 10 years, creating over 1 million refugees and over 500,000 people trapped inside the country. These displaced people are unable to live in their own villages, their crops are destroyed, landmines are laid in their fields and they are pressed into modern-day slavery by the army. Additionally, the democratically-elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi is the only Nobel Peace Prize winner who is under house arrest, where she has been for over 10 years.
A representative from our partners at Burma Issues was at our benefit to tell people about his own experiences running from the Burmese military as a child and how he survived in a refugee camp in Thailand for nearly 10 years before becoming a human rights activist. This brave man, whose identity I cannot reveal here for security reasons, was accompanied by Gael García Bernal, my co-host for the evening, and Tim Robbins, Angélique Kidjo and Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider of the B52s, Nile Rodgers and Suzanne Vega and hundreds of guests in his call to action - urging the UN Security Council to take action against Burma before the end of the year.
And the struggle continues. Today in Washington DC our friends at the US Campaign for Burma are organizing a demonstration in front of the Burmese Embassy- to protest the beginning of Suu Kyi's 11th year of house arrest. Nobel Prize recipients Jody Williams and Shirin Ebadi will lead the call aimed at the Burmese government to release Suu Kyi, all other political prisoners and again, to urge for UN Security Council action.
So my interest in human rights issues began in the mid 1980s when I toured for Amnesty International, first in the USA with U2, Lou Reed, Bryan Adams and Sting, and 1988 with Bruce Springsteen, Youssou N'Dour, Tracey Chapman and Sting again, on the Human Rights Now! Tour, which traveled around the world. It was the first time I met people who had survived overwhelming and horrific atrocities and who wanted to share their stories. It was clear to me, that many people would be moved as I had been, if they could see and hear these stories told by people who experienced them first hand. I was shocked that people could suffer in this way and then have their story denied, buried and forgotten. This didn't happen when there was video film or pictures as evidence. This was how WITNESS was born.
WITNESS began as a small organization with just a couple of people working to get cameras out to dozens of groups around the world. In the last nearly 15 years, we've trained and supported thousands of human rights activists in over 70 countries to use video as an advocacy tool. Videos are screened for decision makers, policy makers, opinion leaders, general audiences and grassroots activists, and are distributed via film festivals, strategic distribution, online and mainstream media outlets in a strategic effort to right wrongs and to ensure that voices of the oppressed are heard.
We now have an extraordinary and exciting opportunity as a result of two technological revolutions. The first, the presence of mobile phones with cameras all over the world, and the second, the ability to upload video easily to a central site. Both of these innovations have made the dream of enabling anyone who suffers human rights abuses to have their story seen and heard by the world, a very practical and tangible goal.
YouTube has shown the world the potential for uploaded video and our video hub could definitely do the same job for human rights. The site will be able to connect it to activists and those who can influence and bring about change. Read more about this new project here. And check out the Pilot project for the Hub at www.globalvoicesonline.org/witness.
Wishing everyone around the world a very peaceful and joyful New Year!