Human rights charity Amnesty International has been working with the Co-operative Bank for over 25 years.
In 2008 the Bank teamed up with Amnesty to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As part of that campaign, the bank funded the production of an education pack, Human Rights are our Rights, which was made available to all UK secondary schools. It also funded the production and printing of 120,000 My Rights passports and financed the production of Everybody, a three-minute film that uses animation and live action to bring human rights to life. Bank customers were also able to sign up and pledge to ‘Make the World Keep its Word’ using a function on the Bank’s website. Later in 2010 the bank made a donation of £25,000 to support an Amnesty International campaign to provide radios for isolated Burmese communities.
The partnership between Amnesty and the Bank has grown stronger over the past 12 months, with the two launching ‘Rise Up’, a youth activism training programme.
Throughout December the Bank urged its customers to take part in Amnesty International’s Write for Rights initiative, which is the world’s largest letter writing campaign. The charity encourages people to write letters in support of 12 young people faced with human rights abuses, or who are standing up for the rights of others.
To mark the new project, the Bank promoted a ‘Day of Action’ on Human Rights Day, which was celebrated on 10 December.
Director Kate Allen has been with the charity for 20 years. “It has been great to have the Co-op Bank’s support in different forms over the past 25 years,” she told Co-op News. She hopes that having the Bank on board for the Write for Rights campaign will help ensure this year’s campaign is the biggest to date.
“The simple act of writing a letter can have a huge impact on people’s lives. Messages of support can be a lifeline to people behind bars or for those facing intimidation. And when letters pile up at the doors of the authorities, they have no choice but to take note,” she explained. “We urge all Co-operative Bank colleagues, customers and members of the public to visit a branch and help change lives for the better,” she added.
Some of the issues Amnesty has campaigned for include LGBTI rights and abolishing capital punishments. Ms Allen things that “there have been some enormous gains” of these fronts, a wave of populism is threatening human rights across the world.
“We see our job as Amnesty to challenge that as a membership organisation with eight million members and supporters,” she said, adding that Amnesty would continue to work to support members to be the most effective campaigners in their communities, wherever that might be.
“Amnesty can be somewhere that you turn to in order to have influence and impact in the world,” she said, adding that co-operators could help by joining the Write for Rights campaign, host fundraising activities, having a stall in their local village or go into schools to talk about human rights. “There’s always something for everybody to do,” she added.
As part of the initiative, the bank’s branches and offices across the UK will provide special Amnesty letter writing stations and will be welcoming anyone who wants to take the time to write a letter to support to the 12 young people whose cases are the focus of this year’s letter writing drive.
Over the next 12 months the Bank will focus on three case studies. The first will highlight a campaign to support migrant women to access protection if they experience domestic abuse. Often these women are unable to reach out to authorities for fear they will be deported.
The second case study will touch on climate change by showcasing the work of activist Marinel Ubaldo, who campaigns to ensure that governments around the world confront climate change and its impact on communities.
Her village in Matarinao, the Philippines, was destroyed by Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. Over 6,3000 people have lost their lives in the tropical cyclone.
A third case study will aim to support young trans people by calling for a reformed Gender Recognition Act based on self-determination, recognition of non-binary gender identities.
During a launch event at the Co-operative Bank, colleague got to hear first-hand about the experiences of one of the young people whose case is featured in the Write for Rights campaign. Twenty-five year old Seán Binder talked about the work he had been doing with other volunteers to ensure the safety of refugees entering Europe at Lesvos in Greece.
Under EU legislation, individual member states have the responsibility to decide whether those providing humanitarian assistance should be exempt from prosecution for helping undocumented migrants cross through EU states. Mr Binder, whose job was to help spot boats in distress at sea and help them, is now facing charges of spying and people smuggling. If found guilty he could be jailed for 25 years.
“The key question is – should we let people drown in our waters? It’s the most normal thing to provide help to somebody,” said Mr Binder. He added: “What’s scary, is not that it has put me in jail without trial, or that I still face 25 years in prison, it’s that this can happen to anyone because states don’t adhere to existing laws that protect humanitarianism.”
Andrew Bester, chief executive of the Co-operative Bank also spoke at the launch event. Originally from South Africa, he shared a personal story about his brother Charles, who was the youngest conscientious objector to be jailed in South Africa. “My brother’s choice was one of principle and conscience,” he said.
Charles Bester was sentenced to six years in prison in 1988, at just 18 years of age for refusing serve in the South African Defence Force at a time when the military and security forces in enforcing the policy of apartheid. He was released a few months after Nelson Mandela was freed.
“Organisations like Amnesty and others were hugely supportive at the time,” said Mr Bester, explaining that his brother received many letters of support while in prison.
His case generated a lot of attention due to his young age, leading to an early day motion discussing his case in the UK Parliament.
“We know defending human rights is important to our customers, and I’m immensely proud that the Co-operative Bank is taking action to support young people here in the UK and around the world who are facing human rights abuses, in partnership with Amnesty.
“We firmly believe it is important to raise awareness of this successful and powerful campaign with our customers and the general public, and we are encouraging anyone who wants to get involved to come into one of our branches to write or to drop off their letter in support of one of these incredible young people. Every letter really makes a difference – Write for Rights has an impressive track record of bringing about real change. Amnesty is one of our longest-standing charity partners and we are thrilled to be working with them on this important campaign,” added Mr Bester.
The Co-operative Bank is the only UK high street bank with a customer-led Ethical Policy. The policy includes a commitment to promoting human rights and equality.
Rob Harrison, director of the bank’s Customer Union, a co-operative representing customers of the bank, welcomed the partnership with Amnesty. The union was formed to ensure that the Co-operative Bank maintains a customer-led ethical policy. It also works to ensure an eventual return of the bank to full co-operative ownership.
Mr Harrison said: “Members of the customer union think it’s great to see the Bank partnering with Amnesty again. It’s the sort of partnership you wouldn’t see with the mainstream banks and historically, its how the created their distinctive ethical brand with some great campaigns in the 1990s.”
The Co-operative Group sold its remaining stake in the bank in 2017. However, the bank has continued to support the sector through an investment of £1.3m in the Hive, a co-op business advice and support programme provided by Co-operatives UK.