The Lafayette Club: Anya Neistat

In the Lafayette Club's continuing series of talks, Dr Anya Neistat presents 'Exposing Human Rights on the Front Line'.

Photo: The Lafayette Club

The Lafayette Club produces very unlikely nights. Firstly, they charge students £7 to listen to educational talks on a Thursday night. One wouldn’t think that there would be many takers: dark, cold Thursday nights seem more a recipe for face masks, fairy lights, and feature films than a discussion about human rights in a hotel ballroom. Despite that, it was a full house (seemingly a trend with these events).

Secondly, as we all know all too well, St Andrews is not exactly easy to get to. One could expect high-profile speakers if going to university in London or even Edinburgh, but not in this tiny, windswept town that doesn’t even have its own train station. Nevertheless, the Lafayette Club has attracted Nobel Peace Prize laureates, award-winning journalists, and now, Anna Neistat, senior director of research at Amnesty International. When one thinks about how difficult it must have been to attract speakers of this caliber, £7 doesn’t seem so steep.

Anna Neistat was born in the Soviet Union, which collapsed around her as she grew up. Fascinated by the impermanence of the most powerful structures, Ms Neistat “wanted to be part of the change”. She first worked at a radio station in Moscow and completed degrees in literature and history, then went to law school at Harvard. With Amnesty, she has investigated conflict in Syria, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Nepal, Kenya, Yemen, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, and Haiti, and was a subject in E-Team, a Netflix-produced documentary on Human Rights Watch.

Speaking to a crowd of seemingly sleep-deprived students with looming deadlines, Ms Neistat came off as vastly intelligent. She quoted Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and spoke with authority on everything from the hypocrisy of drone usage by NGOs, to keeping transnational corporations accountable for human rights violations. The only hesitation she had over the course of her 35-minute speech (and a question period of the around same length) was whether a certain case of child labour from years ago had taken place in Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan.

Despite her obvious intellectual prowess, Ms Neistat never appeared pretentious or narcissistic. She apologized for referring to one of her own op-eds (“I try to never quote myself”), and provided disclaimers for the inevitable imperfections of Amnesty and other international actors, including the International Criminal Court. She referenced her work on various cases because it supported her comments on the state of modern human rights, not just for the sake of telling us about all she has done.

Ms Neistat began the evening by outlining the challenges human rights are facing in our rapidly changing world. Players in the international field have changed positions, with the rise of populism in unlikely places such as the US, Turkey, and India, as well as in the usual suspects Russia and China. She explained how the 2016 US election was a reality check for Amnesty and for human rights workers in all corners, highlighting the need to protect those basic rights domestically as well as in developing, war-torn countries.

Adding to the complexities of the international field are new players of growing importance: non-state actors that include ideology-based groups, such as ISIS, as well as transnational corporations. Ms Neistat suggested that these non-state actors are actually easier to hold accountable than states. Members of terrorist organisations are often forced to flee their countries as refugees, and it becomes infinitely easier to prosecute them once they reach their intended asylum. Transnational corporations have their image to worry about, so they will quickly take responsibility for human rights violations to avoid a long public trial (if they are foolish enough to risk their reputation by violating the accords in the first place). Ms Neistat drove home the idea that new challenges in human rights protection should be seen as opportunities rather than threats.

From there, the discussion moved towards ever-advancing technology, both the moral issues with it and how human rights groups are using these developments to advance their causes. “Big data” initiatives like predictive policing can further discrimination: predictive policing involves higher deployment of law enforcers to areas with higher crime rates, which are often areas inhabited by immigrants or different ethnic groups. Human rights groups are also faced with challenges posed by automated weapons and by influencing elections (highlighted by the 2016 US election, but a problem globally).

On the flip side, technology allows NGOs to obtain more accurate data faster than ever before. “Open source intelligence” (namely remote sensing, social media monitoring, and use of satellite imaging and drones) can be used to refocus international attention on a particular issue and to refute government claims. Ms Neistat gave an example: the Syrian government asserting that a particular well was not used for body disposal, and Amnesty flying drones over the site to check their claims. One of the questions raised at the end of the talk was how Amnesty draws the line regarding drone usage and privacy rights, to which Ms Neistat admitted that that line is fine, but that drones open up a new world of possibility for investigations into human rights abuses. Drones can go where it isn’t safe or permissible for people to investigate, while satellite imaging can give NGOs information on crises in real time.

Keeping with the theme of speeding up investigations into human rights violations, Ms Neistat talked about Amnesty’s new crisis response program. For many years, Amnesty (and other associations like it) would dispatch teams to investigate a certain area. The teams would then come back and write a 150-page report on their findings, to be released six months after their return. Months after that, the report would finally be released to the media, and advocacy programs would begin to look at tackling the problem. Now, crisis researchers are deployed to conduct investigations in real time and to try to stop human rights violations as they happen. Thus, the missions are less about data collection and more about intervention in real time.

Amnesty still produces their traditional 150-page reports, but are also trying to condense and simplify their findings to make them more accessible to the general public. Findings are digitised and shortened to just a few pages in hopes that people will actually read them. Amnesty also produced a series of reports geared towards people with mental disabilities, using different words and fonts to make them more appealing and easier to read. Ms Neistat noted that they have received comments from government workers, saying how much they like the new format, eliciting a laugh from her audience.

Ms Neistat was very impressive. She was gracious, knowledgeable, and a capable speaker. Equally impressive, though, were the students who went to see her. The Lafayette Club defines its purpose as attracting inspirational leaders from around the world to speak to students from all disciplines on problems facing our generation, and they seem to have hit their mark. Those who posed questions to Ms Neistat were asked to give their year and discipline of study, and there were students from every year (as well as a couple of PhD students) studying not only international relations but also computer science, business, economics, and sustainable development.

One of the questions asked was how we, as young people without much experience or clout, can support the protection of human rights.

Ms Neistat responded that we already are. She said that the most important thing is to be aware of what is going on in the world and to spread that awareness, creating the basis for more support for human rights. She outlined how essential it is that people our age are involved with activism, because we are the ones who will be inheriting this mess of a world.

Ms Neistat concluded her presentation by emphasizing what an honour it was to be there, and how there is “nothing more inspiring in [her] work than seeing a room like [this]”. It was encouraging to see upwards of 100 students take an hour on their Thursday night to listen to Ms Neistat and ask pleasantly intelligent questions of her. We may consider ourselves to be in “The Bubble”, but that bubble is not impenetrable.


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