Jóhanna K. Eyjólfsdóttir
Director of the Icelandic Section of Amnesty International
The interview was conducted by Proscovia Svärd on 23 October, 2008.
Proscovia Svärd: In my search for documentation on the involvement of Iceland in the liberation struggles in Southern Africa, I was advised to talk to you. What was the involvement of the Icelandic Section of Amnesty in the liberation struggles in Southern Africa ?
Jóhanna K. Eyjólfsdóttir: Amnesty is an international organization and individual sections participate based on what is being done at the international secretariat. Individual sections therefore participated if there was research work to react to and carried out campaigns based on this. I know that this information can be found in old Amnesty reports of that time.
Proscovia Svärd: Where can one access the reports?
Jóhanna K. Eyjólfsdóttir: Well some of them are available on the Internet.
Proscovia Svärd: What were the campaigns like?
Jóhanna K. Eyjólfsdóttir: I remember one campaign that the Icelandic Section took part in but I do not remember which year it was. The main campaign was I think during the Soweto uprisings and we had to send information to South African media and not only mainstream media like newspapers and television but also, trade unions and all different types of journalists and editors.
Proscovia Svärd: Were you collaborating with any groups in Iceland that were against apartheid?
Jóhanna K. Eyjólfsdóttir: No. The campaign was based on the research that Amnesty had done on the human rights violations in South Africa during that time. Amnesty was aware that what was happening in the country was not known to all parts of the society so, we sent information to different media in South Africa, to encourage them to write about what was happening in the country. I also know that through the years of course, there were lots of prisoners of conscience in South Africa at that time. Many members of the Icelandic Section did write letters on behalf of these prisoners. These were both people in the ANC, the Communist Party and other people. So we tried to raise awareness about what was happening in South Africa. We have old newsletters which describe what was done but they are unfortunately in Icelandic. The Section was established in 1974 and participated in all the campaigns that Amnesty International initiated.
Proscovia Svärd: How did Amnesty’s work contribute to the liberation struggle in Southern Africa?
Jóhanna K. Eyjólfsdóttir: It is difficult to say, but I know that Amnesty did a lot of research and I can show you old reports that we have here. Amnesty followed the trial of Nelson Mandela and there was always someone from the organization throughout the trial. Amnesty documented all these violations throughout the years and published reports and actions on the disappearances, torture and imprisonment etc. Like you see, I have the photograph of Steve Biko on my office wall. But of course Amnesty is an organization that focuses on helping people who are in prison because of their beliefs. Interestingly Nelson Mandela was never a prisoner of conscience.
Proscovia Svärd: What type of prisoner was he then?
Jóhanna K. Eyjólfsdóttir: He was a political prisoner. Amnesty has very strict guidelines and one of the requirements to become a prisoner of conscience is not to engage in violence and Mandela, at a certain point in his life was engaged in violence. So, it is very difficult to tell in a short way what Amnesty did but you can consult the reports that Amnesty published during those years.
Proscovia Svärd: What about you as an individual, were you involved in any of the grassroot groups on Iceland?
Jóhanna K. Eyjólfsdóttir: I was living abroad during that time but, I have been working with Amnesty for many years. I participated in something called ”Action dritte Welt” in the city where I lived in Freiburg in Germany and they published a newsletter and did a lot on South Africa . Although I worked for Amnesty and read about South Africa, I failed to understand how it was possible for a white upper class to live in a very sheltered way without knowing what was happening in the rest of the country or care! However, when I came to S. Africa in 1997, I realized how it functioned. I realized that they used geography to achieve the segregation. There were some parts of town for white people and then you had a river or mountains and then there was an Indian settlement and then there was a field and then the townships! So people were able to live their lives without interacting with each other.
Proscovia Svärd: In 1997 when you went to South Africa after the fall of apartheid what was your feeling?
Jóhanna K. Eyjólfsdóttir: Optimism. I was able to visit some of the shanty towns with a South African friend of mine and to meet people. At that time, there was a plan from the government to build houses for people and we visited a lady who had very strong views on the concrete houses that they offered because she wanted a different house. But what I was so impressed by, was the fact that if I had been raised in a situation like theirs, I would have been so full of hate and it was so impressing to see how Mandela’s truth and reconciliation message had gone from the top and down. And in 1997 (it might be different today) I felt a lot of hope when people were talking about the rainbow society and there was real hope and expectations towards the future. I also went to Robben Island and we were guided by former prisoners. I do not know how it is now because I have not been there since. I remember in 1993 when I was in the US, I met a former prisoner of conscience who had been at Robben Island. This was a young man who was a student and was put on Robben Island for his activities and when I talked to him he said, “those were the best years of my life” and I just looked at him; “best years of your life in prison! Are you ok?” and he said, “this was my university.” “I was there with the best of the best i.e. Mandela and Mbeki and others, and I was able to learn so much”. He was very young when he was imprisoned, perhaps 18 or 19 years.
Proscovia Svärd: Do you remember his name?
Jóhanna K. Eyjólfsdóttir: I have it written down somewhere. He said that this was his university and that was really amazing.
Proscovia Svärd: Because they never had a chance to go to a normal university.
Jóhanna K. Eyjólfsdóttir: Exactly. Amnesty was trying to raise concerns about human rights violations but on the other hand, I do not think that Amnesty ever took a stand against apartheid per se. I don’t think that was ever done.
Proscovia Svärd: And why was that? Is it because it is not a political organization?
Jóhanna K. Eyjólfsdóttir: Yes, something like that. It was a discussion at that time. Our newsletter from last year bears a letter signed by Nelson Mandela and dated 6th November, 1962 because Amnesty gave Nelson Mandela the “Ambassador of Conscience” award. The idea is to show the members that people we worked for in 1962 forgotten at that time, later became leaders of their societies. This shows the members that our work gives positive results. We therefore thought it was beautiful to have Mandela’s letter on the December 2007, Journal. A letter he wrote to Amnesty to thank the organization.
Proscovia Svärd: Do you have most of the documentation on the cases that you worked on here at the Section of Iceland?
Jóhanna K. Eyjólfsdóttir: Yes, when one looks at the old documents, one can find some of the cases that we worked on here in the country.
Proscovia Svärd: Were you involved with other countries as well apart from South Africa like Mozambique, Angola and Namibia? What did you do in those countries?
Jóhanna K. Eyjólfsdóttir: Amnesty was established in 1962 and has been working globally. I see here a case from 1978 from the then Rhodesia on the case of Alfred Dupe who was then in prison.
Proscovia Svärd: When you document violation of human rights as an Amnesty Section on Iceland do you get copies, or how do you handle your cases from here.
Jóhanna K. Eyjólfsdóttir: Amnesty has an international secretariat in London and that is where the research on Europe, Africa, Asia and America is done. All the information is gathered in London and then we receive materials from the international secretariat on both individual cases as well as themes. Like recently from Mozambique, there was a theme on people whose homes were being torn down and were not being given compensation. So when we get such information, we initiate actions by members and pressure governments to change their behavior.
Proscovia Svärd: Does this mean that as an Icelandic Amnesty Section that among your duties you can create awareness in the country as a whole? Did this happen during the apartheid era since the Icelandic government was quite conservative and was not supportive of the anti-apartheid movements? How did Amnesty mobilize around this issue?
Jóhanna K. Eyjólfsdóttir: What we do is threefold. We have our members and some of them are organized in our Urgent Action Network. We send them information by email on cases and they are asked to write letters to governments around the world objecting to the violations they are committing. These are mostly individual cases. Then we have another part of the membership which participates in worldwide appeals and here, members get pre-written letters every month on three different cases to print out, sign and send out. A lot of the members also receive the newsletter and in it, we often have pre-written letters relating to issues or individual cases. We also have a webpage where members can participate in different campaigns. That is an example of direct actions by the members. We also send out news releases both on cases and general situations in different countries and we get that printed in the media and give interviews on radio and television on different issues. We send letters to the authorities here like I am preparing a letter now to the Foreign Minister of Iceland to ask her to support the Optional Protocol on the Economic and Social and Cultural Rights Convention at the UN. We usually write them on themes but sometimes on individual cases. If our government officials are visiting other countries, we send them reports on the human rights situation in the respective countries and ask them to raise human rights issues with the governments or the people they are meeting in those countries. So it is different from time to time.
Proscovia Svärd: Why do you particularly have Steve Biko’s picture on the wall of your office?
Jóhanna K. Eyjólfsdóttir: Well, he is a symbol of a fighter. When he was killed, Amnesty was working on his case. He has always been in my office as far as I can remember and he will move with me to new premises. Through the years, there are hundreds of cases that Amnesty in Iceland has worked on.
Proscovia Svärd: Thank you very much Jóhanna for your invaluable time.