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Amnesty Head: Climate Crisis Is a “Death Penalty” for Humanity. Leaders Need Political Will to Act

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More than a million students are expected to walk out of class on Friday in a Global Climate Strike, with more than 800 climate strikes scheduled in the United States alone. Strikes are also being organized in another 150 countries around the world. In our New York studio, we speak to Amnesty International’s Secretary General Kumi Naidoo, who has urged school districts across the globe to allow students to walk out of school on Friday without facing punishment. In a letter, Naidoo, who is also the former executive director of Greenpeace, writes, “Children should not be punished for speaking out about the great injustices of our age. In fact, when it has fallen on young people to show the leadership that many adults who hold great positions of power have failed to, it is not young people’s behavior we should be questioning. It is ours.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: More than a million students around the world are expected to walk out of class on Friday in a Global Climate Strike. More than 800 climate strikes are scheduled in the United States. Strikes are also being organized in 150 other countries. On Wednesday, 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who inspired the movement, testified before the U.S. Congress.

GRETA THUNBERG: My name is Greta Thunberg. I have not come to offer any prepared remarks at this hearing. I am instead attaching my testimony. It is the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees Celsius, the SR1.5, which was released on October 8th, 2018. I am submitting this report as my testimony because I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists, and I want you to unite behind the science. And then I want you to take real action. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Amnesty International’s Secretary General Kumi Naidoo has urged school districts across the globe to allow students to skip school Friday without facing punishment. In an open letter to school leaders, Naidoo recently wrote, quote, “Children should not be punished for speaking out about the great injustices of our age. In fact, when it has fallen on young people to show the leadership that many adults who hold great positions of power have failed to, it is not young people’s behaviour we should be questioning. It is ours,” he said.

Kumi Naidoo joins us now in our New York studio. He became the secretary general of Amnesty International a year ago. He previously served as the international executive director of Greenpeace and was also involved in the anti-apartheid movement in his home country of South Africa, where he was also kicked out of school for protesting.

Kumi Naidoo, it’s great to have you back. Welcome back to Democracy Now!

KUMI NAIDOO: Thank you very much, Amy. It’s good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, it’s interesting, your titles, where you have been. Now you’re at Amnesty International. You’re the head of it. You were at the head of Greenpeace. And you are here in New York. You’ll be part of the Global Climate Strike. But you’re also at this unprecedented meeting of environmentalists and human rights activists, pulling together all of your activism in your life.

KUMI NAIDOO: I think one of the catastrophic mistakes we made in 1992, when the Rio Earth Summit happened, was framing our response to the threat of climate change solely or primarily as an environmental issue. I think we needed to have done then what we are trying to do now — it’s late, but better late than never — which is to ensure that we bring a crosscutting understanding of climate change and bring a more human-centric approach to addressing climate change. So, the summit that we’re having is primarily nonenvironmental activisms coming together and asking ourself the question: What can the human rights movement bring to ensuring there’s an urgency on the climate question? Because, basically, climate change today constitutes a mass death penalty on the entire population of our planet.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you talk about that a little bit more? Who are the populations that are most affected?

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, the sad reality is that the people that are paying the first and most brutal impacts of climate change are those that actually have been the least responsible for it. So, these are people in Mozambique, where we saw — I grew up in southern Africa. That’s my home. I don’t have any recollection of cyclones ever. And then Mozambique has two cyclones in two weeks, wiping out almost an entire city, with hundreds of people’s lives being devastated and lost. But if we look at the disproportional effect of the impacts, it’s still very much — it’s not as if there’s no impacts in rich countries. There is. But in comparative terms, it is the poor countries that are suffering.

Yesterday, in my opening address to the climate summit, the People’s Summit, I said, “Just because it’s not yet, you know, in the North, you can be assured it’s coming to a theater near you quite soon.” And the reality is that we have to get this right, as rich and poor countries acting together, and we secure the future of all our children and their children. If we continue to be as divided as we are, true, people in poor countries unfairly are paying the first price, but people in rich countries need to know that they are not sanitized on a long-term basis from the impacts of climate change.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But it seems, in fact, that the differential impact is not just now between rich and poor countries, but also between the rich and poor within countries.

KUMI NAIDOO: Within countries, correct.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights earlier this year warned that the unequal distribution of these impacts could lead to climate apartheid, whereby, quote, he said, “[T]he wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.” Could you say a little about the ways in which you see both wealthy countries and the wealthy within all countries kind of shielding themselves from the worst effects and how so many people are left out of that?

KUMI NAIDOO: Absolutely. I mean, you know, when we think about the climate crisis, you can think about the sinking of the Titanic. Right? Everybody in the Titanic, when it struck that iceberg, was under threat. But we know that based on your wealth, you had a different opportunity of succeeding or not. Even in the United States, if you look at Hurricane Katrina in 2005, you know, the wealthier folks were able to jump in their cars and drive away. Poorer folks were left stranded in hospitals and prisons and communities and so on.

So, when we look at this challenge, we need to recognize that climate change is also — at its heart, one of the biggest problems is our consumption patterns, our — you know, how the material benefits of the world are distributed. And the bottom line is, if we do not address as part of our climate solution deep structural inequality that exists in the world, we’re never going to get to a place of really addressing climate on the long-term basis. There is no question that those of us who are at the top end of society, who actually lead lives of overconsumption, need to recognize that the poor are actually subsidizing our lifestyle by the pain that they have to take. And this is an uncomfortable, you know, thing to accept. A lot of well-meaning people around the world say how they are opposed to poverty and so on. But we need to understand that the scale of poverty, inequality, and therefore, unsustainability practices, is there because a relatively handful of people in the world insist on living a particular lifestyle, which is actually so unequal and so indefensible. So, yes, we need to understand this problem is between rich and poor countries, but also within individual countries.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. After Kumi Naidoo, secretary general of Amnesty International, we’ll be joined by the Gambian beauty queen who says she was raped by the former dictator. We’ll talk about the truth and reconciliation commission that is going there now and her bravery in saying she will return to confront him. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with Kumi Naidoo in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “Rainsong” by Imago. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Our guest is Kumi Naidoo, secretary general of Amnesty International, previously the head of Greenpeace and longtime South African anti-apartheid and climate justice activist, the first African to lead Greenpeace. So, you’re here in New York. Can you talk about the climate strike that youth are leading on Friday — tomorrow we’ll have a roundtable of youth discussing this — walking out of school? It’s something you know well from anti-apartheid days in South Africa.

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, yeah. I mean, I walked out of school when I was 15. It’s a little bit of déjà vu. But let me just say, these kids are much more smarter, much more strategic, much more sort of networked.

AMY GOODMAN: You got thrown out?

KUMI NAIDOO: Yeah, I, together with thousands, were expelled from school for that reason.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And you were 15 years old.

KUMI NAIDOO: Yeah, I was 15: But —

AMY GOODMAN: And so, you’ve asked now schools around the world to do the opposite.

KUMI NAIDOO: Yeah. And, you know, I would argue that my act, together with my fellow young people in South Africa at that time, was actually an educative act. We learned, actually, from being part of trying to shape the history of our country. These young people are shaping the history of the world.

Democracy Now!, as you know, has been covering climate activism for a long time intensively. I’m sure you’ll agree with me that this is the most powerful, energizing moment in our struggle on the climate catastrophe. And I think that while on the one hand we’re facing a situation where we are so close to the cliff because we’re running out of time, on the other hand I think the young kids have actually shown courage.

And I wrote to principals and teachers and so on, just saying, you know, not to punish kids for doing what their parents should be doing and what political and business leaders should be doing. The reality is, the kids are behaving like adults, and some of our politicians, including the guy that sits in the White House, are behaving like spoiled brats.

AMY GOODMAN: And, by the way, the kids are saying that all people should walk out; it should not just be children.


AMY GOODMAN: Walk out of their workplaces, come from home, to join in the streets.

KUMI NAIDOO: Yes. And I have to tell you — you’ve been using a figure of 1 million people or more than 1 million — I am cautiously optimistic that this is going to be the largest climate protest and potentially one of the largest protests ever to happen in the world. Yesterday, in terms of the website, almost the double number of events were registered within 48 hours. There is a momentum that is picking up.

And I hope that parents, in particular, will honor their children. Those parents that are able to participate and join wherever they are in the world, we encourage them to do that, because what is at stake here is not saving the planet, it’s actually securing our children and their children’s future. And therefore, it’s right that children are in the frontline, when their politicians are not willing to protect their futures.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I mean, even as, obviously, these young people and many other climate justice activists are rising up as the ones who can potentially bring leaders and, as you say, parents around to understanding how huge this climate crisis is, there is also an unprecedented attack on climate and environmental activists. Earlier this month, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet condemned the increasing attacks on climate activists, including, in fact, Greta Thunberg. This is a clip.

MICHELLE BACHELET: The office and special rapporteurs have noted attacks on environmental human rights defenders in virtually every region, particularly in Latin America. I am disheartened by this violence, and also by the verbal attacks on young activists, such as Greta Thunberg and others, who galvanize support for prevention of the harm their generation may bear. The demands made by environmental defenders and activists are compelling, and we should respect, protect and fulfill their rights.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that’s the U.N. high commissioner for human rights. Kumi, could you talk about what’s happening to climate activists around the world?

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, actually, this is exactly the conversation we had with the U.N. secretary-general yesterday, where we pointed out to him that according to Global Witness, last year, for example, every week three environmental activists, on average, were murdered. Right? Most of them — every week. By the way, the statistic in previous years, for the last several years, was two per week. It’s spiked since the Bolsonaro election, for example. And —


KUMI NAIDOO: In Brazil. So what we see, it’s global — that’s a global average, but there’s a disproportionate number of people being killed in the Amazonian area in Latin America. But it’s important that we recognize that the repression is not only about murder, but the attacks in terms of online attacks. In terms of online attacks, as a report by Amnesty International last year showed, if you take Twitter, for example, there’s a disproportional level of abuse against women and a disproportional level of abuse against women of color. And now we are seeing that young people are particularly also in the frontline of this, attacks by usually politicians, the handful that are still denying the climate science.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the destruction of the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, the United Nations calling for the protection of the Amazon amidst fears that thousands of fires raging across Brazil are paving the way for a climate catastrophe. Environmentalists say most of the fires were deliberately set by illegal miners and cattle ranchers. Meanwhile, as the fires continue to rage, the far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has pinned blame on nongovernmental organizations.

PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: [translated] Regarding the fires in the Amazon, I am under the impression that it could have been set by the NGOs, because they had asked for money. What was their intention? To bring about problems for Brazil.

AMY GOODMAN: And then I want to turn to an indigenous activist, Aramisa Barbosa Ribeiro, an indigenous activist from Brazil who traveled to the U.S. from Brazil for Friday’s climate strike actions.

ARAMISA BARBOSA RIBEIRO: [translated] My territory in Brazil is in the dry highlands of the Cerrado. Even the young can see this highland disappearing, and our native plants are dying due to lack of water. If it goes on like this, 20 years from now my homeland will become a desert. My people will be at risk of becoming history. Right now the Amazon, home to millions of my relatives, is burning.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Aramisa Barbosa Ribeiro, and she was there in Washington, D.C., at a news conference standing next to Senator Markey and Greta Thunberg and others. Very important, as we bring the power quote from Bolsonaro, but also the elevation of the voices of these indigenous activists and how much threat they face. When the Amazon is on fire, you look at the maps. Their areas, that they protect, are not on fire, when you look at the map from above. And the other areas are the ones on fire, the threats that you’ve been continuing to talk about, Kumi.

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, one of the key points that came out of the first day of the People’s Summit was that we owe a major debt to indigenous peoples around the world. It is sad that we didn’t listen to their wisdoms about how humanity should coexist with nature in a mutually interdependent relationship. And we’ve seen how that indigenous knowledge has actually saved parts of this Amazon, as you say. And right now we actually need indigenous knowledge in the global conversation around addressing a climate catastrophe, moving forward, because there is a deep intelligence and history about how we live in the most sustainable way with resources that humanity needs, for our water, for our soil, for our food production and so on.

The reality is, there are rich countries in the world who historically completely chopped down their forests, like in Europe and so on, to develop themselves. And so, what Bolsonaro does is uses a range of false narratives to actually sort of say, “Well, oh, those people chopped the forests, therefore we should do the same.” That’s ridiculous. Brazil and the other countries around Brazil, where the Amazon sits, are people who are the possessors and the holders of the most precious global asset, their natural asset, one of the most. And that value is gone once you chop it down.

And that is why in the climate negotiations, for example, we say that we want significant resources to go in the Green Climate Fund, so that countries can be supported, as Indonesia was supported previously, you know, with serious support from Norway, not to further deforest, by getting a big support to actually cover whatever they might have lost economically.

AMY GOODMAN: They have the second-largest rainforest, in Indonesia.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Kumi, you know, if you could just give us a sense — you have obviously participated in climate negotiations for a very long time, first at Greenpeace, and now you’re still involved at Amnesty. You know, you’ve been talking — we’ve been talking about Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and, obviously, Trump here in the United States, who actually raises questions about whether climate science is accurate. China, meanwhile, is reportedly planning to use funds intended to support clean energy to fund so-called clean coal instead. I mean, these are major countries that are responsible for large amounts of emissions. If you could give us a sense of where they stand, big polluters? How does this compare to other countries around the world? I mean, Greta Thunberg, one of the points that she made when she came, said the conversation in Sweden is so radically different than from here. And what can be done about the fact that the heads of state of these large countries, responsible for the majority of emissions, are not doing what’s required?

KUMI NAIDOO: I think it’s scandalous, it’s irresponsible, and it’s shameful. Because I’ll give you — in Africa, you know, Morocco and Gambia, where our sister who you’re going to interview comes from, these are two countries that are basically on track to fulfill 1.5-degree sort of obligations. We are seeing other poor countries making a lot of effort. But we can do everything in smaller countries, but if the big countries, who are the biggest emitters, don’t change radically now, then these emissions don’t respect boundaries, right? They are up there in the atmosphere, and it’s going to impact on everybody. So, the lack of urgency, I think, has to be named as a mental condition that our political leaders are facing, which is cognitive dissonance.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you have the political leaders saying it’s too expensive in the wealthiest countries, and then you have the poorest countries taking major steps to address climate change. In July, volunteers in Ethiopia planted 350 million trees in 12 hours?

KUMI NAIDOO: Twelve hours, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: As part of a national campaign to tackle the climate crisis. Eighty percent of Ethiopia’s population depends on agriculture for its livelihood. But Ethiopia suffers from soil erosion, deforestation, flooding and harsh drought conditions. A study released earlier this year found that planting 1.2 trillion trees could cancel out 10 years of carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile, England has fallen over 70% short of its government targeting for tree planting.

KUMI NAIDOO: Absolutely. And the Ethiopia tree planting versus the U.K. tree planting example tells you that it’s a question of political will. And our leaders need to now understand that nature does not negotiate. You cannot change the science. All that we can change right now is political will. And thankfully, political will is a renewable resource, if you know what I mean. And so, citizens now need to be asking, as citizens around the world are asking in different countries: How are their leaders going to act on climate?

You might remember, five years ago, we were not getting that kind of bottom-up pressure on our political leaders to act on climate. Now, even in the United States, a majority of citizens are saying they want climate action. So I think right now we must ask the question, why our political leaders are not acting. We’ve got popular opinion behind them.

The reason is very clear. There are people in the current energy system, in the current economic system, that are making truckloads of money every second of every day, that are going to defend the system until it kills our children and their futures. And that is why we have to take on the collusion between the fossil fuel industry and governments, because too many governments have been captured and bought off by the fossil fuel industry and other polluting industries.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: As you know also, Kumi, one of the issues that is repeatedly pointed to in discussions about climate change is population growth. And, of course, the countries where the population is growing are largely developing countries. And it’s in Europe and North America where birth rates have gone down. But I want you to comment on the differences between consumption levels of people who live in the North and people who live in the Global South. A recent report found that the average American generates the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions as 583 people would in Burundi. And in the case of Saudi Arabia, the number is even greater: Carbon dioxide emissions for an average Saudi resident is the same amount as 719 people in Burundi.

KUMI NAIDOO: So, let us first say that it is an important question for us to talk about population growth in an intelligent, informed way. I think that there is a simple strategy, which the women’s movement has told us multiple times, to address the question of rapid population growth and unsustainable population growth. And that is, just give us full gender equality. If we have full gender equality — we have seen where gender equality levels picks up, family sizes go down. Right? So, to all the politicians in the world and all those that are concerned about population growth, become a gender activist now and push for 100% gender equality.

And I think, given the way the resources in the world are right now, it is a sensible thing for us to check population growth. However, having said that, that statistic is absolutely right, of course. I’ve been quoting this, different versions of it over time, to make the point that, you know, the unequal consumption in the world is what’s driving this problem. And unless we also begin to understand what constitutes a happy, meaningful life — and we have to break this idea that happiness comes from more and more and more and more consumption, because it clearly is not what gives you happiness and a meaningful identity.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds. The climate strike is Friday; Saturday, U.N. Youth Summit at the United Nations; and on Monday, the 23rd, the U.N. Climate Action Summit; before the big one in Santiago, Chile, where, of course, we’ll be, in December. That one on Monday, what are you expecting out of it? What do you want to see come out of it? What did Guterres say to you yesterday when you met with him, the U.N. secretary-general meeting with the secretary general of Amnesty?

KUMI NAIDOO: So, the good thing that the secretary-general did for the summit, he said, “You get — each country gets — head of state gets three minutes. But you’re not coming here to give a speech about the problem. You’re only coming here to announce your plans.” And therefore, Japan — sorry, Japan, Australia, my country, South Africa, as well, have been — they’re not speaking, because they’re coming to talk about — they’re continuing with coal, for example. So —


NERMEEN SHAIKH: No, South Africa.

AMY GOODMAN: I know, but the U.S.?

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, U.S. is not there because they haven’t signed the — I mean, they’ve pulled out of the Paris Agreement. And that’s like a no-brainer, sadly. So, what we have is a secretary-general at the moment, on climate, is pushing really hard. We hope governments actually catch up with the way he’s trying to take them to go. And the proof of the pudding will be there on Monday.

Having said that, we — as we said before we went to the Paris Agreement — we didn’t say road to Paris; we said road through Paris. And so, all of these moments, yes, they’re important, but it’s yappity-yappity-yap, right? As Greta and the young kids are saying, time for talking is over. So, our political and business leaders must hear from the People’s Summit that’s taking place and multiple other conversations.

We are not going to put all our eggs in the negotiation baskets. We’re not going to put all our eggs in the U.N. baskets. We’re going to take the struggle onto the streets, into communities, going after our banks, that — where we put our money in, who are lending to fossil fuel companies and so on. So we’re going to open up a whole range of other struggles that have been going on, including strategic litigation in the Philippines right now. The Philippine Human Rights Council is taking — started a legal process to go after the top fossil fuel companies, to hold them accountable.

AMY GOODMAN: University of California entire system just divested.

KUMI NAIDOO: Yes. And then, of course, the divestment. You know, we had a conference in Cape Town just last week to look at where the divestment movement were, and we completely overshot the target in terms of — you know, we were hoping for 10 trillion; we’re already at 11-plus trillion, with months to go. And we think people are beginning to see that they have power. Even if we have little money in the bank account, we might have quite a lot of power to put pressure on the banks. And those that have money to invest should be pulling out their money and putting it into clean energy, if they care about the children and their children’s futures.

AMY GOODMAN: Kumi Naidoo, we want to thank you so much for being with us, secretary general of Amnesty International, previously head of Greenpeace, lifelong South African human rights and climate justice activist.

When we come back, we go to Gambia, where an ongoing public truth and reconciliation commission is investigating atrocities of the former dictator Yahya Jammeh. We’ll speak with a Gambian beauty queen who’s publicly accused Jammeh of rape. Stay with us.

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