POWERFUL INCENTIVE?Director of Amnesty Ireland Colm O’Gorman (centre) has teamed up with Gaelforce West to raise funds for and awareness of his organisation’s new Stop Torture campaign.
Angels at his shoulders
Colm O’Gorman on how the people who Amnesty campaigns for will get him through the challenges of Gaelforce West
The gruelling Gaelforce West adventure race takes place on August 16. The 67.5km course from Connemara’s Glassilaun beach to Westport via Croagh Patrick includes 21km of running, 45.5km of cycling and a kilometre of kayaking. The terrain includes mountain scree, bogland, trails, roads and the majestic waters of Killary Fjord.
The event’s charity partner is Amnesty International, and this year high-profile activist Colm O’Gorman, executive director of Amnesty Ireland, has signed up. He and a team of nine other hardy souls will run, paddle and pedal the course under the banner of Team Amnesty to raise funds for the organisation and to raise awareness for one of its latest campaigns, Stop Torture.
Last week, The Mayo News asked O’Gorman – who has never taken part in an endurance race as tough as Gaelforce West – how he’s feeling about the challenge ahead. “A lot better than I was feeling about it about a month ago!” he quips, revealing that he has questioned his sanity several times over the past few months of hard training.
O’Gorman admits that his training regime started a little later than he had hoped, but he says he’s really got into the swing of it now. “I’m looking forward to it. I don’t know how I’ll be feeling by the end of August 16th – but with any luck I’ll be the fittest I’ve ever been in my life on the 15th!
“I had intended to do much more training than perhaps I have. I started in earnest about two months ago, and I’m training five or six days a week at the moment.
“I’ve just got back from two weeks’ holiday in northern Spain and I managed to keep going while I was there. Lots of hill cycling and hill running and stuff to try and get ready for the wilds of Connemara.”
This year, the length of the final part of the race, the short run to the finish line, has been doubled from 0.75km to 1.5km. After ditching their bikes for the last time, the competitors will run through the grounds of Westport House to the new finish line in Westport Leisure Park in the town centre.
A kilometre-and-a-half may not sound like much given all that the competitors will have already gone through, but on tired legs it it’s a big ask – and O’Gorman is all too aware of that. “Do you know, I think I’m dreading that last 1,500 metres the most, because I reckon I’ll be shattered.”
Filling O’Gorman with less trepidation are the cycling parts of the race. “The bike has been a real revelation to me. It’s been a long time since I’ve spent a lot of time on one, but I’ve fallen absolutely in love with cycling – now I’m itching to get home in the evening for an hour on the bike.
“Myself and my other half are even thinking of cycling the Camino across northern Spain next year, which is about 800 kilometres, so I’ve really got the bug!”
“The Gaelforce West course is absolutely beautiful, which helps. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of Ireland after all … The company should be great too – there’s nothing like these kinds of endurance events or challenges to get people to boost each other up and keep each other going.
“If I’m honest though, perhaps the bit I’m looking forward to most is the long cold drink at the end of it all.”
Inevitably, when training for such an incredibly demanding event, athletes often hit mental brick walls – points where tired muscles, aching joints and the prospect of the race itself are all just too much. They just want to give up and drop out.
And O’Gorman is no different. However, for him, the vital work that Amnesty does keeps him motivated during those lows.
“I’m looking forward to Gaelforce on a personal level, the personal challenge is going to be great, but I have to say there have been moments where I’ve felt, ‘What am I at? This is mad’. When that happens, I think about why I’m doing it, what this stands for and how important an event like this is to Amnesty International and to our work.
“We neither accept nor take funds from governments or states for any of our campaigning or advocacy work, so all of our work is completely dependent on the fundraising work that we do and the financial support that we get from our members and our donors.
“We could not be doing the work that we’re doing as part of our Stop Torture campaign, for example, without events like this. It’s absolutely crucial. We couldn’t work on issues like Gaza, or Syria, or Meriam [Meriam Ibrahim, a pregnant Sudanese woman who had been sentenced to flogging and death by hanging for apostasy and adultery] or prisoners of conscience without events like this and the support of people who sponsor me.
“So in those moments when I’m facing a really tough hill, or when I’m thinking ‘What am I at? I wish I could back out of this’, that’s the reason why I can’t back out. That’s what really motivates me, that’s what really keeps me going.
The Stop Torture campaign is a new campaign running across all Amnesty International organisations. Over the past number of years, O’Gorman explains, Amnesty has become increasingly concerned with how torture has become more prevalent and more tolerated.
“It’s simply the case that torture has never gone away despite some notable wins over the last number of years – the securing of the Convention Against Torture 30 years ago in 1984, for example. Torture is now absolutely prohibited under international law … And yet we see that it’s being used with impunity around the world, particularly since the so-called war on terror and everything that came out of that, and increasing tolerance or justification of torture by, for instance, the United States and others.
“Torturers are becoming bolder, quite frankly, and states feel more able to ignore the law. So what the campaign aims to do is to put us in between the tortured and the torturer. We want to make sure that in national laws and in international law there are steps taken to both prevent torture and put remedies in place when torture occurs.
“We’re focusing on a number of countries where we think we can achieve very significant breakthroughs that will then have an impact at the global level. In the campaign we’re focusing on five countries [Nigeria, Mexico, The Philippines, Uzbekistan and Morocco].
“In the Philippines, for example, torture has become prevalent in detention; the police use torture it, it’s become so prevalent.”
O’Gorman describes a game that the Philippine police play: ‘Wheel of torture’. Amnesty discovered that they would spin ‘literally a big wheel of fortune with different torture techniques on it’. “They’d spin the wheel to see which particularly torture technique they’d apply to whoever they were detaining and torturing at the time. Torture as a game, as entertainment.
“Right across the world states are torturing their own people. People are being electrocuted, beaten, raped, threatened with sexual assault. The kind of techniques that are used are pretty horrific.
“Torture is routine … It’s a matter of course in many, many countries. And contrary to public perception it’s not serious criminals who are being tortured, or terrorism suspects. Very often it’s people who find themselves on the wrong side of the law because they’re poor. Or because they’re marginalised, or because they’re dissenting.
“And it is precisely because it is now so routine in so many states and because it’s practised with such impunity that we’ve decided, 30 years on from our last major campaign on torture, to launch a new campaign, Stop Torture, for the next number of years at the global level.
“It’s going to be a priority campaign here in Ireland, one of our three priority campaigns over the next couple of years, and we’ll be working intensively on it.”
Amnesty International is also running My Body, My Rights campaign, which focuses on state interference with people’s autonomy and sexual reproductive rights. Amnesty is calling for, among other things, the repeal of laws in the Maghreb region, including Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, that force women and girls who are victims of rape and sexual violence to marry their rapists.
The organisation’s SOS Campaign looks at the human-rights violations experienced by people from the Middle East and north Africa seeking protection in Europe. Such violations include cases where Syrian refugees have been robbed of their identification and money, and pushed back across land borders or, horrifically, pushed out into international waters on boats and fired upon.
Here in Ireland, Amnesty’s major current focus is on seeking greater constitutional protection economic, social and cultural rights – “things like the right to health, the right to housing, education, adequate standards of living and income,” says O’Gorman.
“We don’t really have a legal framework that guides decision-making around things like how the state spends our money to help ensure the best health or housing or education outcomes.
“In February of this year we secured a hearing before the Constitutional Convention who made a recommendation that the Irish constitution should be amended to better protect economic, social and cultural rights. That was a very big moment for us. The Government is due to respond to that recommendation in the autumn.”
The actions taken by all of Amnesty’s individual members are a massive part of the organisation’s strength. These actions include Amnesty-writing campaigns. “They’re core to who we are and what we do. They’re how we started. We call them Urgent Actions. We work on prisoners of conscience and individuals at risk in a whole variety of settings. That’s crucial, urgent and routine work for us. Anyone who goes to www.amnesty.ie and looks at the action centre there will see cases that we’re working on at the moment. There’s a case of a young man in Nigeria, Moses, who was arrested at the age of 16, convicted on a confession extracted by torture, and is now facing the death penalty… We’re working on cases like that all of the time. And we succeed.
“Somebody sitting down in a kitchen in Mayo and clicking on a mouse or writing a letter or sending an email can prevent somebody from being tortured. They can prevent somebody from being executed. They can secure the release of a prisoner of conscience. It takes time, and it takes volume, but it happens.”
To support Colm O’Gorman’s Gaelforce West bid, visit the fundraising webpage www.justgiving.com/Colm-O-Gorman/. To find out more about Amnesty’s Stop Torture campaign and the organisation’s work, visit www.amnesty.ie.