Mr. Derek Evans

January 04 2003 | by

Conte: How did you first get involved with Amnesty International?

Evans: Of course, I had known about Amnesty International for a long time because I had already worked on a variety of social justice and peace issues in Canada. When I was a Conference Minister for the United Church of Canada in British Columbia, I arranged for Amnesty to have a room to do its work in our building, so that was my first real contact with Amnesty. I later became a member of a local group. The relationship became closer and eventually, six years ago, I took up a position here in London at the International Secretariat, first as the head of the Asia and Pacific program then, for the past three years, as Deputy Secretary General.

I heard that you are a Quaker, known as the Religious Society of Friends. Is it part of the United Churches?

It isn’t. My religious identity may be a little complex. My wife and my children are Quakers and so they take part in the Religious Society of Friends in our community. As part of the family, I also participate, and I think there is a great deal to learn, but I am not a Quaker myself. Technically, I am a member of the United Church of Canada, which is a union of Methodist and Presbyterian Congregationalist Churches, the mainline Protestant Churches. My father is Anglican and my mother is Roman Catholic. I have a very ecumenical background.

Amnesty International is constantly fighting for the release of people whom it terms prisoners of conscience. What does this mean?

Prisoners of conscience are those imprisoned solely because of their beliefs, their opinions, their race, their color, their language, provided that they have not used or advocated violence. It’s a term that was developed by Amnesty and it’s where the organization started in 1961, when a campaign was launched by a British lawyer named Peter Benenson, our founder. He was appalled at an incident which took place in Portugal at that time under the Salazar government, when three young students were arrested because they had drunk a toast to freedom. Peter Benenson raised the issue and challenged people to join him in a campaign to release what he called prisoners of conscience.

Are there many prisoners because of religious belief?

Certainly, in many nations. In some countries, such as Greece, there are many people, who on the basis of their religious beliefs, refuse to accept military service and so, since there is no provision to respect their conscientious beliefs, they are imprisoned because of their refusal. In certain other countries, for instance China, there are many people who are held because they express religious views which do not lie within the framework of the officially established religious structures. There are quite a few people who are part of Christian Organizations in China who are prisoners because they have expressed their beliefs outside the officially sanctioned church structures that have been recognized there.

In Sudan they say there are some prisoners who are held because they say they are Christians.

Yes. In Sudan there are many people held as prisoners primarily because of their political views. They’re perceived as being in opposition to the government, but there are some prisoners that are held because of the religious laws that have been developed over the past years and proposed for extension into some of the parts of the country that are not primarily Arabic.

Do you think that Amnesty is struggling for the assertion of what we can also express as general Christian values?

Well, Amnesty tries to be a universal movement. It tries to be a movement that is not identified per se with any individual religious creed or with any particular political orientation. But I think that what we have seen is that people from a variety of traditions including, of course, from Christian backgrounds find a great deal to identify with in Amnesty. Our organisation has as its basis the promotion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which fundamentally is based on respect for human dignity. In Christian tradition we believe that man is created in the image of God, that people have inherent rights to respect. There are a great deal of common values that are to be recognized there, so I think that the practical work of Amnesty is something that appeals directly to the very basic values that are shared by Christians. Also in terms of our work there is a very large element which is of a compassionate nature, and Jesus says I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me... So the work of Amnesty is to try to relieve human suffering and bring healing in situations where society is fragmented. We attempt, in a very practical way, to provide support for the families and relatives and loved ones of people who are suffering human rights violations.

There are lots of terribly unjust things happening in the world which are totally ignored by the media. Why aren’t such events covered by the television networks and the press?

That’s a very profound question. I guess on the one hand there is not a very great ability within the media and perhaps within the public as a whole to be able to deal with the great weight of suffering that takes place in the world, and people need to see how something relates directly to their own lives or directly to their society. This, of course, would be one of the things that guides the media or influences the media: how it relates to local interests or preoccupations or political concerns But I think there is also something operating in our world or in our society where people would prefer not to know. People find the amount of suffering that exists a very heavy burden unless they realise that they have something very concrete to contribute to the problem. That’s what we try to do. We try to cover what we call the forgotten countries. We want to ensure that the forgotten prisoners, the little ones who are taken away and disappear, are protected. Governments often hope nobody will notice, but those are the people who we try to recognize and to cherish and help retain their human dignity.

Some nations are always in the spotlight, others, even if horrendous things happen, are practically ignored. Why?

I suppose one has to recognize that there are very large political interests at stake. Certainly there is a great deal of interest in Israel, South Africa and many other countries because these are places where there are strong economic and political relationships between countries. Sometimes, one country focuses on another as its enemy in order to serve its own political purposes at home. What Amnesty has tried to do from the very beginning is to exercise an independent view, which is a very difficult thing to do in a world with so much bias, so much particular interest. During the years of the Cold War it represented a certain number of challenges because if you were in the United States you were perhaps only interested in criticizing what was happening in the Soviet Union or in Cuba, but you were not interested in criticising, for example, Indonesia which was your ally. To some extent that still happens today. I guess that since the fall of the Berlin Wall, things have become more economically oriented and so the economic alliances that are in play affect things much more greatly.

Do most people know only what their governments want them to know?

That is very true to a certain extent, and to break through that wall takes a great deal of deliberate effort and energy, which is in a large part what we at Amnesty and other organizations like ourselves are about: to uncover some of the hidden realities in our world and to try and enforce the responsibility of the international community as a whole for the human rights of citizens everywhere.

Do you have faith in any political philosophy?

Amnesty espouses no political agenda. For myself, I guess I would have to call myself a searcher. I think many of us would say that we’re in a transitional time where the political ideologies of the past are no longer adequate to the moment. I think we’re entering into a period where we need to develop new political concepts. The poor continue to be with us. The poor as a group, indeed, are expanding all over the world. The level of disparity between the rich and the poor is increasing in most societies including the most developed. This represents an enormous challenge to us as a political community because, now more than ever, we’re faced with a situation where larger and larger groups of people are unable to participate, whether economically or politically in the society that of which they are a part. We’re at a transitional point in understanding how we define our values as a political community.

So all the religions of the earth have a duty to identify and pursue these values?

Yes, on an international level. I think that certainly my own spirituality would agree with that. In Christianity, if you take the sacrament of Baptism, it is fundamentally about inclusion. It is recognizing a new member of the community. We have to be very serious about considering how we as a religious community enable inclusion because over many years, too much spirituality and too much religious life have been oriented around how to exclude other people or how to differentiate us from them. I think that’s one of the things we very much have to overcome.

How would you define God?

My concept and my approach to God is one that recognizes that God defies all definitions. I cannot relate to a God that is defined within any kind of personal reference point. My concept of God has more to do with the animating spirit of the universe. Indeed, that spirit is something creative, loving and uniting, something that seeks to bring life together.

Do you believe in evil?

I don’t believe in evil as an independent force, separate from ourselves. I think that evil on a fundamental level, as I observe it or experience it, is when one is unable to empathize with the position of another, when one is unable to care or take into consideration the interests or needs of another person. It is selfishness, to the degree that I am blinded from recognizing that you have concerns or needs of your own. That’s how I see evil functioning. The people who do torture are not necessarily evil people. They’re probably, in parts of their lives, quite ordinary people. They may even think that what they’re doing has a positive motivation, for the security of the state of for something that they value highly. Yet, if we deny the humanity of a person, and disregard the basic respect to which all humanity has a right, then we ourselves may become instruments of evil.

Is it important for you to find some time in your day to communicate with God? Do you have that kind of relationship with God?

I don’t always think of it in terms of relating with God, but it is important for me every day to reflect on reality and to try and touch base with the roots of my own life and values. I try every day to spend a few minutes with an individual case, a victim that we are working on, and make sure that I try to touch the heart of that person’s situation and empathize with what is happening to that human being ‘to hold them in the light,’ as the papers say. We have 5,000 cases, so they can become just objects. What I try to do is make sure that I spend some time in a prayerful manner, seeking to convey a sense of prayer, of blessing to that person. It’s important to me every day to be in touch with the spirit of the will to live and to nourish it, because that is the force that calls us forward.

Do you believe in life after death?

I do not believe in a personalized life after death. I believe that we are energy and energy cannot be destroyed, as Einstein and others tell us. It can be transformed from heat into light or from matter into light and I believe that in some similar fashion that is what happens to us. We are transformed, and I tend to think that there is some sort of long term direction, that is: to bring about feeling in the universe. I think that what our lives are about, and perhaps what our after-life is about as well, is to try to transform the pain and suffering that takes place in the universe into something that is healed, that is whole and that is able to join with the spirit of life and love in the universe.

Who was your hero as a child?

I had various heroes as a child. One of my very important heroes as a child was Dorothy Day, who was the founder of the Catholic worker movement in North America. She organized what she called ‘Houses of Hospitality’ for the poor in many cities and they continue to exist. As a matter of fact, in the earlier part of my life, I was part of a community that ran one of those for four or five years. When I was a student, I looked at a number of other people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a bit of a hero. Somebody who carried his convictions and spoke to truth in an uncompromising manner and tried to live with spiritual and theological integrity as well. Somebody like Simone Veil, the French philosopher, again as somebody who very much sought to live with integrity to her vision of truth.

What’s the difference between a good person and a great person?

I guess a great person is somebody who makes it possible for other people to be good. Great people are those who give inspiration to others and allow them to find additional resources within themselves. A good person is somebody who attempts to live with integrity, who cares for others around him or her. Many people are good people.

Derek G. Evans was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1954. He received his first degree in Comparative Religion followed by post-graduate specialization in Theology and Ethics at McGill University, and doctoral studies at the Centre for Research in Adult Education at the University of British Columbia.

Mr. Evans lectured in Comparative Religion at McGill University (1978-79) and served as an adjunct faculty member in the field of Social Ministry and Pastoral Formation at the School of Theology of the University of British Columbia (1981-86) and the university of Toronto (1986-90).

As a Conference Minister of the United Church of Canada, he directed the programmes of social ministry and international development of the Church’s 160 congregations in the province of British Columbia (1979-86). From 1986-90, he served as Executive Director of the Canada-Asia Working Group, a research and policy institute of the Canadian Council of Churches.

Evans joined the International Secretariat of Amnesty International in 1990 as Head of the organization’s Asia and Pacific Research Department. In 1993, he was appointed Deputy Secretary General, with responsibility for the organization’s world-wide human rights research, campaigning and development programs.

He has had extensive involvement with non-governmental and community organizations throughout the world. In addition to his scholarly work in theology and human rights, he has also published poems and contributed to a number of theatre and film projects. Mr. Evans is married and has three children.

Updated on October 06 2016