by Susan Bristol-Howard
Sixteen years ago Ellen Moore traveled to California to visit friends and recover from a painful divorce. The morning after she arrived, she and her friends went out with the United Farm Workers to picket a mushroom grower. It was that event that helped her realize, and set the course for, her future.
Two weeks later, Ellen walked into the Amnesty International (AI) office in San Francisco to begin work as a volunteer. The route she subsequently followed has led her to the forefront of the human rights movement. Ellen Moore is currently co-coordinator of Amnesty International’s United States Urgent Action Network (UA).
A confirmed believer in nonviolence, she chose Amnesty because of its commitment to human rights and peaceful change. For 16 years Moore has championed that agenda, shaping the Urgent Action Network into a powerful counter to governments that willfully violate, both publicly and privately, the basic rights of their citizens.
The Urgent Action Network deals with situations that require immediate intervention. Each day, the UA office receives telexes from Amnesty’s London headquarters — messages that bring news of human rights violations that could result in unjust imprisonment, torture, or death to the accused. For the most part, those affected are unknown to the world, peasants and ordinary citizens caught in the middle of a harsh political situation.
Without the intervention of Ellen Moore and her Urgent Action co-workers, these people might never be able to enjoy family, friends, or freedom again. Within hours of receiving the telexes, she sends thousands of telegrams to government officials of the offending country. The bottom line request is consistent: Immediate release for prisoners of conscience and humane treatment, due process, proper diet and medical care, and access to family for all prisoners, whatever their alleged crimes. In other words, she demands adherence to international standards of decency.
Despite the fact that Amnesty deals with more cases involving men, the “crimes” of men and women are not substantially different. In truth, more political activists are men who manage to run afoul of their governments, a reflection of the reality, Ellen claims, that has been true from 1975 through the present.
She does not believe, however, that there is any male bias in the way cases are handled by Amnesty International and the Urgent Action office. In fact, sympathy for women’s concerns runs strong within the organization and there is a move, at least in the United States, to highlight particular cases involving women. They are not all that difficult to find, especially these days. In areas of the world such as South Africa and Central and Latin America, women are taking to the streets to demonstrate against their governments. They are leading meetings and running organizations that actively promote anti-government sentiment.
It is these women, the highly visible activists, who face the most immediate threats to their safety. Although many cultures will not execute women, torture is routinely practiced in the forms of rape and mutilation of female prisoners. Often a woman’s only crime is belonging to an ethnic group currently being abused, or being married to an opposition leader.
A staunch feminist, Ellen Moore has added her voice to the many others who argue that it is valid to use the concerns of feminist groups to call attention to the plight of women. To involve people in specific issues and move them toward a more general theme allows for a broader base of support for human rights organizations like AI. This is essential since membership can ebb and flow with the times and the issues. The organization, however, must be able to stay its course even if individuals within it cannot.
The death penalty is a classic example. Amnesty is opposed to the death penalty because, in principle, murdering someone is the most inhumane act one can commit. Such a position inadvertently creates the confusing misconception that the desire to eliminate the death penalty is equivalent to coddling hardened criminals.
Once again, Ellen Moore is not beleaguered by that apparent dichotomy. She has the unique ability to separate the basic philosophical issues from individual actions. She defends principles, not defendants or victims. The basic tenets of human rights and dignity guide her. And although she, like the group for which she works, opposes the death penalty, Moore is fully aware of the need to punish offenders.
Moore assumes that the work she does makes an impact, although there are so few tangible shreds of evidence to confirm it. After all, not many governments, publicly accused of torturing and murdering its citizens, will openly admit to being influenced or pressured by peaceful human rights groups like Amnesty International. But she is able to stay involved by believing in what she does and continuing on the course that she has followed intuitively for a decade and a half.
Relaxed and possessing a gentle sense of humor, despite her constant contact with pain and injustice, Moore continues to promote the idea of what is possible to achieve in the world today. As indeterminate as life is, she has learned to take it in stride and keep on going. Always impressed by the vision of Amnesty International, she has stood by the organization’s principles, and her own, as she worked her way from volunteer to co-coordinator of the United States Urgent Action office.
Happy with her life, Moore has done what she wanted. And she has made her mark in the world of those who care.
Susan Bristol-Howard is a freelance writer from Nederland, CO.