Interview

Maja Aberg : «Amnesty Sweden is a great place to work»

Maja Aberg

Maja Aberg works as a Senior Policy Adviser for Amnesty International Sweden. Passionate about human rights, she is convinced that human rights are still in its cradle and there is much room for improvement. She is also an admirer of Mauritius which she visited twice whilst working with Amnesty Mauritius.

Who is Maja Aberg? 
Maja is a working mother of two girls, a human rights lobbyist, a small village girl from the beginning but now living in the Swedish capital Stockholm and an incurable optimist who wants to believe people are generally good (in spite of the sad state of the world).

How would you define human‎ rights and why have you decided to devote your whole life to it?
I'll have to quote the beginning of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights for that : “…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world". If there was respect for human rights everywhere, this world would be a very good place. When I was 9 years old, I heard an interview on Swedish radio with a woman who had been tortured in Chile (this was during the military reign of Pinochet). I decided then and there that this was appalling and someone had to do something about it. 41 years later I'm still at it. I consider myself privileged to be able to work for something I believe in, and happy that I can work for human rights without risking my life and that of my family, which is not always the case in the world.

Your part of the world the Scandinavian countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark) was renowned for its social democracy and socialite policies in favour of women and children and an impressive Welfare State. There is now the threat of racism and the extreme right. I naively thought that you were immune to those plagues! How do you explain this?
I wish we were immune to those plagues but sadly I don't think any country is. It's a complex issue and there's not one answer, but I think it's a combination of  increasing gaps, including income gaps, between different groups of people in society, a feeling of frustration and lack of hope among vulnerable groups (though these groups can look very different), and possible having taken things for granted. When it comes to human rights, one can't take them for granted but they must be taught to every new generation and need to be re-conquered by every new generation. Of course, this has to do with political decisions, but also how the world has changed. The polarization of societies and the raise of the extreme right is something many countries grapple with at the moment.

We, human rights defenders, are known for our idealism and for our critical mind. I, personally, from my time in Amnesty, came across strange leaders far from the humanist ideal. So, when people hear that a Mauritian national, Gaetan Mootoo, who worked for Amnesty International committed suicide as a result of work harassment they wonder if your organisation has learnt its lesson.‎ Is this work sickness typical of the international secretariat only or has it reached AI Sweden?
I find the Swedish section of Amnesty to be a very good workplace, (the fact that I have stayed with the organization for more than 20 years is probably testament to that) but, as everywhere, there are sometimes issues of contention. I'm the chair of the local chapter of our trade union and occasionally we have heated discussions, but I must say Amnesty Sweden is a great place to work.

The suicide of Gaetan Mootoo is terribly tragic and no one should ever have to feel so alone and vulnerable at his/her workplace that they want to kill themselves. I personally feel that staff management at Amnesty's international secretariat has not been a strong point. I hope that they will learn from Gaetan’s tragic death and that working conditions will improve. 

I love the kindness of your people, the food, the culture..."

DIS-MOI works with the decentralised unit in Johannesburg especially on Madagascar with Tamara Leger, the Malagacy researcher. What about the recent structural adjustments of your organisation and why are there more decentralised units now?
The international board of Amnesty and then Secretary General Salil Shetty wanted more on-the-ground Amnesty presence in the global South, hence this move to decentralise. The move in itself was difficult for many employees, as their positions moved to places where they could not move. In a way, Gaetan Mootoo's situation was partly due to this re-structuring. In the end, I think many things have changed for the better, closer cooperation with local human rights defenders etc, but some things are still difficult. There are safety concerns and financial concerns, (countries using NGO-laws to restrict funding to threaten local Amnesty offices with closure is one example).

And what about Amnesty international Sweden? How you organised and what are the most important challenges you face?
We have grown a lot as an office in the past few years. While this is a good thing (many people supporting Amnesty in Sweden and becoming members) it inevitably causes a bit of growing pains. We have gone from being a relatively flat organization with only two "bosses" to having a more hierarchical structure with department heads and middle managers. Fundraising is an ongoing priority for us as we want to (and are expected to) contribute more to the international movement. As far as challenges in Sweden, I refer to the earlier question about the raise of xenophobic sentiment etc. As an organization, we must be vigilant and constantly defend human rights.

Have you heard about DIS-MOI’s work in the South West Indian Ocean? What is your opinion about the ONG?
I have heard about DIS-MOI and have a very good impression of its work. I think the idea of regional organization is a very good one, as cooperation brings strength, and there's a common understanding of the pressing issues in the region. I've also noticed its international work, bringing important topics to the attention of the UN, including in Geneva. 

We know that you are an admirer of Mauritius which you visited twice. What do you find interesting in the country? And the least interesting ?
I love so many things about Mauritius that I don't even know where to start. For someone having grown up with the long dark and cold winters of the North, the tropical climate and beautiful beaches of Mauritius is my idea of paradise literally. People in Sweden have posters of tropical beaches in their houses to remind them that somewhere in the world, there's a paradise like that. I love the kindness of your people, the food, the culture... It's all interesting. On a somber note, I'm very concerned about climate change and what it will mean, both to Mauritius and its tropical climate, and to Sweden, where our glaciers are melting at an alarming rate. I hope brave young activists like Swedish Greta Thunberg will help us all to make the changes needed for a sustainable future.

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