Longtime social justice activist Kumi Naidoo began his four-year tenure this week as head of the rights group Amnesty International with a vision for the group to be “bigger, bolder and more inclusive.”
In his first message as Secretary General on Aug. 16, Naidoo said that Amnesty International “is now opening its arms wider than ever before to build a genuinely global community that stretches into all four corners of the world, especially in the global south.”
“I want us to build a human rights movement that is more inclusive. We need to redefine what it means to be a human rights champion in 2018. An activist can come from all walks of life – a trade union, school, faith group, government or indeed business,” he said.
Naidoo has held multiple leadership roles including Chair of the Global Call for Climate Action, Founding Chair of the Global Call to Action against Poverty and Secretary General and CEO of CIVICUS, the World Alliance for Citizen Participation.
But it was during his time as Executive Director of Greenpeace International starting 2009 that he launched a reputation for civil disobedience – most notably when he was arrested for scaling a Greenlandic oil rig to hand-deliver a petition in protest of drilling in the Arctic in 2011.
Naidoo stepped down as Greenpeace chief in 2015 and returned to Africa, where he helped form Africans Rising for Justice, Peace and Dignity – an amalgamation of trade unions, religious and civil society organizations and the climate lobby.
In 2017, the fledgling movement made civil society solidarity trips to places such as The Gambia, in West Africa.
“Now, more than ever, we need people to come together and stand up to oppressors. I invite people who care about the present and future, for people who care about their children and grandchildren, for people who take injustice personally, to join us. Amnesty International needs your voice, your participation and your presence in our movement to make human rights a reality.”
Naidoo is by his own admission a “disruptor” who has publically stated that the world needs more civil disobedience.
About a year ago, he asked the audience at a TEDx talk in Johannesburg to think about how well-adjusted they had become to injustice.
“If we are to understand the moment of history that we find ourselves in, let’s be very clear – we need a completely different mindset, we need to be thinking not simply outside of the box, we have to take the whole box and throw it very very far away because that box is fundamentally broken,” Naidoo said.
An Oxford graduate, he holds a PhD in political sociology and earned his doctorate after returning to South Africa, along with a wave of exiles in 1990, when the Apartheid regime began to crumble.