Passing the candle at Amnesty International

Paula Kelsall

Ketty Nivyabandi, the new Secretary General of Amnesty International’s English-speaking section in Canada, is breaking new ground in a lot of ways. Not only is she the first woman and the first person of colour to take the job, she is also the first refugee and the first published poet in the position!

At a Zoom gathering in November Ms. Nivyabandi was introduced to Amnesty supporters across the country by Alex Neve, who retired this fall after 20 years as Secretary General. Alex Neve took some time to reflect on the many national and international developments that galvanized Canadian human rights activists during his tenure, such as the inquiry on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, the cases of Maher Arar and Omar Khadr, and the establishment of the International Criminal Court.

Ketty Nivyabandi talked about her journey toward activism, describing how she started out with an interest in politics in Burundi, where she grew up, then gravitated toward journalism, a profession in which she could help to hold governments to account for their actions. Her early assignments, such as reporting on refugee camps in her country, made her realize that she wanted to go further; not just uncovering the truth but helping to bring about justice.

Ketty Nivyabandi was a founding member of the Women and Girls Movement for Peace and Security in Burundi. In 2015 her activism ran afoul of the government, and she was forced to leave Burundi. She came to Canada as a refugee that year, along with her two daughters.

Asked what gives her hope, Ketty Nivyabandi says she looks at history, at the progress humans have made in the last few centuries, and at the people who have pursued justice when everything was against them. “Often those like us who are in a safe place are more discouraged that those who have lost everything,” she says.

For now Amnesty staff, like so many of us, are mostly working from home, but Ketty Nivyabandi is looking forward to the day when she can enjoy coming in to the office on Laurier Avenue and getting to know Sandy Hill. “I’m a huge coffee shop / bookshop/ long walk in the park kind of girl,” she says, “and will be looking for cozy spots where I can escape and write a few poems between human rights emergencies every once in a while.”

May Sandy Hill be the perfect environment for the next stage of Ketty Nivyabandi’s journey, in social justice and in literature.

Ketty Nivyabandi outide Amnesty International’s headquarters on Laurier E.
Photo Paula Kelsall

Write for  Rights 2020

Amnesty International usually celebrates International Human Rights Day in December with a letter writing marathon, where anyone can drop in to join thousands of people around the world who are writing letters in response to each year’s 10 featured cases of human rights in jeopardy.

There won’t be a writeathon at Amnesty headquarters this December, but the great thing about letter writing is that it can be done anytime, anywhere.  If you’d like to take a moment to protect human rights this year, visit to find this year’s cases and letter writing guidelines.  You can write on your own, plan your own small gathering (in person or online), or join in one of the many virtual events being planned across the country.