Anna Neistat’s career has seen her bring a criminal law background to the fight for human rights. It has seen her travelling to the frontlines of horrendous human rights abuses, carrying out investigations in countries including Syria and Afghanistan, infiltrating Australia’s notorious Nauru Island detention centre, and leading Amnesty International’s global research agenda. It is an exciting and varied job, but there is still a lot to be done to defend human rights. In Part 2 of our interview, Anna describes the situation in Nauru, and what we can do to help.

If you missed Part 1, read it here.


You recently went to Nauru, can you tell us a little bit about what you saw and why you were there?

Australia has been running, for years and years, this policy of offshore processing. It was on and off and on again. Right now, there are two offshore processing centres – Manus Island and Nauru. Basically, everybody that is trying to reach Australia by boat (refugees and asylum seekers) ends up in those centres.

Nauru is special in a sense that it’s a tiny island in the middle of nowhere; it’s basically one big, open air prison. It used to be an all-detention facility. Now part of it is a detention facility, part of it is not. People live in community accommodation, but it makes no difference whatsoever – it’s 20 square kilometres, so there’s nowhere to run.

Unlike Manus Island, they send women, children, and families. So, Manus Island is only men and Nauru is really everybody. People have been there for three years. They have absolutely no clue what’s going to happen with them. There are no options being offered to them, essentially.

What we found is a system of deliberate abuse that amounts to torture. Amnesty International does not use the word torture lightly, so you can imagine the Australian government is not very happy with that definition. But we do believe that it is a system set up to inflict suffering, with a specific purpose, and the Australian government does not really try to hide it.

The purpose of this is to prevent others from coming to Australia. So, people are being held in horrible conditions and subjected to really rapidly deteriorating mental and physical health, assaults (including sexual assaults) and also other abuses, mainly or with a very clear purpose of sending a message to others who attempt to reach Australia. The situation is not only bad, but getting worse by day. Even the people who are trying to hold it together, initially with some hope that once they were out of the detention centre they would have the prospect of going somewhere, are now losing hope completely. There is a very high rate of attempted suicides and self-harm, and also physical health is rapidly deteriorating, which is obviously connected to psychological health.

What makes it worse is that there is absolutely no reason for these people to suffer. People have come from Iran, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Pakistan, some of the worst places torn by conflict and they’ve been through so much already. And the fact that they‘re now being subjected to that level of suffering is just inconceivable, and the fact that it’s being done by the Australian government, not the Syrian government or the Russian government, adds to the injury.

What I found absolutely mind-boggling, having worked in quite a few closed countries before, is how completely closed it is; people know very little about what is happening there because Australia has been very successful in closing it from any outside scrutiny.

What do you think is the number one thing in the world that needs to change for solving some of these issues?

Everyone needs to become a member of Amnesty International. I do feel that at this point in time, what’s really going to change the state of play is the number of people who are at least aware of these issues, who think in those terms. They don’t have to be on the left or on the right, or super liberal, but as long as they have the concept of individual rights, of collective rights, of rights as such, no matter how they define them, as long as there are certain things that they care about.

Again, it may be one thing or a completely different one. They may not be very keen on torture but they could be very keen on LGBT rights, or they might care about extreme poverty, for example. The reason I am saying that everyone needs to join Amnesty International is because I think Amnesty is a unique opportunity to turn this caring about something into tangible action.

If the first step is done, through education and, you know, we have very big programmes on human rights education to do exactly that, but also publicising our materials, making sure that we reach broader audiences. We’re now tapping into all sorts of channels, digital channels and social media of course. But as soon as we get people to care, there needs to be a way for them to do something because when people care, they are keen to do something. And that’s where I do think that Amnesty gives a unique opportunity compared to any other organisation in the world, because of its many, many, many years of experience doing that. I actually do think that if tomorrow, the majority of people in the world become members of Amnesty International, we would be in a very different world.

What’s the final message that you want to send to young New Zealanders?

The message is very simple. Amnesty’s slogan is “taking injustice personally.” It’s a very nice phrase, I really like it. The simpler way of saying it is basically how important it is to give a s***. So, I think as long as young New Zealanders start giving a s*** about something, that’s an excellent start. And then, just daring. Caring and daring. That would be the summary. As long you care, as long as you dare, as long as you try, rather than leaving it to somebody else out there, as long as you try to do something. You’d be surprised how much you can achieve.


For more information, read Amnesty International’s report on Nauru, and find out how to get involved with the fight for human rights.

Follow Nidha on Instagram: @nidha01