Salil Shetty

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Salil Shetty
Salil Shetty at the Global Security Dinner Davos (RS394590) (BBA5303) (cropped).jpg
Shetty in 2017
Born (1961-02-03) 3 February 1961 (age 60)
EducationSt. Joseph's College of Commerce, Indian Institute of Management, London School of Economics,
EmployerAmnesty International
TitleSecretary-General of Amnesty International
Term21 December 2009 – 31 July 2018
PredecessorIrene Khan
SuccessorKumi Naidoo

Salil Shetty (born 3 February 1961)[1] is an Indian human rights activist who was the Secretary General of the human rights organization Amnesty International (2010–2018) till 31 July 2018.[2] Previously, he was the director of the United Nations Millennium Campaign. Before joining the UN, he served as the Chief Executive of ActionAid.[3]

In recognition of his long-term commitment to Human Rights and his deep understanding of the complexities of human rights issues, Shetty was appointed a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Carr Center for Human Rights for the academic year 2018–2019.[4]

Shetty is also affiliated to Harvard University's Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute for the academic year 2018–2019. Affiliates contribute to the academic study of South Asia by bringing their expertise on a wide range of issues to Harvard University.[5]

Early life and education[edit]

Shetty grew up in Bangalore. His late mother, Hemlatha Shetty, was active in women's groups and his father, V.T. Rajshekar, was active with the Dalit movement. Growing up in India in the tumultuous 1970s, he lived through the 1976 state of emergency which led to human rights being curtailed and an intense level of activism.[6] He did his schooling from St. Joseph's Indian High School, Bangalore. He received a BCom in Advanced Accounting from St. Joseph's College of Commerce in 1981, an MBA in 1983 from the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, and an MSc in Social Policy and Planning from the London School of Economics in 1991 with distinction.[7]

Early career[edit]

In 1983, Salil Shetty was hired from IIM-A by Azim Premji and began working for the Indian IT company Wipro.


Following this, Shetty joined ActionAid, one of the world's most respected international development NGOs, rising up to head ActionAid's operations in India and later Kenya in East Africa. Shetty was the first person from the global south to be appointed as the Chief Executive of ActionAid, 1998- 2003. Salil Shetty is credited with not just transforming ActionAid into a Southern-led International organisation, moving its global headquarters from London to Johannesburg in South Africa, but set off an important new trend in global development organisations to become more participatory and bottom up in their approach.[8] The most recent major global organisation to move in this direction is Oxfam which has moved its headquarters to Nairobi, with an African woman CEO.[9]

The move initiated by Salil Shetty enable ActionAid to work towards giving all its different country programmes a more equal say in how the organisation works. The new structure made ActionAid's commitment to accountability to the people, communities and countries it worked with a reality, and therefore making it more effective in fighting and eradicating poverty.[10] In line with Shetty's commitment to making ActionAid a truly international organisation, during his tenure as Chief Executive regional programmes and policy advocacy offices were established in Bangkok,[11] Harare,[12] Brussels[13] and Washington DC.

UN Millennium Campaign[edit]

Given his significant achievements at ActionAid, Shetty was then appointed the Director of the United Nations Millennium Campaign from 2003 till 2010.[14] The UN Millennium Campaign was established by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in 2002. The Campaign supported citizens' efforts to hold their governments to account for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG's). Under Salil Shetty's leadership the campaign for the MDGs reached over a hundred countries across the globe and the MDGs gained a great deal of traction among decision makers and citizens alike.

In 2005, citizens groups, including NGOs, faith groups, trade unions, supported by the Millennium Campaign, mobilised for the MDGS/‘Make Poverty History’ campaign to increase awareness and pressuring governments into taking actions towards relieving absolute poverty. The campaign focused on the responsibility of developed countries, especially the G8 and European Union. The three focus areas for change were trade, debt and aid. Mass mobilisations were seen in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Norway and other developed countries.[15]

The UN Millennium Campaign, under the leadership of Salil Shetty, also helped aggregate the various national campaigns into The Global Call to Action Against Poverty GCAP). GCAP is an alliance that brings together trade unions, international non-governmental organisations, the women's and youth movements, community and faith groups and others to call for action from world leaders in the global North and South to meet their promises to end poverty and inequality. GCAP added to existing campaigning on poverty by forming diverse, inclusive national platforms that are able to open up civil society space and advocate more effectively than individual organisations would be able to do on their own. It also organised global mass mobilisations that expressed solidarity between the global North and South, allowed tens of millions of ordinary people to make their voices heard.[16] GCAP has coalitions present in over a hundred countries, a few of which are listed below

    • 2005- plus d'excess France[17]
    • Hottokenai, Sekai no Mazushisa - Japan[18]
    • Make Poverty History - Australia[19]
    • Make Poverty History - Canada[20]
    • Make Poverty History - Ireland[21]
    • Make Poverty History - United Kingdom[22]
    • The ONE Campaign - Singapore[23]
    • The ONE Campaign - USA[24]
    • EEN - Armoede de Wereld uit - The Netherlands[25]
    • Wada Na Todo Abhiyan - India[26]

An innovative mass action launched by the UN Millennium Campaign was the Stand Up initiative. On 16 October 2006, millions of people around the world joined together to 'Stand Up against Poverty' – an effort to remind governments that they must keep their promises to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and eradicate extreme poverty. Stand Up against Poverty, is also officially recognized in the Guinness World Record for the "greatest number of people to stand up for a given cause, at multiple locations, within 24 hours." Stand Up campaigns were held around the world by people of all ages, races and religions.[27] Since 2006, the UN Millennium Campaign organized record breaking Stand Up events annually around the world, to campaign for the MDGs. The number of participants reached 173 million in 2009. During the 2009 event, Salil Shetty explained the motivation behind the events saying "With just six years left until the deadline by which heads of state have pledged to eradicate extreme poverty and its root causes, 'Stand Up' will be a stark reminder that citizens will not accept excuses for governments breaking promises to the world's poorest and most vulnerable citizens. This year's mobilization will place particular emphasis on telling world leaders that their track record on women's rights, maternal mortality and hunger is unacceptable. Citizens refuse to accept the fact that 70 percent of the people living in poverty are women and children and 500,000 women continue to die annually in the process of giving life, and they are demanding urgent action from their leaders."[28]

Amnesty International[edit]

Shetty was appointed as Secretary General of the human rights organization Amnesty International from July 2010. The role involved being chief strategist, advocate and spokesperson for the global Amnesty movement and Chief Executive of the International Secretariat.

During his tenure at Amnesty, Salil Shetty traveled extensively, visiting over 70 countries, meeting grassroots activists, political leaders and members of the media, as well as those on whose behalf Amnesty International campaigns. This has included visits to Egypt in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings[29] and to Australia to campaign for the rights of indigenous people.[30] Shetty appeared in the critically acclaimed 2013 film Utopia by John Pilger. In the film, which explores the deplorable conditions under which Aboriginal families live, Shetty ponders why one of the world's richest countries cannot solve the problem of Aboriginal poverty and states that the inequity and injustice could be fixed if the will to do so existed. He also represented Amnesty International at major meetings at the UN, the World Economic Forum and led the organisation's show of solidarity in Oslo for the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo calling on the Chinese authorities to improve their human rights record.[31]

Since the early 1990s, Amnesty International has been campaigning to achieve robust, global laws of international arms trading to stop the flow of weapons fueling atrocities around the world. Finally – after nearly two decades of campaigning, under Salil Shetty's leadership- the Arms Trade Treaty became a reality. During a meeting at the UN in New York in September 2014, St Lucia, Argentina, Czech Republic, Senegal, Bahamas, Uruguay, Portugal and Bosnia Herzegovina ratified the treaty, bringing the total number of ratifications to 53 – and triggering a 90-day countdown to entry into force.[32] In an interview with Vice news in September 2014, Shetty said the following of the Arms Trade Treaty:

"For the first time there is a treaty that says that before any shipment, any trade or transfer of funds, there has to be due diligence to make sure the arms don't end up in the hands of the wrong people using them for abuses. So, it's a very laudable treaty. Of course, like all treaties, signing it is one thing – the challenge is its implementation…so we still have a long way to go. The good thing is the biggest arms exporters in Europe have all signed up. The US hasn't, and China and Russia haven't. It gives us a rather slim victory nevertheless".[33]

Shetty addressed heads of states and governments representing civil society at the historic UN Sustainable Development Goals Summit in 2015. The aim of the Summit was to formally adopt an ambitious new sustainable development agenda which will serve as the launch pad for action by the international community and by national governments to promote shared prosperity and well-being for all over the next 15 years. Goals include end poverty, achieve gender equality, reduce inequality, ensure access to water and many more. In his speech,[34] Shetty stressed on the importance of accountability, ownership, inclusivity and coherence in order to make the Sustainable Development Goals achievable in the coming years. He also crucially highlighted some of the paradoxes of many countries in the Global North who claim to have a long commitment to international development. He said,

"You cannot claim to support sustainable development when you are reluctant to reduce the consumption of the rich or transfer technology. You cannot preach about human rights while practising mass surveillance. You cannot lecture about peace while being the world’s largest manufacturers of arms. You cannot allow your corporations to use financial and tax loopholes while railing against corruption. You cannot adopt the Sustainable Development Goals and at the same time attack and arrest peaceful protesters and dissenters. You cannot launch these Sustainable Development Goals and in parallel deny a safe and legal route to refugees, a life with dignity".[35]

In recognition of the accelerated developments in the field of technology, Shetty initiated Amnesty International's Technology and Human Rights initiative in June 2017, based in Silicon Valley in order to interact with and influence the world's most powerful IT companies. A core part of the initiative is the development of human rights principles for Artificial Intelligence (AI). There are various efforts to develop ethical principles for the development and use of AI and Amnesty International believes such principles should enshrine existing human rights standards.

During the launch of the initiative, while stressing on the possible negative impacts of AI if not checked, Shetty noted that AI with a strong human rights focus "can only happen if we start out now with an objective to protect human dignity, equality and justice. AI is built by humans and it will be shaped by human values. If we build AI systems that are a mirror to our current societies, they will be riddled with the historical biases and inequalities of our societies. But we can do better…We must today challenge ourselves to be aspirational again as we prepare for a future world where AI and technology are integrated into every aspect of people’s lives".[36]

Salil Shetty at the 2014 Wikimania Conference

Shetty was also instrumental in establishing the Secretary General's Global Council, which was established to help raise public support and financial resources to fuel Amnesty International's expansion in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. The goal of the Global Council is to raise financial resources and support for projects connected to Amnesty International's Strategic Goals 2016-2019. These goals seek to address the rising inequality the world is facing, increasing movement of people within and across borders, ongoing crises and conflicts, unlawful actions by states in the name of public order and ending terrorism. Salil Shetty invited Sir Richard Branson to co-Chair the Council which had leading human rights supporters from the world of art, business and philanthropy including Paulo Coelho, Yoko Ono, Tony Fernandes, Hadeel Ibrahim, Bassim Haidar and Krishna Rao.[37]

As Secretary General, Salil Shetty revived Art for Amnesty and the Ambassador of Conscience Award, Amnesty International's highest honour that recognizes remarkable individuals and groups who have promoted and enhanced the cause of human rights by acting on their conscience, confronting injustice and using their talents to inspire others. During his tenure, Shetty led the process of choosing several world renowned figures to receive the awards including:

  • Burmese democracy and human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi in 2009 who was under house arrest at the time and could only receive the award in 2012.[38]
  • Pakistani schoolgirl and education rights campaigner Malala Yousafzai and American singer, human rights and social justice activist Harry Belafonte in 2013[39]
  • folk singer Joan Baez and world-renowned artist Ai Weiwei – both committed activists in 2015[40]
  • World-renowned musician Angélique Kidjo and three inspirational African youth activist movements in 2016[41]
  • shared between celebrated global music artist Alicia Keys and the inspirational movement of Indigenous Peoples fighting for their rights in Canada in 2017[42]
  • Athlete and activist Colin Kaepernick in 2018[43]

After completing two terms of four years each, Salil Shetty decided to step down as Secretary General in July 2018.

Global Transition Programme[edit]

As Secretary General, Salil Shetty led a major change process to transform Amnesty International from being a predominantly European organisation to a truly global people's movement for human rights. Amnesty International, an organisation with staff primarily from citizens of Europe and North America, and ground presence almost exclusively in the richest countries of the world, was systematically reformed into becoming an organisation based in and led by people from Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East i.e. the global South.

This Global Transition Programme (GTP) to move Amnesty "closer to the ground"[44] represented a significant organizational change for Amnesty: it set up Regional Offices across the globe in 11 locations, hired the vast majority of its staff and leaders from the global south. The change process also focused on strengthening the integration across segments and functions within the organization and strengthening Amnesty's national chapters/sections, particularly in the South. Amnesty also aimed to increase its supporters and activists in the global South, while diversifying its institutional sources of funding. This has resulted in the organisation becoming quicker in taking action, more sensitive to local realities, and be more present in media in the global south and east as well as on social media. The change process was aimed to lead to "Amnesty having significantly greater impact by becoming a more global movement" and to result in "acting with greater legitimacy, speed, capacity and relevance as we stand alongside those whose rights are violated".[44] New national offices were set up in India, Brazil, Nigeria, Indonesia, South Africa and Kenya in 2012. The human rights work done on these countries, which was done by researchers and campaigners out of London, would now be done from inside the countries themselves.[45]

The Global Transition programme was mentioned in Samuel Moyn's 2017 book, Human Rights and the Uses of History. He noted that "For human rights to make more of a difference, the movement has to be more honest about the fact that its success depends on its own mobilizational strength and grassroots penetration. For this reason, Amnesty International’s recent decision to return to its mobilizational roots and cultivate local centers of authority is a promising step in the right direction. But few other NGOs work in this way."[46]

An independent study conducted by the Transnational NGO Initiative housed at Syracuse University on the Global Transition programme observed that Amnesty's visibility in national and regionally salient media and localities and languages was enhanced. Its credibility among the general public and other broad stakeholders globally was generally thought to have improved as a result of the GTP. GTP also contributed to Amnesty's supportership growth strategy through the increase of supporters in a few selected countries such as India.[47]

Decentralisation controversy[edit]

The decentralisation of Amnesty International's international secretariat, led by Shetty, has caused a serious dispute amongst the organisation's staff. According to an article published by the Guardian on 2 December 2012,

The British newspaper The Observer, where Amnesty International's founder launched the organization in 1961, characterized the situation caused by Shetty's sacking of staff working on core issues such as women's rights and the death penalty: "Amnesty was one of 20th-century Britain's greatest gifts to the world. Now it is a wreck."[48]

the core of the dispute lies in the decision, led by the secretary general, Salil Shetty, to take the organisation "closer to the ground", opening 10 new regional "hubs" in hotspots where human rights violations occur. Some of Amnesty's 500 staff in London will be moved abroad, and those affected argue that the shift is under-planned, ill-judged and risks muddying the purpose of the organisation. For them this is not an industrial dispute over job cuts, but a battle for the organisation's soul.[49]


On 2 February 2012, Salil Shetty received an honorary degree from University Catholic of Louvain (UCL) on behalf of Amnesty International.[50]

In 2014, Salil Shetty given the 'Public Servant of the Year' award by the prestigious Asian Awards in London. The Asian Awards is the only event that pays tribute to Asian success across all walks of life; emphasising inspiring achievements and highlighting inspirational role models in the fields of business, sport, entertainment, philanthropy and popular arts and culture.[51]

In June 2018, Shetty was awarded the Stardust Achievers Award for Excellence in Humanitarian Service. The Stardust Achievers Awards honours Indian achievers from diverse fields in the UK.[52]

Boards and Other Engagements[edit]

  • Steward, World Economic Forum System Initiative on Future of Digital Economy & Society (2016)[53]
  • Trustee, International Civil Society Centre, Berlin (2014)[54]
  • Advisory Council, American India Foundation, New York, 2010[55]
  • Governor, The Institute of Development Studies, Sussex (2005)[56]
  • Council Member, The Overseas Development Institute, London (2005)[56]
  • Member of the Joint Facilitation Committee of the Civil Society Forum of the World Bank, representing ActionAid (2005)[57]


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External links[edit]

Non-profit organization positions
Preceded by
Irene Khan
Secretary-General of Amnesty International
Succeeded by
Kumi Naidoo