His interest in human rights came to the fore in 2001 when a package of political reforms paved the way for Bahrain to become a constitutional monarchy.
In 2002, he and five colleagues established Amnesty International in Bahrain – a first for a Gulf country. Asked what his motivation was, he says, “I felt responsible as a human being to make a contribution in improving human rights conditions in my region and the world. The biggest motivation is to put a smile on the faces of human rights victims.”
As part of ICAN, Mr Burdestani’s focus is to raise awareness in Bahrain about the dangers of nuclear weapons, build partnerships with local non-government organizations and lobby the government to play a larger role in the campaign to abolish nuclear weapons.
One of the challenges, he says, is “how to make the abolition of nuclear weapons a priority for local civil society which believes that the issue is marginal in our region, and that resources and efforts should be allocated to other problems”. In addition to this, “the biggest challenge is the ignorance of government officials to our efforts, even though we are in agreement that there is a need to abolish nuclear weapons in our region and in the world”.
To address ignorance and put the issue firmly on the agenda, Mr Burdestani and other activists launched an Arabic translation of ICAN’s Learn Peace book, to mark Nuclear Abolition Day in June 2012. The book educates children on the threat of nuclear weapons, and is to be made part of the academic curriculum in private and public schools in Bahrain.
“Young people who have grown up since the end of the Cold War have had little exposure to nuclear weapons issues in the media,” he says. “As a result, many are ignorant of the dangerous legacy of close to 20,000 nuclear weapons. This must change now. Disarmament education is the best possible foundation for a world free of nuclear weapons.”
The Arab Spring has given hope to people who had lost hope, says Mr Burdestani. “Civil society can raise their voice and ask for immediate action. Governments are now more aware of the power of non-government organizations and they are paying more attention to their demands.”
“Hundreds of debates are happening through social media and other forums. Thousands of youth are now involved in social issues, when earlier they were far removed from them. It is through this awareness,” he says, “that people become aware of their rights and start to regain power.”
The jury may still be out on the Arab Spring, but Mr Burdestani has had many successes. He organized the Human Rights Film Festival in Bahrain in 2008, which qualified Bahrain to be a member in the Human Rights Film Network – the first and only country in the Middle East and North Africa to join the network.
Volunteering for Amnesty International, he successfully ran the “One Million Faces” petition to support the “Control Arms” campaign, which calls for a binding treaty to control the global arms trade. He is also a member of the London-based Cluster Munition Coalition that works to eradicate cluster bombs.
Being a full-time professional and human rights activist makes balancing work and family difficult, says Mr Burdestani, who lives with his wife and two-year-old boy. “I believe I separate my personal life from my activist life, but my family never agree!” he says with a laugh.
Regarding a nuclear-weapon-free future Mr Burdestani is an eternal optimist who believes that human beings do learn from mistakes made in the past. “But I am also realistic,” he says. “There is huge opportunity for peace, but there is lack of confidence, awareness and political will. Dialogue is the only solution to conflict, but it will take time for all involved to realize this.”
By Dipanjali Rao
11 September 2012