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Kamms’ address prisoners’ rights

Katie Perry | Thursday, March 17, 2005

When John Kamm left the security of a high-income career in business to pursue the more volatile life of a human rights activist, he may have swapped his briefcase for a suitcase. But with him remained the skills of a salesman, skills that would eventually lead to the creation of the Dui Hua Foundation and subsequent successes in the betterment of jail conditions for Chinese political and religious prisoners.

In a fusion of the wits of a businessman, the quest for truth and the passion for justice, Kamm and his wife, Irene Chan Kamm, have laid the groundwork for a unique, yet effective, organization with an unmistakable character.

In the second part of the 2005 O’Grady Asia Lecture Series, the Kamms gave a discussion Wednesday entitled “Dui Hua: The Strategy and Technique of Human Rights in China.”

The discussion emphasized the innovative collaboration between John Kamm, the self-proclaimed “salesman,” and Chan Kamm, who centers much of her role on more concrete tasks such as coordinating administration, personnel and finance.

John Kamm, the executive director of Dui Hua, categorizes the Foundation as a “mini-business” that reflects the day-to-day operational patterns of prototypical for-profit organizations.

“[My position] involves the skills of a businessman, or the skills used when one has to go out and sell something – in this case an idea,” Kamm said.

This role of salesman, defined by Kamm as “someone who sells to a consumer who does not believe they are in need of a product,” involves marketing the democratic ideals of human rights and justice to top-ranking Chinese government officials.

“We take a business-like approach to the enterprise of human rights,” Kamm said.

Working in tandem with her husband, Chan Kamm brings her own strengths to the organization, namely in the more concrete financial aspects of business.

The human rights foundation with a conglomerate spin was not established until nine years into John Kamm’s work as an activist. The birth of the organization was made possible by the capitalization of a grant received from the Smith-Richardson Foundation. Kamm used grant money as the basis for his extensive research of prisoners, a process he finds crucial to the success of those in the field.

A 1992 meeting with the first minister in the Chinese Ministry of Justice as well as the Head of the Chinese Prison Bureau served as a catalyst for what would become one of the fundamental principles of Kamm’s career.

“We sat down in front of a stack of papers,” Kamm recalled. “One official said, ‘We have decided to answer any question you have about any prisoner.'”

Kamm attributes China’s willingness to divulge information as an attempt to better their relations with the international community.

By 1993 it had become clear that immediate amelioration of conditions would become likely, if not imminent, if a prisoner was asked about, Kamm said.

“Prisoners who are asked about receive better treatment in prison than those who aren’t,” Kamm said. “This principle is universal all over the world.”

Since then, Kamm and the foundation he heads have used this premise to transform nameless prisoners into individuals famed for their incarceration, a conversion that will ultimately lead to an improvement in overall treatment, Kamm said.

Through a clear-cut mission inspired by the philanthropic idealism of the Kamms, the Foundation has broader social aims than simply the legal and judicial circumstances of Chinese prisoners.

“[The Foundation] promotes transparency and accountability,” Kamm said. “Those are our goals.”