Amnesty International seems to be going downhill as fast as they do in Vancouver. If the crisis over Amnesty’s support for Moazzam Beg, ex-Guantanamo Bay internee and alleged Taleban supporter, is not dealt with by Amnesty quickly coming to its senses Amnesty will have lost its credibility — and a good number of its supporters — for a long time. (Beg’s defence is that his post-release visit to Afghanistan was to visit his family.)
The tragedy is that Amnesty’s leadership doesn’t seem to see it. The organisation is so used to being omnipotent and protected from the world outside by its unique membership structure whose dues allow it to be totally independent. This is usually to its good. But the protective fence of independence could lead to tragedy.
The whistle was blown by a senior staffer, Gita Sahgal. She was suspended for raising the problem. Salman Rushdie has now rushed to her side and put the issue on the map.
Rushdie has accused Amnesty of “moral bankruptcy” and said that “its leadership has lost the ability to distinguish right from wrong….Amnesty has done its reputation incalculable damage by allying itself with Moazzam Beg and his group, Cageprisoners, and holding them up as human rights advocates.” Rushdie also singled out Sahgal for praise because she was one of his earliest supporters when Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa condemning Rushdie to death.
Saghal has called Beg, “Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taleban”. Kate Allen, director of Amnesty’s UK branch, has issued a statement saying that Amnesty took criticism “seriously” but would continue to press for “the universal respect for human rights”.
This is mush and slush. The issue is that whilst Amnesty since its inception nearly 50 years ago has campaigned for “prisoners of conscience” it does so only for non-violent ones. Thus it was why after a long debate that Amnesty decided not to name Nelson Mandela as a “prisoner of conscience” as he had admitted at his trial that he supported the violent overthrow of the state. But it did campaign against his prison conditions. It also campaigns against the use of torture which is why it has made such a fuss about the detainees, including Beg, incarcerated in Guantanamo.
When I was writing my book on the history of Amnesty International, “Water On Stone” (Penguin, 2002) I unearthed a similar incident. Amnesty, especially its West German branch, got involved in supporting the notorious Baader-Meinhof gang who, bent on destroying the capitalist system, had terrorised the country. The imprisoned prisoners lived in a luxury ordinary criminals couldn’t imagine — colour television, mixed sexes and as many visits from their lawyers, who passed messages to gang members outside, as they demanded. Amnesty seemed to lose track of its mandate. It was one thing to call for the gang members to have a fair trial, as it did in the beginning. It was another to take up and amplify the Baader-Meinhof chorus that they were ill treated and tortured.
Amnesty tied itself it knots trying to defend the indefensible. After I had studied the issue at great length I gave a copy of the chapter to the head of Amnesty’s chief Germany researcher, asking for comments. I received none but I learnt he had campaigned for me to be prohibited from entering the building and for Amnesty to cut off all help with my further research. Unfortunately, I didn’t uncover the story in flagrante delito, as the Beg story has been. This current event is not the only indicator that Amnesty is showing its age. A few years ago its membership agreed with a proposal from its director and secretariat that it widen its brief to include the issues of oppressed women and people in poverty. Of course these are important human rights. But Amnesty has a special mandate to concentrate on political prisoners, fair trials, torture and other related concerns. There are plenty of other organisations campaigning for women and against poverty.
The result was pre-ordained: a swelling of the Amnesty bureaucracy; a diversion of energy and finance from its traditional interests; confusion among the membership and, most of all, a blunting of the now almost unrecognisable cutting edge of Amnesty.
Its work has become a poor second to the American-founded Human Rights Watch that until recently walked in Amnesty’s shadow and doesn’t have the advantage of being a membership organisation. (Amnesty has over a million paid up members.) Human Rights Watch is today faster off the mark in uncovering abuses and is more effective with the press and its lobbying of governments. Amnesty is still considered the world’s major and senior human rights organisation. But it won’t be for much longer if it insists on blurring its original path-breaking mandate and tumbling off the piste.
Jonathan Power is a veteran commentator on foreign affairs. For comments, write to firstname.lastname@example.org