Amnesty International: Strong voice in defence of human rights
‘Open your newspaper any day of the week and you will find a report from somewhere in the world of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government’.
Most likely nobody who looked through the British ‘Observer’ on 28 May 1961 and read the above words, was aware that they were witnessing the birth of one of the biggest human rights organizations worldwide.
The passionate article titled ‘The Forgotten Prisoners’ was written by a 40-year-old British lawyer Peter Benson moved by the story of two students who in Portugal ruled by the dictator Antonio Salazar were sent to prison for toasting to freedom. It was still in 1961 that Benenson founded an organization currently celebrating its 52 years, boasting over 3 million members and fans, with an annual budget larger than that of certain countries and over 50 country sections, namely Amnesty International.
Benenson’s hope was to launch a campaign meant to bombard dictators with letters asking for the release of prisoners of conscience which would last for a year. However, after several months it became clear that the response to the call was too overwhelming, while the stake too high for a single initiative of the kind to suffice.
‘Yet governments are by no means insensitive to the pressure of outside opinion. And when world opinion is concentrated on one weak spot, it can sometimes succeed in making a government relent.(…) The force of opinion, to be effective, should be broadly based, international, non-sectarian, and all-party’, wrote Benenson.
In 1961, there were quite a number of violent dictatorships throughout the world: the fascists in Spain, Portugal, and many South American countries; there were despots in African countries, as well as Communist regimes spanning from Germany to China.
Over the first 3 years of its activism, Amnesty focused on 770 prisoners and brought about the release of 140 of them; by 1970, the number of released prisoners had grown to over 2,500. The organization itself assesses currently to have helped over 16,600 prisoners of conscience and the situation of about a third of those it fought for has improved: they have been released, their sentence length reduced; they have been given a fair trial; treated in a humanitarian way; provided communication with the lawyer, doctor, or family. Many death penalties have been replaced by other sentences.
Moreover, Amnesty International has had an impact on political developments. Among others, the organization contributed to arresting and sentencing General Pinochet; arresting the former President of Yugoslavia Slobodan Milosevich; and to UN adopting the Convention against Torture (1948). Its growing authority in the domain of human rights as well as the increasing impact were consolidated in 1977 when the organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In the course of the organization’s development what expanded was also the list of issues Amnesty decided to take interest in. In 2001, it declared that it would deal with a ‘whole spectrum of human rights’. Therefore, apart from acting in defence of prisoners of conscience, Amnesty International turned against unfair trials; capital punishment; Internet censorship; torture; rights’ violations of women and sexual, religious, as well s ethnic minorities; it began to fight against human trafficking. All these were backed up by the organization’s struggle for political rights broadly speaking (such as freedom of belief and expression); economic rights (right to work and to an adequate standard of living); and social and cultural ones (e.g., right to education).
It was precisely that expansion of the scope of activity that arose one of the greatest AI-centred controversies. The message entailed by the Amnesty brand was no longer as clear as during the times when the organization fought for individuals imprisoned for opposing persecution, was the opinion of Roger Graef, author of AI promotion documentaries.
Both in the organization itself and outside it more and more voices are critical of AI’s mission creep. They claim that AI will no longer be able to carry out reliable research if it focuses on too many issues at the same time. Moreover, having entered certain controversial domains, the organization has alienated many of its previous allies, e.g., the Catholic Church by claiming the right to abortion.
Quite a debatable one was also the Moazzam Begg case, a former Guantánamo prisoner whom AI did not only present as an abuse victim, but also as a human rights activist, though it was generally known that Begg represented a group supporting the so-called defensive jihad (imposing armed struggle to regain the territories taken away from the Muslims) and was a Taliban sympathizer. According to Meredith Tax writing for the ‘Dissent Magazine’ quarterly, Begg was recognizable and spoke fluent English, therefore the British AI section had him as a partner in the programme meant to lobby for closing down the Guantánamo prison.
In the view of Stephen Hopgood, author of a book on Amnesty International, Begg’s case forms part of a wider picture: AI’s transfer from the position of a moral authority (focused on unquestionable cases, thus avoiding any political affiliation) to that of a political authority.
Many critics of the current form of AI observe that by dealing not only with the moral side of many problems, but also getting involved in their political aspects, the organization has been becoming less credible as an ‘impartial or independent’ defender of human rights, which it claims to remain in its Website. Furthermore, critical views point to AI applying double standards, e.g., with relation to the USA or Israel. The cases of those double standards are reflected in the attention paid to both countries out of proportion with other conflicts worldwide; in providing incomplete or inaccurate data; or in the use of a language far from being objective.
The Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs counted that in 2000-03, Amnesty International published 192 reports on Israel and merely 52 on the war being at the time waged in Sudan. Additionally, controversial was also the position of Irene Khan, Amnesty’s former Secretary General who compared the Guantánamo prison to a gulag of our times. Such strong views were firmly objected to by, e.g., Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag.
According to an insider, the continuous expansion of the organization’s mission may reach the situation in which it stops focusing on the domains it has expertise of and excels at and will begin seeking for topics which guarantee media popularity. ‘The danger is’, continued the source for ‘The Independent’ daily, ‘that Amnesty might stop taking interest in assisting specific individuals and will begin using them as people symbols’
Another source of controversies can be seen in the thorough restructuring aimed at weakening the British section’s impact, up to-date the heart of AI, in favour of a greater number of regional centres. This led to strikes among AI employees who fear for their jobs and non-transparent principles of the new structure. Additionally, in some opinions such change may deteriorate the quality of carried investigations.
All the internal tensions led by the end of 2012 to a vote of no-confidence versus AI Secretary General Salil Shetty and the top staff. In a statement after the vote, an alarming tone was heard that inefficiency of the management ‘jeopardizes the very existence of the organization’, while the media wrote about the mid-life crisis. However, Shetty retained his position.
Regardless, however, of what direction Amnesty International is going to evolve in today, contribution the organization has made to human rights cannot be overestimated and remains undisputed. Meanwhile, all this began with the idea, as BBC puts it, that ‘an ordinary citizen sits in an ordinary home, writing an extraordinary letter on behalf of somebody they don’t know, to a dictator who doesn’t care’.
Aleksandra Konkol (PAP)
On the 13th World Summit of the Nobel Peace Laureates, the organization will be represented by :
Steve Crawshaw is director of the Office of the Secretary General at Amnesty International, which he joined as international advocacy director in 2010. From 2002 to 2010 he worked for Human Rights Watch, first as UK director and then as United Nations advocacy director.
Before that he worked as a journalist, joining the Independent at launch in 1986. He reported for the Independent on the east European revolutions, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Balkan wars.
He is co-author of Small Acts of Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity, Ingenuity Can Change the World¸ preface by Vaclav Havel (2010), and will be recording a TEDx talk in Krakow on that theme in October 2013. His previous books are Goodbye to the USSR (1992) and Easier Fatherland: Germany and the Twenty-First Century (2004).