The self-destruction of an NGO: Amnesty International has form

Feb 8, 2022 | Judy Maynard

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

Amnesty International has become the latest non-governmental organisation (NGO) to trash its own brand as a supposedly credible and impartial human rights group, with the release of a report that is a factually and legally flawed hit job on Israel.

Released on Feb. 1, the report, Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime Against Humanity, follows Human Rights Watch’s recent A Threshold Crossed (April 2021) and Israeli NGO B’Tselem’s A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid (Jan. 2021) in slandering Israel with the lie of apartheid.

Not only do all three boast bombastic titles, they also share a common origin: the Durban conference of 2001, where a concerted campaign was contrived by Palestinian groups, the then Organisation of the Islamic Conference, and international NGOs – including Amnesty and Human Rights Watch – to achieve “complete isolation of Israel as an Apartheid state.”

The World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, to give the Durban conference its full name, was shamelessly and cynically exploited to demonise Israel, reviving and refashioning the notorious 1975 UN “Zionism is racism” resolution that had been revoked in 1991.

One difference, however, between the reports issued by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, is that Amnesty’s does not name its authors or the researchers on whom it relied for information.

This is a convenient way to avoid scrutiny as to the report’s credibility. There is, however, much evidence of the organisation’s lack of credibility generally, and in particular with regard to its obsession with Israel.

Amnesty International was launched in 1961 by British lawyer Peter Benenson as a global campaign by its members to advocate for the release of prisoners of conscience around the world. It claims to work “impartially” to promote respect for human rights, but this is far from the case.

In 2019, investigative journalist David Collier published a 200-page report detailing myriad examples of Amnesty’s bias, particularly with respect to Israel. He noted, for example, that as Amnesty expanded its activities, in 2002 it abandoned the “work on own country” (WOOC) rule it had previously put in place to avoid conflicts of interest.

According to Collier, with the organisation’s growth, the policing of bias became more difficult, enabling politicised employees to use their roles to promote their own pet causes.

However, at Amnesty, the problems start at the top, where even the organisation’s chief has unapologetically peddled false and slanderous allegations against Israel.


From the top – Secretary General Dr Agnes Callamard

In March 2021, Dr Agnes Callamard was appointed Secretary General of Amnesty International.

In 2013 she had posted a tweet claiming that Israel’s then President Shimon Peres had admitted that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had been murdered, to which she added the hashtag “#Israel”.

In fact, the opposite was the case, the interview quoting Peres saying he did not believe Arafat should be assassinated because “I thought it was possible to do with business with him. Without him, it was much more complicated.”

Following Callamard’s appointment, Amnesty International issued a short statement saying, “The tweet was written in haste and is incorrect. It does not reflect the position of Amnesty International or Agnès Callamard.”

Yet despite numerous calls for Callamard to apologise and delete the tweet, to this day she has failed to do so.

In 2018, in her previous role as a United Nations Special Rapporteur, Callamard defended Hamas-instigated violent protests that aimed at removing the borders between Israel and Gaza and, in the words of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, marking the beginning of the Palestinians’ return to “all of Palestine”.

Despite massive evidence to the contrary, she labelled this a “peaceful protest” and “a legitimate exercise of the rights of freedom of expression, assembly, and association.”

The head of Amnesty has also met with the heads of three NGOs linked to the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine, designated a terrorist organisation by the US and the EU, amongst others.

An undated photo shows Callamard sitting with Shawan Jabarin of Al-Haq and Ubai Aboudi of the Bisan Center for Research and Development, both convicted on terror-related charges; as well as Sahar Francis of Addameer, who has engaged in blood libels against Israel. In 2016, Francis told an Apartheid Week gathering in London that while it was “not certain or proved… she shared with the audience the increasing suspicions that Israel was harvesting organs from Palestinian corpses before returning them.”

In 1990, Amnesty adopted Jabarin as a prisoner of conscience. Peter Benenson had become disillusioned with the organisation he’d founded, saying, “Amnesty made the decision a long time ago… that we would not assist political prisoners who had advocated or engaged in violence…. [I]f you get a gun you have to take your chances on what happens to you…They are terrorists…Neutral Amnesty is being manipulated into not so neutral a position.”


Other Employees and Researchers

The anti-Israel bias displayed by numerous individuals attached to Amnesty has been documented by Collier, NGO Monitor and others. Here are just a few more examples.

In 2015, the Times revealed that a senior employee of Amnesty, Yasmin Hussein, had links to: a Yorkshire-based aid agency banned by Israel for alleged funding of the terrorist organisation Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and to significant figures in a clandestine network of global Islamists.

That year, blogger “Elder of Ziyon” posted that Amnesty researcher and Palestinian anti-Israel activist Saleh Hijazi had displayed on his Facebook profile photos of the notorious terrorist and airline hijacker Leila Khaled, and Khader Adnan, a leader of the Islamic Jihad terror organisation who has called for suicide bombers to blow up Israelis.

Hijazi has also worked as a PR officer in the Palestinian Authority, as well as with the International Solidarity Movement, that encourages armed struggle against Israel.

In 2018, Hijazi was promoted to Deputy Regional Director of Amnesty Middle East and North Africa (MENA), demonstrating that a history of anti-Israel activism is no bar to advancement in Amnesty.

In April 2020, Hind Khoudary, an “Amnesty International Research Consultant” and “worker” denounced a Palestinian peace activist in Gaza, Rami Aman, on Facebook for holding a Zoom call with Israeli peace activists. She tagged three Hamas officials to make sure they saw it, and also tweeted that the worst sin any Palestinian can commit is normalisation.

Aman was arrested by Hamas and endured months of torture and interrogation in prison, released only after his wife had been spirited away to Egypt and he was forced to divorce her.

Even Human Rights Watch condemned Hamas’ treatment of Aman.

It is plain to see how compromised the research is that Amnesty relies on when reporting on Israel and, moreover, how little it cares.

So-called Country Coordinators work directly with researchers at Amnesty’s International Secretariat “to ensure that Amnesty UK is engaged and informed of human rights developments all across the world.”

The two coordinators listed for Israel are Garry Ettle and Bisher Poyil. Unlike, it seems, many Amnesty personnel, these two maintain active Twitter accounts.

Ettle directed a tweet on Nov. 21, 2021 at the musical group the Black Eyed Peas: “@bepYou wouldn’t have performed in apartheid South Africa, so why apartheid Israel? Artwashing apartheid hurts Indigenous Palestinians resisting Israel’s regime of occupation, siege, ethnic cleansing & apartheid! #WhereIsTheLoveforPalestinians“.

On July 8 last year, he tweeted, “Just KMs away from where Palestinians struggle to #SaveSilwan and #SaveSheikhJarrah from Israel’s gradual ethnic cleansing, @Pumamaintains its support for Israeli apartheid. Until it stops, we choose #BoycottPuma, not #PumaFam“.

His colleague Poyil added the hashtags #FreePalestine #StopIsraeliApartheid to a tweet on May 13, 2021.

It is a foregone conclusion as to how such partisan operatives will keep Amnesty “informed”, and how small a part balance and context are likely to play in the process.

For an organisation that claims to uphold “the whole spectrum of human rights,” Amnesty can seem somewhat reticent when it comes to Jews.

At its 2015 annual conference, Amnesty International rejected a proposal – the sole proposal rejected by the conference – to investigate the rise in antisemitic incidents in the UK. Its press officer Neil Durkin explained that a “single focus” study did not align with Amnesty’s broad, indiscriminate purview.

Yet in 2012, Amnesty had carried out a “single focus” study on anti-Muslim discrimination in Europe.


A Telling Interview

The Times of Israel’s Lazar Berman interviewed Callamard and Amnesty Middle East and North Africa research and advocacy director Philip Luther on Feb. 1, following the release of the Israeli apartheid report. Luther engaged in what might be regarded as an antisemitic conspiracy theory about global Jewish control when responding to Berman’s undeniable assertion that Israel is subjected to greater scrutiny than any other nation.

“I disagree but OK,” responded Luther, “I mean, arguably, it’s managed to shut down scrutiny using the power of its relationships…You can look at UN resolutions, but you can look at UN inaction. Because [Israel] has influence over powerful allies who then manage to stop it, stop the scrutiny.”

Not only that, but in Luther’s view, clearly, all the NGO reports and the UN’s anti-Israel resolutions, permanent agenda items and commissions of inquiry are clearly insufficient, because without Israeli “influence” there would presumably have been even more.

Luther’s conspiracy theory took a novel turn when he suggested that Israel had cunningly used the “smokescreen” of institutions of democracy to make Amnesty’s task of uncovering Israel’s pre-determined guilt more difficult:

“…it is the Israeli state that forces everyone to spend time disentangling it. The Syrian regime is absolutely abhorrent, in all its ways, and you will see far more reports over recent years on Syria and the crimes against humanity there. And it’s chillingly simple. It’s massacres. It’s bombs being dropped on residential areas.

Now that takes less time to disentangle. You still need to get the evidence, but it explains partly why. It’s because the Israeli state has made it so difficult to penetrate. They have tried to create a smokescreen around, and of course there is a democratic system, and there are judicial institutions that of course then call the state to account, or at least challenge their decisions. But that’s what makes it so challenging in some ways then to disentangle them when you put it all together.

So I would put it back on the Israeli state. In some ways, it ends up being a driver of complexity and a driver of resources unnecessarily spent on investigations by anybody, because it’s made so damn complicated.”

In other words, to all the other canards like “artwashing”, “pinkwashing”, “greenwashing” and the like, that hold that Israel can never have a good intention in undertaking any worthwhile activity but is merely deliberately covering up its true nature, Luther seems to have added “democracywashing”.


A Toxic Culture

While Amnesty International holds itself out to be a moral arbiter, there is an increasing disconnect between what it purports to be and its reality. This is nowhere so well reflected as in its workplace culture, where it is a serial offender.

In 2019, a review was commissioned following the suicides of two staff members the previous year. Focusing on the London-based international secretariat, it found that bullying, public humiliation, discrimination and other abuses of power were used routinely by management. Words like “toxic”, “adversarial” and “bullying” cropped up repeatedly across the many interviews conducted for the review. Multiple instances were reported of alleged favouritism or nepotism in hiring, and of cases where positions may have been declared redundant without due process.

Unbelievably for a supposed human rights organisation, there were also multiple allegations of discrimination against staff due to race or gender, the main targets being women, people of colour and LGBTIQ employees.

Unsurprisingly, there was a serious lack of trust in senior management.

A few months later, former staff members of Amnesty International Australia came forward with allegations of “systemic” workplace bullying and harassment which led to two staff members being admitted to hospital. They said the situation inside the organisation was “dire” and bullying “rife”.

Then, in 2020, an internal review of Amnesty’s international secretariat reported multiple allegations of racism, including derogatory language toward staff, systemic bias, aggression, and problematic comments and behaviour. It reported that “Remarks [in the focus groups] were consistently shared that the external face of Amnesty [International Secretariat] is very different to its internal face.”

Separately, current and former members of staff at Amnesty International UK, also based in London but with a separate employment structure from the international secretariat, also alleged racial discrimination. They described feeling “dehumanised” due to race and ethnicity over many years, and called for the director, senior management team and board to resign for having “knowingly upheld racism and actively harmed staff from ethnic minority backgrounds.”

Such revelations show that at Amnesty International, not only do bullying and a toxic work environment prevail, but so does hypocrisy.

The criticisms levelled over a decade ago by the late Robert L Bernstein at Human Rights Watch, the organisation he founded, apply just as validly to Amnesty International.

Both organisations have increasingly focused on turning Israel into a “pariah state”. Bernstein complained that HRW had “lost critical perspective” on a conflict in which Israel and Israeli civilians have been repeatedly attacked. The Middle East, he said, “is populated by authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records. Yet in recent years Human Rights Watch has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region.”

When it comes to Israel, Amnesty International retains the façade of the idealistic and reputable human rights organisation it once was, but it is clear this façade has long been opportunistically exploited by anti-Israel activists.

As Bernstein said of HRW, so is it true of Amnesty, that “only by returning to its founding mission and the spirit of humility that animated it can [it] resurrect itself as a moral force in the Middle East and throughout the world.”


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