Amnesty International (AI), the world’s largest human rights organisation, is celebrating its 50th anniversary. However new reports suggest that the once respected moral watchdog has lost sight of its original principles.
One of the greatest scandals to have rocked AI was in February 2010 with the suspension of highly respected, lifelong human rights activist Gita Sahgal who was the head of its women’s rights division. Sahgal was suspended after she was quoted by The Sunday Times criticising AI for its high-profile associations with Moazzam Begg, the Director of a campaign group called Cageprisoners, who she referred to as “Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban”. In April 2010, AI fired Sahgal due to ‘irreconcilable differences’.
Gita Sahgal told The Sunday Times that associating with Begg and Cageprisoners risked AI’s reputation on human rights:
“As a former Guantanamo detainee, it was legitimate to hear his experiences, but as a supporter of the Taliban it was absolutely wrong to legitimise him as a partner.”
An article in the July/August 2011 edition of Standpoint Magazine outlines the Sahgal affair:
“AI took Begg to Downing Street to meet the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and paraded him in front of the uninformed as a champion of human rights. It did not bother Amnesty that Begg had praised the fantastically misogynist Taliban while it was subjugating women and denying education to girls. But, naturally, it bothered Sahgal a great deal and after first raising her concerns with Amnesty she complained to the press. The organisation, which purports to be a voice of conscience responded by punishing the conscientious voice from its own ranks. Amnesty fired Sahgal and in the process showed that its commitment to universal rights was as provisional in the case of women as it was in the case of Jews.”
Salman Rushdie, who was championed by AI after Iran placed a fatwa on him for writing The Satanic Verses, gave his support to Sahgal. He said:
“It looks very much as if Amnesty’s leadership is suffering from a kind of moral bankruptcy, and has lost the ability to distinguish right from wrong. It has greatly compounded its error by suspending the redoubtable Gita Sahgal for the crime of going public with her concerns. Gita Sahgal is a woman of immense integrity and distinction…. It is people like Gita Sahgal who are the true voices of the human rights movement; Amnesty and Begg have revealed, by their statements and actions, that they deserve our contempt.”
Gerald Steinberg and Jason Edelstein of NGO Monitor have also written an article analysing the moral decline of AI, which was published in the Jerusalem Post. They list a number of examples highlighting how AI has lost its way. One example includes AI hosting “Complicity in Oppressions: Do the Media Aid Israel” a conference organised by the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign and the pro-Hamas group, Middle East Monitor Online (MEMO). MEMO has called Zionism “a pernicious ideology which is both racist and unjust…”. Steinberg and Edelstein write:
“Hosting such events, like allying with these groups, highlights the moral decline of the organisation, which now embraces racial and religious prejudice. According to the EU, ‘claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavour’ is a form of anti-Semitism. Providing a platform for this ideology, therefore, contradicts the principles of a supposed human rights organisation.”
Steinberg and Edelstein also argue that AI’s ‘anti-Israel obsession’ takes AI resources away from tackling real human rights abuses for example in Syria and Iran. They write:
“Amnesty’s anti-Israel obsession is part and parcel of its wider ethical degradation. Since 2009, the organization has published seven reports on Israel and the ‘Occupied Palestinian Territories,’ compared to its minuscule output on totalitarian regimes, including only one report on Saudi Arabia, three on Libya, and one on Syria. The recent increase in short statements from Amnesty following the uprisings in these countries only highlights the lack of interest that preceded these events.”
In light of these reports, is there any chance that AI can re-invent itself to ensure that it again becomes a moral and impartial bastion for human rights.