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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Hitchens - Amnesty has lost sight of its original purpose

Christopher Hitchens castigates Amnesty Internation, which has, he says, lost sight of its original purpose.

In common with all great ideas, the Amnesty concept was marvelously simple. Each local branch was asked to sponsor a minimum of three prisoners of conscience: one from a NATO country, one from a Warsaw Pact country, and one from the Third—or neutralist—World. In time, the organization also evolved policies that opposed the use of capital punishment or torture in all cases, but the definition of "prisoner of conscience" remained central. And it included a requirement that the prisoner in question be exactly that: a person jailed for the expression of an opinion. Amnesty did not adopt people who either used or advocated violence.

This organization is precious to me and to millions of other people, including many thousands of men and women who were and are incarcerated and maltreated because of their courage as dissidents and who regained their liberty as a consequence of Amnesty International's unsleeping work. So to learn of its degeneration and politicization is to be reading about a moral crisis that has global implications.

Hitchens' article is well worth reading, which does not mean I endorse it all. I don't think he goes far enough.

The truth is that Amnesty International lost sight of its original purpose years ago, which is why, with some sadness, I left the organisation years ago. For some reason, it decided to morph into an all-purpose human rights advocacy body, which would be fine except that this duplicated aspects of the work of many other bodies and distracted it from its original focus on freeing prisoners of conscience: people imprisoned for expressions of opinion. That was the organisation that I'd joined and paid my dues to. Moreover, its more diffuse mission undermined its ability to maintain true expertise and authority on the limited subject of prisoners of conscience. Its pronouncements once had credibility right across the political spectrum, but I can't remember when that was last the case - not in this millennium.

And it began to pay too much attention to the low-hanging fruit, the undoubted human rights violations by Western democracies that might actually be shamed if exposed ... distracting it from the mass incarcerations by theocratic and dictatorial regimes of prisoners of conscience by the thousands. Once again, there are many other organisations mainly lobbying against human rights abuses in the West; this is important work, but not something that we specifically needed Amnesty International to pursue to the point of watering down its real expertise and distracting from its original purpose.

The tendency of Amnesty's new direction, set a couple of decades ago now, is that it will provide a platform even for Taliban sympathisers, so long as they are willing to rail against human rights violations by the West.

Against that background, I feel sympathy for the plight of Gita Sahgal, an Amnesty employee who objects to her employer's provision of a platform for Moazzem Begg. Hitchens describes Begg as follows:

Moazzem Begg, a British citizen, was arrested in Pakistan after fleeing Afghanistan in the aftermath of the intervention in 2001. He was imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay and then released. He has since become the moving spirit in a separate organization calling itself Cageprisoners. Begg does not deny his past as an Islamist activist, which took him to Afghanistan in the first place. He does not withdraw from his statement that the Taliban was the best government available to Afghanistan. Cageprisoners has another senior member named Asim Qureshi, who speaks in defense of jihad at rallies sponsored by the extremist group Hizb-ut Tahrir (banned in many Muslim countries). Cageprisoners also defends men like Abu Hamza, leader of the mosque that sheltered Richard "Shoe Bomber" Reid among many other violent and criminal characters who have been convicted in open court of heinous offenses that have nothing at all to do with freedom of expression.

Note that Amnesty's original purpose would involve a much less significant overlap with the work of Cageprisoners.

I am, however, less sympathetic to Saghal than some. I have reservations.

The fact is, Amnesty has every right to take the policy direction it has, no matter how misguided, and no employer will put up with a senior employee in a policy-implementation position publicly arguing against its lawful policy direction. Note that, whatever else Sahgal may be, she is not a whistleblower, since Amnesty is doing nothing in secret that needs to be exposed, and is doing nothing corrupt or illegal on which she could be "blowing the whistle". Instead, it is quite openly carrying out a highly problematic but perfectly lawful policy. Rather than being a whistleblower, Saghal is simply a person who finds herself working for an employer whose lawful and openly-pursued policies she objects to strongly and now wishes to oppose in public debate.

Unfortunately, that places her in an untenable position, and I don't see how she can stay employed by Amnesty unless it does a massive policy volte face. Subject to the details of her contract of employment, it is, I suggest, legally able to dismiss her from its employment in these circumstances. Thus, I think her position is legally shaky ... and to be frank, I am also a bit iffy about the morality of how she is handling this.

Is it really morally acceptable to go on insisting on getting a salary from an employer whose policies you are in the process of opposing in public debate? Well, perhaps it's fine if you are a junior employee or an "ordinary" cog somewhere in the organisation, or perhaps if you are an academic with some guarantee of freedom to speak out, including on the decisions of your university. But Sahgal is not an academic, and she is a senior employee who appears to be part of Amnesty's policy-implementation team, and perhaps part of the management structure. Such employees are quite rightly expected by their employers to keep policy debates in-house, maintain a public show of solidarity, and even defend policies that they personally disagree with.

I've been there; that's how it is. If your employer's policies appear so heinous that you can't implement them and defend them in public, you should resign - quietly, or, if the situation is truly extreme, in protest and with fanfare. But you can't expect to continue to be paid a salary.

So, Sahgal and Hitchens are both correct on the substantive point: Amnesty International is not the organisation it once was, and the change is for the worse. On the other hand, this process of change has been going on for many years now, and will not be reversed quickly or easily, if ever or at all. Amnesty does have the right to change, even for the worse, and very likely the right (depending on what's in the relevant contract of employment or any related undertakings or circumstances we don't yet know about) to dismiss Sahgal from its employment.

On the gripping hand, we have the right to leave the organisation if it's not what it was when we joined it. As I said above, I exercised that right a long time ago. What will you do? I'm not saying you ought to leave, even though I did. Amnesty still does good work and needs funds. Maybe you can stay and help to repair it from the inside. But then again, you could spend the money on other charities that need your funds just as much. It's your choice.


Greg Egan said...

I've been an Amnesty member for 32 years, and I do agree that they've lost focus, but I've not yet considered resigning. Having failed to get off my backside and get involved with them on an organisational level (ironically, mostly because I was too busy with Australian refugee detention issues, on which Amnesty did very little), I must admit that when they do things I disagree with, I hear a guilty little voice saying "Yeah, and what did you do to push them in the direction you'd prefer, when they were making these decisions?"

But my main gripe is that they seem to want to have a finger in every pie now; their latest newsletter has a section on maternal mortality in Sierra Leone. Sure, healthcare for women is "a human right" -- and the particular issue is entirely worthy -- but once you're diluting your efforts to that extent, you're just tripping over MSF, the Red Cross, WHO, UNICEF, etc., trying to get involved in every last war, famine, health crisis and natural disaster.

As for including Begg in delegations that petition the British government about human rights, that seems like extremely poor judgement. Amnesty are absolutely right to campaign for the closure of Guantanamo, and to oppose the detention of anyone without charge or trial -- regardless of their views or activities. But saying that this man should have been released from detention unless he was charged and tried for a recognisable criminal offence does not mean that his views and background must be treated with the same neutrality in every other context.

Russell wrote:

"And it began to pay too much attention to the low-hanging fruit, the undoubted human rights violations by Western democracies that might actually be shamed if exposed ... distracting it from the mass incarcerations by theocratic and dictatorial regimes of prisoners of conscience by the thousands. Once again, there are many other organisations mainly lobbying against human rights abuses in the West; this is important work, but not something that we specifically needed Amnesty International to pursue to the point of watering down its real expertise and distracting from its original purpose."

I don't want to be argumentative for the sake of it, but ... would you like to name these other organisations doing such sterling work against human rights abuses in the West? And "low-hanging fruit"? After struggling for years to get Peter Qasim released -- he was detained for 6 years, 10 months and 7 days -- which only happened because Dick Smith, a well-known entrepreneur with connections to the Liberal Party, got seriously involved, I'd like to hear about these organisations that are putting things right in our Western democracies to the point where Amnesty's efforts there are redundant. (Amnesty, by the way, did nothing whatsoever to help Peter Qasim; my criticism of them on the Western front is precisely the opposite of yours.)

Russell Blackford said...

Well, Greg, you agree with me about 80 per cent so you're entitled to argue about the other 20 per cent.

The question is what do we want of Amnesty International? As you say it now has a finger in every pie, and that seems to have been a deliberate policy decision. Maybe you can persuade me that this particular pie (refugees in Australia such as Peter Qasim) is one where it doesn't have a finger but should - you have far more expertise on refugee rights issues in Australia than I do. And Zeus know, it's difficult to break through the widespread xenophobia in Australian public life and get a more humane and rational policy on refugees.

Perhaps some principled expansion of the organisation's original purpose could be justified. But there has to be a limit to how far this particular organisation can extend itself beyond its original remit without losing the special credibility that it once had.

And there comes a point where campaigning for anyone ujustly imprisoned, if that's to be its expanded remit, has to be handled very carefully or we'll get this kind of debacle (with Begg) again and again, with more loss of credibility to an organisation that was once supported, at least verbally, by almost everyone in the West, regardless of political leanings

The finger-in-every-pie phenomenon you describe is exactly why I left. Admittedly, I could have stayed to try to fight that tendency but (1) I think, frankly, that it would be futile, that this is a strong and deliberate tendency in AI that has too much momentum to be resisted, and (2) I have limited energy and a limit to how much money I can give to charitable organisations. So it then becomes a question of whether I'd do more good by moving part of that money elsewhere. OTOH, maybe it's still best to stay and try to become involved in decision-making. I fully understand that decision if anyone makes it.

I'd have assumed that an organisation like Project SafeCom might be a better place than Amnesty International to make a donation if someone's focus is on refugee rights in Australia. But maybe it's not the best place and you can suggest a better one. Anyway, yes, "low-hanging fruit" was too snarky. I'll happily withdraw that expression, since I realise that none of these things are at all easy and in a case such as Qasim's the degree of abuse was pretty damn extreme.

Greg Egan said...

Russell, Project SafeCom has done good things, but it's tiny. And there have been lots of other organisations doing refugee welfare work, casework and political lobbying, most of which sprang up post-Tampa specifically to deal with the issue ... but their very specificity meant that they were viewed by the government and media as "special interest groups". Amnesty was still widely seen as a respected, impartial, internationally based organisation. A press release from Project Safecom or the Refugee Action Collective would mean absolutely nothing to most of the media; a report from Amnesty would still carry some weight.

And to be fair, Amnesty weren't silent on the issue -- and since Labor came to power, they've made some worthwhile contributions to reviews of detention policy. I guess I was largely boggling at the implication that everything's in such capable (other) hands that Amnesty ought to butt out of human rights in the West.

Anyway, I certainly didn't mind them widening their mandate from people who were indisputably imprisoned solely for expressing their views (in the days when governments might even come right out and say this explicitly), to people who were imprisoned without charge or trial, or subjected to blatantly unfair trials. In Iran, political activists usually get charged with and tried for something that makes it sound like they're seriously nasty people. And indeed, there is doubtless a percentage of people who go before Iranian courts who did actually bomb a government building, rather than organise a peaceful street march. Amnesty researchers can try their best to identify the genuine nice guys, but ultimately it's quite right for them to say: give everyone in Iran a fair trial, don't expect us to be able to pre-judge who is innocent and who is guilty.

The US has been holding people for years without charge or trial in Guantanamo. Whether those people are innocent Pakistani taxi drivers who got sold to the Americans for $200, or whether they're jihadis who did actually train with the Taliban, if Amnesty are going to be a credible, impartial organisation, this matter should be as much a part of their remit as the obscene joke of a judicial system in Iran.

So I guess my conception of the proper-sized pie for Amnesty is "people unjustly imprisoned" ... without going off the deep end and having them involved in every botched criminal trial on the planet. If an odious jihadi is charged, tried and convicted for some odious jihadi activity, let them rot in prison. But if an odious jihadi is locked up without charge or trial, then yeah, Amnesty should campaign to have them properly tried, or released. They shouldn't invite them to Downing Street afterwards, though; that's just stupid.

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, fair enough, Greg, but bear in mind that my comment about "low-hanging fruit" was, at least in my mind, kind of autobiographical, about my perceptions 10+ years ago when I left Amnesty. So in a sense I feel like retracting part of my retraction. At the time, we didn't seem to have so many of these intractable and horrific abuses in Western countries. The main ones that I can think of now were the continuing use of the death penalty in the US and the generally harsh and racist system of criminal justice in the US. (None of which is to deny that there was also racism in the system of criminal justice in Australia and elsewhere.)

I can't specifically recall what the issues were that irritated me at the time, beyond this general loss of focus that we both identify. Therefore, I may well be confabulating in much of what follows. But remember, in the 1990s we did not have detention at Guantanamo Bay, and whatever problems we may have had with the treatment of refugees in Australia were nothing like what they became under the Howard government.

My impression now, which could be wrong all these years later (and I'm in no position to cite documents), is that I was annoyed to read too much stuff about relatively minor abuses in the West - such as procedural defects in trials, harsh prison conditions, etc. This really does seem like something best handled by local prisoners' rights organisations and so on.

Then there was all the women's reproductive rights in Sierra Leone sort of thing, whatever the equivalent was in the 1990s. Now, this is actually a very important issue, so I hope no one will jump on us for trivialising it. I'm sure neither of us wants to underestimate issues about women's reproductive rights, which I spend a fair bit of time advocating as no doubt do you. But the question was whether Amnesty International was the best organisation to handle all these new issues, and whether they fitted well with the unique expertise that Amnesty had built up by the time I joined (maybe about the same time that you did). To me, some of these things are indeed the sorts of issue best left to UNICEF, etc.

So, during the 1990s, I saw this apparent loss of focus by Amnesty, which had built up a very special kind of expertise and reputation. I now see the change as a deliberate plan to rebadge the organisation to attract more general human rights activists, as opposed to specialists in a small range of issues (prisoners of conscience, torture, death penalty). In fact, it's pretty clear that there actually was a deliberate attempt to change Amnesty into a very different sort of organisation from the one that I had joined.

(There's an interesting book on all this: Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International, by Stephen Hopgood, which goes into the behind-the-scenes struggle that went on within AI to change it and broaden its focus. Of course, I only read this years after I left, and I was unaware at the time of any of the behind-the-scenes stuff that was going on.)

Russell Blackford said...

(Ugh, I'm writing too much.)

At the time, I saw the organisation as going down a counterproductive path. And to be honest, it also seemed to be a path involving a lot of anti-Western, anti-capitalist sentiment. Once you sense that coming through, you have to worry about an organisation losing focus on a lot of the worst abuses, which have nothing directly to do with capitalism.

I'm not a fan of unmitigated corporate capitalism. I think that capitalism needs to be reined in by government action, that much of the wealth it creates should be redistributed, etc. Politically, I am a social democrat when it comes to economic issues.

But I'm always suspicious when I see what looks like a heavily Left-leaning element coming to the fore in what is supposed to be a largely apolitical organisation such as Amnesty was when you and I joined up. One risk is that some of the individuals involved will become more concerned about giving stick to the US and the capitalist hegemony for its own sake, and less focused on the abuses in dictatorships and theocracies.

All this is very impressionistic, but the latest set of events, where we see Amnesty giving a platform to someone like Begg doesn't surprise me, because it's exactly the kind of thing that I'd expect to happen when an organisation changes direction in the way that Amnesty did during the 1990s. It can see someone as a good guy if he gives stick to the US, even if he also gives at least some level of support to the Taliban.

Now, I hear you when you argue that a good role for Amnesty (particularly in current circumstances) would be something wider than its remit in the 1980s, but continous with it and narrower than the role it chose in the 1990s. It could be to help "anyone who is imprisoned unjustly" where "unjustly" is not read to cover relatively minor matters of accused persons' rights but means some kind of gross misuse of imprisonment or detention.

The trouble is, Amnesty did not evolve along those lines during the 1990s. Something much more drastic happened to the organisation.

But again, of course AI still does good work. I have to keep acknowledging that, and I don't expect anyone to leave it over any of these issues, including the Begg controversy.

Elephant said...

Another excellent post, Russell.

I left Amnesty about 15 years ago because it seemed to have got bored with its initial mandate and was more interested in attracting attention than trying to do anything about prisoners of conscience.

It developed a weird obsession with India and Northern Ireland. I knew very little about India, except that what they were reporting paled in comparison to what we knew was happening next door in Burma. But it was very clear that in Northern Ireland they saw themselves as opposed to the rule of government (this was more than 20 years after the disastrous policy of internment had ended). It's important to enquire about governmental abuses of human rights, of course, but when you ignore the much greater human rights violations of paramilitaries killing civilians, you're simply not being serious.

In the last couple of years, Amnesty in Ireland has started campaigning for the right of gay people to marry. I fully support this cause, but is it really a matter for Amnesty? It seems to be driven by its director, Colm O'Gorman, a man for whom I have the highest regard, but what he is doing is horribly misguided. He is currently trying to tell us that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights requires this right, when any sensible reading of it shows that it says no such thing.

Meanwhile thousands of people remain in prison for expressing their opinions.

SC said...

You might be interested in Stephen Hopgood's Keepers of the Flame. He comes down largely on your side, but provides a fairly balanced historical analysis. (I disagree with much of what he says, but my review was getting long and unwieldy, and now I don't have the book here to return to it.)

But I'm always suspicious when I see what looks like a heavily Left-leaning element coming to the fore in what is supposed to be a largely apolitical organisation such as Amnesty

That is impossible, as there is no such thing. Human rights are by their nature political, and human rights movements and organizations did not start during the Cold War.

UNRR said...

This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 2/17/2010, at The Unreligious Right

Term Papers said...

Certainly this organization is precious to me and to millions of other people, including many thousands of men and women who were and are incarcerated and maltreated because of their courage as dissidents and who regained their liberty as a consequence of Amnesty International's unsleeping work.