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.