Tyranny’s Friends at Amnesty

Update Martin Bright is reporting that Gita has been suspended. When presented with a choice between violentpatriachy and women’s rights Amensty like so many other liberal institutions chooses reaction. 

Here’s a story anyone who has been watching the moral disintegration of Amnesty International has been expecting. The Sunday Times reports

A SENIOR official at Amnesty International has accused the charity of putting the human rights of Al-Qaeda terror suspects above those of their victims.

Gita Sahgal, head of the gender unit at Amnesty’s international secretariat, believes that collaborating with Moazzam Begg, a former British inmate at Guantanamo Bay, “fundamentally damages” the organisation’s reputation.

In an email sent to Amnesty’s top bosses, she suggests the charity has mistakenly allied itself with Begg and his “jihadi” group, Cageprisoners, out of fear of being branded racist and Islamophobic.

Sahgal describes Begg as “Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban”. He has championed the rights of jailed Al-Qaeda members and hate preachers, including Anwar al-Awlaki, the alleged spiritual mentor of the Christmas Day Detroit plane bomber.

Sahgal, who has researched religious fundamentalism for 20 years, has decided to go public because she feels Amnesty has ignored her warnings for the past two years about the involvement of Begg in the charity’s Counter Terror With Justice campaign.

“I believe the campaign fundamentally damages Amnesty International’s integrity and, more importantly, constitutes a threat to human rights,” Sahgal wrote in an email to the organisation’s leaders on January 30. “To be appearing on platforms with Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgment.”

As Martin Bright says, ‘It is difficult to make a stand on these issues and keep one’s friends on the left and in the human rights community, so I take my hat off to Gita. I have often discussed with her how best to raise these issues and she has been deeply frustrated by the way the British liberal intelligentsia gives house-room to right-wing Islamists.’

   I have a piece in the forthcoming issue of Standpoint about ‘the borderless left’; about how it is, rightly, unacceptable for Tories to ally with white fascists, but how no one – or too few – protest when liberal and leftists move beyond the pale and ally with clerical fascists.

    While you wait for my colleagues to get into the shops, here’s an essay from my Waiting for the Etonians on how everything started to go wrong for Amnesty in the middle of the last decade.

Lesser Breeds without the Law

 SIR,’ wrote Mr H.. W Scott of Hemel Hempstead to the editor of the Daily Telegraph, ‘Bob Geldof hopes to raise an army of a million protesters against world poverty. Instead of sending them to Scotland to lobby the G8, he would do better if he divided his troops into groups of, say, 50,000, and sent them to protest repeatedly in front of the London embassies of the countries everyone knows to be the worst offenders in failing to reduce poverty in their own countries.’ An argument can be true even if it is made in the Telegraph, and no one can deny that the regimes that preside over the African disaster will get off lightly in the protests against the G8 summit.

    If the Make Poverty History manifesto were implemented, the Common Agricultural Policy would be scrapped; the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund would no longer be able to force weak countries to open their markets before they were ready for free trade; debt which can never be repaid would be cancelled; and the rich world would provide more aid for hospitals and schools. It is an admirable programme, but the reader can be forgiven for believing that Africa has no dictators and rich, white men direct its affairs.

     Corruption doesn’t feature in Geldof ‘s manifesto and human rights are mentioned in passing just once, and then only in a sideswipe at world trade rules rather than a direct assault on tyrants and torturers. Workers for Make Poverty History became exasperated when I raised the point, and with good reason. The political parties barely mentioned Africa in the 2005 election campaign. The outside world surfaced in Michael Howard’s sly attacks on Tony Blair’s alleged leniency towards asylum seekers, and that was it.

     The electorate returned New Labour exactly one month before the protest, but the election felt like half a lifetime away. Make Poverty History made Africa news, and I would not be writing this piece if it were not for its efforts. It has won the support of the prime minister and the Chancellor. It will persuade hundreds of thousands of people to march on the streets of Edinburgh, many of whom had never given the wretched of the earth a second’s thought until Geldof reached for his megaphone again.After all these achievements, the charities then have to deal with niggardly critics who insist that they tackle oppression and corruption as well as trade, aid and debt. No, they told me, we do not. The concerts, the marches and the television dramas are being organised to lobby the G8 summit. By definition, they are about what the rich can do for the poor. Contrary to what you read, we do not believe in helping countries that can’t show that resources freed by debt relief will be well used.

     Steve Tibbett of Action Aid, a member of Geldof’s coalition of charities, explained that the very act of targeting aid at the poorest strengthens the hands of those who are most likely to fight for basic political freedoms: teachers, doctors and the citizens’ groups which monitor how the money is spent. I could understand the frustrated note in his voice. Here are development charities trying to confront apocalyptic outbreaks of hunger and disease. Isn’t that enough? Why should whining berks who have never lifted a finger for anyone but themselves demand they take on every other crime and injustice when there are plenty of articulate campaigners banging the drum for human rights?

     The argument makes sense until you turn round and listen out for the campaigners for human rights, and realise that the drumbeat of those who once swore that they would support and defend them has become muffled of late.



    If you look globally today and want to talk about human rights, for the vast majority of the world’s population they don’t mean very much. To talk about freedom of expression to a man who can’t read the newspaper, to talk about the right to work to someone who has no job; human rights means nothing to them unless it brings some change on these particular issues.

    These clunking and sinister sentences did not come from a colonial administrator explaining that freedom of speech and conscience were all well and good for freeborn white men but not for lesser breeds without the law. Nor was it a communist apparatchik saying that there was no need for bourgeois freedoms in the proletarian paradise of the Soviet Union. Nor was it Edward Heath or Henry Kissinger announcing that the Chinese liked autocracy or Abu Musab Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden denouncing democracy as a Greek heresy. Rather, the assertion that human rights don’t ‘mean very much’ to the poor, the black and the brown who make up the majority of the world’s population, fell from the lips of Irene Khan, the new secretary-general of Amnesty International, an organisation that once believed that human rights meant everything.

    Her shift in policy provoked no stern questions because Amnesty has an almost canonical status. I cannot name another institution whose word is accepted without challenge. When anyone else with power from the prime minister downwards utters an opinion, journalists scrutinise them and round up opponents to put the contrary view.They accept Amnesty as a purveyor of incontestable truth because it has built up its reputation over the decades with tens of thousands of scrupulous investigations into the treatment of prisoners of conscience.

     Since it was founded in 1961 after an article in the Observer about the arrest of two students by the old fascist dictatorship in Portugal, Amnesty has campaigned relentlessly and patiently for the rights of political prisoners for fair trials and freedom of speech. Opposition to the death penalty was added to the list in the 1970s, despite the protests from traditionalists that the organisation was in danger of distracting itself from its original goal. The small dilution in the purity of its cause had little effect and it remained an unfaltering opponent of political persecution. No longer. To Khan, the human-rights agenda is passé. Demands for freedom of speech and the rights to vote and protest were not the concern of the majority of the human race. ‘Amnesty has a middle-class,Western, complacent, white image in many parts of the world,’ she told the Financial Times. Her nervousness is a part of the wider crisis of liberalism. Liberals prefer abandoning liberal principles to running the risk of seeming a white imperialist democrat, maybe even a neocon. Khan would avoid the nasty name-calling by expanding Amnesty’s remit to include campaigns against poverty because, as one her sympathisers put it to me, ‘more children die of lack of food or water than [are] killed by torture and the death penalty’.

     This is true, but beside the point.Amnesty is crowding into a crowded field. All the charities in the Make Poverty History alliance campaign for access to clean water and decent food; what they are not doing is standing up for human rights. Amnesty says it will continue to do so and I hope it will; it still has many good people working and its story isn’t over yet. But ever since Khan took over, I’ve had an uneasy feeling that it is losing universal principles and treating the abuse of rights by the United States as worse than similar or more grotesque abuses by dictators who aren’t white, middle-class or Western.

    That feeling was transformed into a certainty when Amnesty described Guantanamo Bay as the ‘gulag of our times’. By all means, Amnesty and everyone else should loudly deplore America’s failure to treat prisoners of war in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. But when they’ve finished, they should check the figures. If they exclude the millions who died of starvation, disease and exhaustion, they will find that the communists murdered 776,098 gulag prisoners by summary executions between 1930 and 1953.At Guantanamo Bay, no one has died of starvation, disease or exhaustion and no prisoners have been executed. Not one. If Amnesty’s American obsession prevents it from seeing the worst crimes of the twentieth century for what they are, how will it sound the alarm about the worst of the twenty-first? A barely reported exchange showed why the arguments against Khan matter.

    Journalists in Johannesburg tackled James Morris, head of the United Nations World Food Programme, who had promised hundreds of thousands of tonnes of emergency supplies to Zimbabwe. Try as they might, they could not get him to condemn Mugabe. According to Morris, Zimbabwe was on the edge of famine because of drought and Aids, not because of the dictatorship’s destruction of agriculture and suppression of dissent. The mistake the UN made with Saddam’s Iraq was to be repeated. Food would go to the regime rather than the needy and the regime would be able to use it to reward friends and punish enemies. In April, Zimbabwe was re-elected to the UN Human Rights Commission for the third year running by satirically minded African states, so Morris may have to play the diplomat.

    To anyone who does not, it is obvious that he and Khan are letting dictators off the hook. Zimbabwe is on the edge of starvation because it does not have freedom of expression, among other human rights. The great lesson of the twentieth century was that tyrannical regimes – the British Empire, Mao’s China, Stalin’s Russia, Mengistu’s Ethiopia – presided over enormous famines. Democracies did not. Amnesty does not know it, but the choice between human rights and social justice is not either/or but both/neither.

June 2005


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