Unhappy 50th to Amnesty International

By Andrew L. Urban

After many years of actively and financially supporting Amnesty Australia, I resigned in April 2007 with a heavy heart.  AI’s charter had always been to support and work for the release of non violent prisoners of conscience, a mission I felt was (and is) tremendously important and worthwhile.

In my letter of resignation to National President Georgina Perry (copy to National Director Mara Moustafine), I wrote:

“I am deeply disappointed at AI’s actions in regards to David Hicks. The campaign to ensure that human rights abuses do not occur at Guantanamo Bay (with which I wholeheartedly agree and regard it as a part of the AI charter) should have been separated from the Hicks case.

The Hicks campaign has painted him as a mistreated suspected criminal; AI’s involvement also positioned him as a prisoner of conscience. I wonder how victims of terrorism and victims of oppression in jails around the world feel about AI now.”

No reasonable person could describe Hicks as having been a prisoner of conscience, nor is Hicks innocent of violent intent.

My letter continued:

“Hicks is a self confessed trained terrorist and is now able to claim the support of AI which severely undermines AI’s otherwise formidable work. I am appalled at how the latest issue of the HR Defender gives the emotional spin on Hicks, quoting his father on the inside front cover: “I wouldn’t wish on anyone what’s happened to David in Guantanamo Bay” No doubt, but I wouldn’t wish on anyone what David and his terror squads had planned for innocent men, women and children.

I am also troubled by AI Australia’s role: as a general rule, AI branches have wisely refrained from working in their host countries. Why was this policy breached?”

I never did get an answer to this letter, not even an acknowledgement of its receipt.

Three years later, Christopher Hitchens also turned off (as have others); he wrote in Slate* :

“This organization is precious to me and to millions of other people … So to learn of its degeneration and politicization is to be reading about a moral crisis that has global implications. Amnesty International has just suspended one of its senior officers, a woman named Gita Sahgal# who until recently headed the organization’s “gender unit.” It’s fairly easy to summarize her concern in her own words. “To be appearing on platforms with Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender,” she wrote, “is a gross error of judgment.” One might think that to be an uncontroversial statement, but it led to her immediate suspension.

Amnesty International was not set up to defend everybody, no matter what they did. No organization in the world could hope to do that. IRA bombers and Khmer Rouge killers and Gens. Pinochet and Videla were not Amnesty prisoners when they eventually faced the bar of the court. The entire raison d’être of the noble foundation was to defend and protect those who were made to suffer for their views.”

I now receive the occasional circular from Amnesty with anguish; I cannot support AI, yet I strongly support its noble goals as originally set out and practiced for many years. It still does important work but it has soiled its legitimacy.

There is little to celebrate when such an organisation loses its way at a time when it could have used its 50th anniversary to leverage greater attention to some of the many abuses around the world. We need a clear sighted, vigilant lion championing the cause of human rights; the 50 year old Amnesty International is suffering from organisational Alzheimer’s disease, having forgotten what it stands for.

* Suspension of Conscience, Amnesty International has lost sight of its original purpose. Feb 15, 2010


# Sahgal was eventually dismissed from Amnesty International in April 2010.

Further reading: The Paradox of Partnership: Amnesty International, Responsible Advocacy, and NGO Accountability by Diana Hortsch


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