Human Rights

Amnesty’s Flight from Universalism

This is a guest post by Professor Tom Gallagher

I doubt if Gita Sahgal would have expected those who are running Amnesty International (AI) these days to turn on her for pointing out the dangers of establishing a partnership with Moazzam Begg. He is someone whose political journey yields little evidence that he shares a commitment to the universality of human rights. Instead, he endorses a brand of fundamentalist Islam enshrined in the Taliban movement in Afghanistan which is utterly uninterested in equality before the law and whose concept of law, where it can be determined with any clarity, springs from grimly theocratic precepts.

Gita Sahgal’s association with Amnesty extends over decades and for many years she was head of its international gender unit. Not surprisingly, given its hostility to women’s rights, she was one of the first people to warn of the dangers of the rise in Britain of Jamaat-i-Islami, the South Asian counterpart of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Amnesty swiftly suspended her last Sunday after she expressed her concern in a newspaper interview about its failure to maintain an objective distance from groups and ideas that are committed to systematic discrimination and fundamentally undermine the universality of human rights. Two nights later, Amnesty’s Irish branch extended its hospitality to Moazzam Begg who spoke from its platform about the work of his organization Cageprisoners whosesoldarity extends towards Abu Hamza and Omar Khayam.
Gita Sahgal reminds me of those liberal and often secular-minded progressives in Northern Ireland during the 1960s who warned in vain about the political storm being whipped up by religious extremists. During the final years of peace in the province, they begged London to restore human rights tarnished under the Unionist regime and take a firm stance against those threatening violence to advance their goals. These voices of reason were ignored in Whitehall. It preferred to rely on a shaky government which for decades had manipulated religion for its own end. Forty years later ,on the British mainland, it is little different as the central and town hall bureaucrats and their political masters ignore the warnings about the damage of to community relations being caused by shaping public policy around the secular religion of multi-culturalism. If British cities manage to avoid being dubbed in the world press of the future as ‘mini-Ulster’s it will be no thanks to politicians and bureaucrats who so easily forgot the disasters that have ensued from using religion to manipulate local communities.

Ireland and Bangladesh play important roles in the retreat of Amnesty away from its core aim of championing prisoners of conscience to an organization increasingly keen to challenge the authority of liberal democratic states on a widening number of policy issues.

Irene Khan, head of AI from 2001 until 2009 exemplifies the link. She came to Northern Ireland in the early 1970s not long after her homeland Bangladesh had won its independence from Pakistan. This had come at a fearsome cost. Atrocities on opponents and civilians had been carried out by Jamaat-i-Islami forces in a desperate bid to foil independence. Religious zealots believed this would weaken the grip of their brand of Islam on a country likely to come under the influence of India with a firmly secular constitution.
The Northern Ireland that the young middle-class Bangladeshi entered appeared to be one where religious extremism was in full spate with intransigent forms of nationalism not far behind. Ian Paisley, who still sits in Parliament, with his wife now also ennobled by Tony Blair, was far from being a peacemaker. He bellowed his insistence that religious precepts must animate political life and many still hold him responsible for tipping Ulster over the edge in the late 1960s with three decades of often vicious violence ensuing. Northern Ireland seemed like science fiction for most Britons in the 1970s and 1980s. But today It is not hard to envisage similar types of talented but reckless politicians manipulating ethno-religious passions in some of our cities. Indeed, in one part of East London, this process may already be well on its way..

Amnesty International’s role in the Northern Ireland story has perhaps never been properly acknowledged. During the late 1970s, the British government found itself assailed by an effective Amnesty campaign overthe methods it was using to quell IRA insurgency. It faced condemnation from the European Court of Human Rights in 1978 for ‘inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners’. The interrogation methods being carried out by the Special Branch and for ‘a shoot to kill’ policy against people identified as terrorist suspects brought to an early end the political career of Labour’s Roy Mason and forced his deputy at the Northern Ireland Office, Peter Melchett into a drastic career shift, so that today he vies with George Monbiot for the honour of being patriarch of Britain’s Green movement.

Irene Khan cut her activist teeth in Northern Ireland before going on to a glittering career in the UN until in 1995, still in her thirties, she was appointed the youngest head of mission ever for the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). This was a period when the number of political tyrannies fell substantially in face of a new wave of democratization. Communism collapsed outside East Asia and the Caribbean. One-party states and military juntas gave way to often fragile plural regimes in Africa and Latin America.

Still, the numbers of people who died as a result of political violence increased as a result of internal conflicts in which territorial and ethnic demands were often combined with banditry and the crudest of power struggles. The dominant international states had a confused and unheroic response to this kind of bloodletting in the Balkans and looked away completely in Rwanda. At the time of the 1999 Kosovo crisis Khan had been head of the UNHCR mission in neighbouring Macedonia . NATO and the EU had agreed to forcefully confronting Slobodan Milosevic when he attempted to expel the entire Albanian population from Kosovo. Four years later, when Iraq was occupied by British and American forces, she was head of Amnesty. President George W. Bush’s claim of September 2003 that whenever ‘freedom takes hold terror will retreat’ was already being exposed as tragically misconceived given the scale of violence that overtook much of the country. Insurgents, many belonging to Al-Q’aida and drawn from other parts of the Muslim world, were responsible for the bulk of civilian deaths. But in its annual report of 2004, Amnesty had no hesitation in statjng that ‘the biggest attack on human rights’ principles and values’ are those ‘ mounted by the liberal democracies in the war against terror’. In 2005, Irene Khan, described the Guantanamo detention centre as ‘the gulag of our time’. It was a comparison she stuck by when it was pointed out to her that the Soviet gulags had housed tens of millions of people and millions had perished in them.

Amnesty now speaks out on numerous issues ranging from abortion to climate change. Why has it moved far beyond its core goal of championing prisoners of conscience? The numbers of such people may have dipped in the 1990s but it has started to rise again as numerous democracies revert to being autocracies or worse. Can it be put down to the person at its helm during a period of unusual turmoil which exposed doubts about what the essential values and goals of liberal democracies were? An admirer from Amnesty in Ulster, Patrick Corrigan, has described Irene Khan as ‘a really warm , thoughtful, astute and steely lady’.

Or are we witnessing the phenomenon also evident in Human Rights Watch of an organization altering its brand and redefining its mission in order to justify its size and even funding needs, and responding to a membership composition which has varied substantially over the years?

Israel attracts an incredible amount of attention from both Amnesty and Human Rights. At the time of the Gaza crisis in early 2009, Amnesty played down or overlooked the practice of Hamas using human shields and instead focussed on civilian deaths caused by Israeli actions which it said amounted to war crimes. The human rights group even accused America of failing to be even-handed in the conflict and demanded that ‘America must suspend the transfer of weapons to Israel immediately and conduct an investigation into whether U.S.weapons were used to commit human rights abuses’. (‘Rights group says U.S. response to Gaza “lopsided”’,R euters, 2 January 2009).
Such moralistic tones rarely emanate from Irene Khan and Amnesty towards Iran which , arguably, has done more to enflame conflict in the Middle East through its sponsorship of Hamas and Hizbullah in the Lebanon than any other major power.

If and when Iran obtains its political freedom,I don’t think there will be too many civic activists keen to form Tehran or Isfahan chapters of Amnesty. The lionising of Moazzam Begg and the probable purging of of Gita Sahgal for pointing out the harm done to a core Amnesty responsibility, that of protecting the human rights of women, especially in the Muslim world, is likely to ensure that.

On, the other hand, lets hope that the initiative for setting up a successor to Amnesty might emanate from worldly and progressive Iranians who are clearly committed to defending a universal set of civil , legal and political principles which Amnesty has so obviously lost sight of. If that happens, then I don’t think they will be extending the red carpet to Noam Chomsky. He delivered the prestigious Amnesty International lecture in Belfast last November just as Irene Khan was bowing out, presumably to move on to even greater things. The irony seems to have been lost on the panjandrums of Amnesty that inviting someone with a remarkable track-record in public towards those who carried out unspeakable atrocities in Cambodia under the Khymer Rouge and later in Bosnia is bound to define the organization in the minds of many.

There are fortunately still too many people with a historical memory who are well able to take the measure of a human rights lawyer like Irene Khan when she idly compares the Guantanamo detention centre with Stalin’s Gulags.

Professor Tom Gallagher lectures at Bradford University and his book The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland Under Nationalism was published last November.