In its Statute, Amnesty International fosters an image that “impartiality and independence” are core tenets of its agenda. Amnesty presents itself as unbiased, and independent of governments and their interests, and its statements are widely accepted because the media and diplomats consider the NGO as upholding the universal principles of human rights.
This image, however, is misleading. Contrary to what the NGO implies on its website and in other PR materials, Amnesty International and its local branches do in fact accept government funding.
Likewise, Amnesty claims that it maintains a policy of “impartiality” and is unbiased in its research of allegations of human rights violations. Despite this claim, Amnesty employs an anti-Israel activist as a researcher in its “Israel, Occupied Palestinian Territories and Palestinian Authority” section. This individual, Deborah Hyams, has a well-documented history of radical activism in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and, correspondingly, weakens Amnesty’s credibility and claims of neutrality.
Since 2010, when it dismissed women’s rights advocate Gita Saghal for blowing the whistle on Amnesty’s association with an alleged Taliban supporter, Amnesty’s international credibility has been greatly damaged. As shown in this report, the façade of Amnesty’s impartiality is far more extensive.
Amnesty’s Obfuscation on Government Funding
The Amnesty International Volunteer guidebook, under fundraising policies, categorically states, “AI neither asks for nor accepts direct donations from governments.” Similarly, on its website, Amnesty International claims, “We neither seek nor accept any funds for human rights research from governments or political parties.”
The refusal to accept government funding is an integral part of Amnesty’s international credibility. As noted by the Australian branch of Amnesty,
We do not accept any money from governments or political parties, so we are free to criticise governments and others for abusing people’s rights, or for failing to protect them. Because we are independent of any government, political ideology, economic interest or religion, we can take action to defend human rights wherever they are violated.
Amnesty-Australia has further noted that “Surveys of Amnesty International supporters have shown non-acceptance of government funding is a primary reason for support.”
In sharp contrast, Amnesty International received £842,000 in 2011 from the UK Department for International Development as part of a four-year award commencing in 2008 and totaling £3,149,000.
And in 2009, Amnesty received €2.5 million (approximately 1% of its donations) from governments. The British government was the third largest donor (€800,000). Amnesty also received government funding in 2008 (€1million), 2007 (€1 million), and 2006 (€2 million).
Independent research by NGO Monitor reveals the following instances of government funding for Amnesty International and its branches:
- £259,000 in 2007 from the European Commission.
- 2010 – 60,000 NIS from the Netherlands
- 2009 – 239,524 NIS from the United States
- 2008 – 130,186 NIS from the United States (On its website, Amnesty-Israel claims, “We are independent of all governments, political persuasions and religious creeds. We are funded by our members and donors, and no funds are sought or accepted from governments” [emphasis added].)
Amnesty International’s justification
Little known Amnesty documents indicate that the NGO permit acceptance of government support. In a May 2006 “Human Rights Education” newsletter, Amnesty writes:
[Human Rights Education (HRE)] is distinct from the reactive research and campaigning usually associated with AI in that it is preventative, promotional human rights work. For this reason, on HRE projects AI sometimes works in a more co-operative way with governments and can even accept government money to fund educational work.
In justifying this position, Amnesty claims, “Allowing government funding for educational programmes does not mean that AI is being co-opted or compromising its impartiality,” and that receiving funding is only a way to “recognize[s] the willingness of many governments to promote a greater understanding of human rights issues in their own country and around the world.”
This would explain the language on Amnesty International’s website that “We neither seek nor accept any funds for human rights research from governments” (emphasis added), although this caveat is missing from many Amnesty PR materials – as noted above.
Within Amnesty International, the distinction between “human rights research” and “human rights education,” which would allow accepting government funding, is controversial. At Amnesty International’s August 2011 biannual International Council Meeting (Amnesty’s highest governing body), Amnesty-Australia proposed a motion implying that Amnesty’s policy is somewhat misleading:
A widely held public interpretation of this is that we do not accept any government funding. However, there is scope for Amnesty International to receive direct funding from government sources for Human Rights Education, which is a common focus in applications for grant funding from local and international government sources…. Fundraising of this type potentially presents challenges for Amnesty International’s independence and impartiality from government.
Indeed, all funding creates conflicts of interest – in particular, funding that is part of a cooperative relationship between the NGO and the government.
It is also significant that Amnesty-Australia’s motion references seven internal documents on this topic, including guidelines on receiving government funding. However, none of these documents are publically available, creating a question about Amnesty's transparency and accountability.
Amnesty-Australia’s motion passed, and Amnesty’s Executive Committee was instructed to
investigate the extent of AI’s reliance on government funding, the implications of the receipt of direct government funding for our independent and effectiveness, and existing best practices around guaranteeing these things when delivering government funded programs. A report on this investigation should be completed by October 2012, and if necessary, policies should be revised or developed.
As noted above, Amnesty’s core values include “impartiality and independence.” Amnesty also claims that impartiality is core to its methodology of “systematically and impartially research[ing] the facts of individual cases and patterns of human rights abuses.”
In order to maintain impartiality, Amnesty adopted a policy prohibiting “Work On Own Country” (WOOC). It is unclear to what extent this policy is still in place. In 2009, Amnesty indicated that WOOC was abandoned but recognized the need for a policy addressing the underlying principle of curtailing conflicts of interest and the impression of bias:
That rule was abolished in 2002, but the potential for conflict of interest in relation to at least some countries clearly remained. The need for a formal policy in relation to conflicts of interest was recognised, and a policy was under discussion at the period relevant to these proceedings though nothing had been finalised.
For example, in 2007 Amnesty refused to allow an ethnically Sudanese worker (who also had attended school in Sudan) to work as a researcher on Sudan. This worker sued Amnesty for discrimination and unfair dismissal. In the proceedings, Amnesty stated that this was due to security concerns and that:
the impartiality of the staff in question, or in any event their perceived impartiality, may be prejudiced by their connections with the country in question: that would not only reduce their effectiveness in their role but also have implications for Amnesty’s own reputation for neutrality, which is obviously of fundamental importance to it.
At the same time, Amnesty International’s Asia and the Pacific branch continues to post this policy on its website:
In order to uphold this principle [the protection of human rights], and to protect the impartiality of its work and the security of its members, AI members do not generally conduct research or send appeals on behalf of victims in their own country - this is known as the Work On Own Country Rule (WOOC).
Breaches of Employee Impartiality
Regardless of the status of WOOC, the principle of impartiality and perceived impartiality remained central. Yet, sometime in late 2010, Amnesty hired anti-Israel activist Deborah Hyams as a researcher in the “Israel, Occupied Palestinian Territories and Palestinian Authority” section.
Hyams has an extensive background in radical anti-Israel activism:
- In 2001, Hyams volunteered as a “human shield” in Beit Jala (near Bethlehem), to deter Israeli military responses to recurrent gunfire and mortars targeting Jewish civilians in Jerusalem.
- Hyams employs demonizing language regarding Israel: In 2008, she was signatory to a letterclaiming Israel is “a state founded on terrorism, massacres and the dispossession of another people from their land.” Hyams also statedin 2002 that “[some] of Israel’s actions, all the way back to 1948, could be called ‘ethnic cleansing’.”
- In a 2002 Washington Jewish Week article, "Hyams said that while she does not condone suicide bombings, she personally believes they 'are in response to the occupation.'" In another instance she defended violence stating "occupation is violence...and the consequence of this action must result in violence [against Israelis]."
- Hyams has worked for some of the most radical political advocacy NGOs in the Arab-Israeli conflict, including the Alternative Information Center (AIC), Jews for Justice in Palestine and Israel (JPPI), Rachel Corrie Foundation, and Ma’an Network. Any of these affiliations should have been a red flag for Amnesty.