As in the previous 12 years, I read this year’s annual report of Amnesty International (AI). It is indeed a very disturbing document. It minutely lists horrible events that take place all over the globe, to which most people are indifferent. One should not underestimate the importance of publishing the atrocities that the report sheds light on. In some cases, this exposure really helps and makes a difference.
Nevertheless, besides the frustration that every decent person feels while reading this report, it seems that it also merits some criticism. An outsider who reads it would certainly presume that it reflects the research that the organization carried out throughout the precedent year. This assumption is inaccurate.
AI lacks staff and financial resources to research 149 countries on the same level. Therefore, AI employs a hierarchy according to which it allocates its resources. Thus, the report includes entries on countries which were intensively researched and visited by AI’s staff, alongside states that were not. The second category contains two types of states: (1) those where human rights violations are grave, routine, and which usually deny access to researchers; and (2) countries in which human rights violations are rare and are properly addressed by local nongovernmental organizations and governmental agencies. However, AI does not make this distinction or share its research methodology with the public. Transparency, which AI rightfully demands from governments, is not employed in its own publications. Thus, the considerations that led AI to research one country intensively, and other superficially, are vague and open to interpretation.
This problem is amplified because AI’s report is an unreadable volume. It is written in a phone-book style that tortures the reader. I guess that there is no easy way to present the materials that AI does. Yet, assuming that the editors of the report want it to be read, it would be useful if they published it in a more reader-friendly style. The present situation is, therefore, that most people do not read the report, and those who do usually limit themselves to the entry on their own country, or to countries which interest them most. Hence, the report is read as an anti-Israel document, out of its original global context.
For AI, Israel is an earthly paradise. It gives a free hand to AI’s researches and its focus interests the movement’s grassroots more than in other countries. The publishing of the report is addressed by local media and provokes a vibrant public debate. Israel also responds to appeals of foreign citizens regarding human rights issues, and sometimes it changes practices.
It is therefore regrettable that the lengthy entry on Israel displays a very low level of research. In addition, AI ignores all human rights issues in Israel which are unrelated to the Israeli-Arab conflict. Even violence against women is reported only in relation to the conflict. Dozens of Israeli women who were murdered in their homes and scores who were victimized otherwise by their partners, do not deserve even a footnote in AI’s report. This attitude might suggest that, in the Israeli case, the core issue for AI is not human rights, but rather the political conflict itself.
In spite of the centrality of the conflict in this report, the alleged human rights violations are reported out of context. It is possible that a soldier killed somebody unlawfully, yet this conclusion depends on the conditions that prevailed while the event took place. Killing an innocent person is always a tragedy, but it is not necessarily the result of an unlawful action. The report also often seems to "cut and paste" paragraphs from previous years’ reports. Thus, it is mentioned that trials before Israeli military courts often "did not meet international standards of fairness." That may be correct, but when did AI investigate the Israeli military judicial system? I read this sentence in almost every AI annual report that I surveyed, but I failed to find any document that records a proper study of the military courts. If I am not mistaken, this specific sentence stems from a document from 1979.
I did not check specific events recorded in the report. I suppose that most of them merit a serious consideration. Nevertheless, the way that AI currently works hardly contributes to the promotion of human rights in Israel. It is perceived as a biased organization, and therefore its critics are refuted dismissed as anti-Israeli propaganda, even in cases when it is entirely accurate.
I believe that human rights should be a top issue on the Israeli agenda, and I think that AI can play a key role in promoting human rights discourse in Israel. To do so it has to maintain a fruitful dialogue with Israeli society, rather than focus exclusively on the Israeli-Arab conflict. It also has to upgrade its research level, which in its present form is inexcusable. Once these steps are taken, I believe that Amnesty International’s contribution to human rights in Israel and elsewhere will be much more significant than it is at present.
The writer, who lives in Jerusalem, is former chair of the Israeli section of Amnesty International (1998-9). He is currently not a member of the movement.