The world’s biggest human-rights organisation stretches its brand
AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL is the biggest human-rights organisation in the world, with 70 national chapters and 1.8m-plus members. Its battle honours glitter. It has defended moral giants among prisoners of conscience such as Vaclav Havel and Andrei Sakharov.
Amnesty still champions such causes, rattling dictatorial governments (and governments with dictatorial tendencies). But its mission has also become broader and more ambitious, calling for political and economic improvement as well as freedom from judicial persecution. “Working on individuals is important, but if we don’t work on systemic change we just exchange one group of sufferers for another,” says Irene Khan, its secretary-general.
Many of the movement’s most vocal supporters strongly support this stance, increasingly entrenched in Amnesty’s thinking; it also chimes well with the visceral opposition to American foreign policy, and to globalisation, that exists in many parts of the world. All that has made Amnesty more popular in some quarters—but also, perhaps, less effective overall.
Amnesty’s website—admittedly not the same as the organisation, but still a shop window for its main concerns—can certainly be disconcerting for those who have not followed the changes of past years. Instead of named individuals locked up by their governments, it highlights a dozen campaigns. Top comes “stop violence against women”, including discrimination by the “state, the community and the family”. The second asserts: “The arms trade is out of control. Worldwide arms are fuelling conflict, poverty, and human rights abuses.” The third—closer to a traditional Amnesty campaign—is “stop torture”; this focuses mainly on abuses in the “war on terror”, and links to a campaign to close the prison camp in Guantánamo Bay.
Ms Khan infuriated both the American government and some Amnesty supporters in 2005 when she described Guantánamo as the “gulag of our times”. She stands by her statement: like the gulag, Guantánamo “puts people outside the rule of law”, she says. Yet the comparison seems odd in scale and in principle: the gulag embodied the Soviet system; Guantánamo is a blot on the American one.
Not that old-style Amnesty was soft on the West. Using the moral authority it had won by confronting both apartheid and communism, it challenged Western governments whenever they seemed to be cutting legal corners; in that spirit, it opposed Britain’s policy of internment in Northern Ireland.
But these days America does seem to have a strangely high priority, given the enormity of human-rights scandals elsewhere. One of the four “worldwide appeals” launched in March urges the public to press the American government to grant visas to the wives of two Cubans jailed for acting as “unregistered agents of a foreign power” (in effect, spying). Zimbabwe, scene of bloody repression in past weeks, comes fourth—but the appeal deals not with current events but with the persecution of a movement called “Women of Zimbabwe Arise”, an admirable but narrower cause.
Another of Amnesty’s 12 campaigns is on “Poverty and Human Rights” which asserts: “Everyone, everywhere has the right to live with dignity. That means that no one should be denied their rights to adequate housing, food, water and sanitation, and to education and health care.” A similar theme is struck by the “Economic Globalisation and Human Rights” campaign—reflecting Amnesty’s enthusiastic support for the World Social Forum, a movement which holds annual anti-capitalism shindigs. Sometimes there seems to be a desire to be even-handed between pariahs and paragons: Amnesty recently surprised observers of the ex-communist world by producing a critique of the language law in Estonia—a country usually seen as the best example of good government in the region.
The big question in all this is priorities. Cases do exist where violations of political rights and of economic ones are hard to separate; one such case is Zimbabwe, whose government has engaged in politicised food distribution and slum clearance at the same time as judicial repression.
But the new Amnesty is surely open to the charges both that it is campaigning on too many fronts, and that the latest focus comes at the cost of the old one.
Amnesty’s website is, insiders acknowledge, a campaigning tool; it does not fully reflect the depth of the organisation’s expertise, or its internal priorities. Ms Khan admits a tension in the organisation’s “business mix” between high profile and less immediately rewarding work.
But she insists that there is no drift towards America-bashing for the sake of popularity, and that the emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights does not reflect a preference for any particular system of government.
Perhaps unavoidably, the stance taken by Amnesty’s increasingly autonomous national chapters in the domestic affairs of their countries is decidedly political. In Colombia, for example, the movement opposes a law that offers reduced sentences to right-wing paramilitaries but made no objections to past proposals for amnesties for left-wing guerrillas.
Amnesty may to some extent be the captive of its need to keep a mass membership enthused with new and compelling causes, even at the cost of narrowing its appeal to those with unfashionably positive views about America or global capitalism. Its expert researchers and analysts still continue in their work, but sometimes feel let down by what the leadership chooses to showcase. Amnesty has to compete for attention and funds with other human-rights organisations: its “unique selling proposition”, says Ms Khan, is that it gives ordinary people a chance to participate. Yet the best means of ensuring that—writing letters to, and about, prisoners of conscience—has shrunk.
The collapse of the Soviet empire and of apartheid rule in South Africa cut the number of visible prisoners of conscience. Countless tens of thousands may languish in China’s laogai forced labour camps (a system that truly deserves to be called a gulag), and many are incarcerated in places such as North Korea and Myanmar (Burma). But even getting the names of the inmates is hard, let alone embarrassing the governments. Writing letters on behalf of a Havel or Sakharov sparks members’ enthusiasm far more than a few blurred pictures of a remote camp with anonymous inmates.
Amnesty’s American-based counterpart, Human Rights Watch, has also changed its emphasis, but less controversially. It keeps classic human-rights questions at the centre of its activities and gives only modest attention to other concerns. On weapons, for example, it campaigns to limit the use of cluster bombs, but not against the arms trade in general. It sticks to situations where its fastidious, legalistic approach will work, “namely, the ability to identify a rights violation, a violator, and a remedy to address the violation.” That covers arbitrary government conduct that leads to a violation of economic rights (such as the right to emigrate), but steers clear of general hand-wringing about poverty or poor public services.
Current and former Amnesty insiders worry that an increasingly grandstanding and unfocused approach makes it ineffective. Sigrid Rausing, a top British donor to human-rights causes, says she regrets the “blurring” of the original mission: “There are so few organisations that focus on individual prisoners of conscience.” Her husband, Eric Abraham, was supported by Amnesty while under a five-year sentence of house arrest in South Africa in 1976.
Some wonder if Ms Khan has been too keen to impress constituencies in what NGO-niks call the “global south”: code for developing countries, where opinion—at least among the elite—supposedly favours economic development over a “northern” concern for individual rights. She vigorously contests that. But an organisation which devotes more pages in its annual report to human-rights abuses in Britain and America than those in Belarus and Saudi Arabia cannot expect to escape doubters’ scrutiny.
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