Amnesty International’s Annual Report for 2004, released on May 25, 2005, resulted in unprecedented criticism, particularly regarding the politicized analyses in the chapters on the U.S., Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Although containing modest improvements, such as marginally increased attention to Palestinian violations of human rights, these and other chapters continue to reflect three fundamental weaknesses:

  • The absence of credibility in its research and allegations;
  • The use of such terms as “war crimes” and “violation of international law” in an entirely arbitrary and inconsistent manner;
  • The pervasive impact of ideological and political agendas that favor closed totalitarian regimes over democracies, and replace universal human rights norms.

These problems have been documented by NGO Monitor in reports on previous Amnesty International publications and campaigns, and are continued in the current report.

Examination of the sections on Israel and the Palestinian Authority reiterate the unverified (and unverifiable) claims of “Palestinian eye-witnesses”, reflecting the absence of an independent research capability. In an article published in the Jerusalem Post (02 Jun 05), Michael Ehrlich, former chair of Amnesty in Israel, noted that, “An outsider who reads [the report] would certainly presume that it reflects the research that the organization carried out throughout the precedent year. This assumption is inaccurate.” According to Ehrlich’s analysis, “the report also often seems to ‘cut and paste’ paragraphs from previous years’ reports.” Indeed, the section on Israel is largely a compilation of Amnesty’s previous campaigns, “alerts”, and other activities, some dating back for decades, and conspicuously lacking credibility.

Specifically, the latest report simply repeats Palestinian allegations that during 2004, Israeli forces were responsible for the deaths of 700 civilians. This highly contentious allegation requires careful documentation to distinguish between combatants and others, and this is far beyond the minimal resources that Amnesty devotes to fact checking and research in the Arab-Israeli conflict zone. Ehrlich concludes that “the lengthy entry on Israel displays a very low level of research”.

The claims regarding the number of Palestinian children killed in the conflict highlights the internal contradictions within Amnesty’s report. Beyond the lack of verification of various claims, the section on the Palestinian Authority acknowledges that Palestinian “armed groups” use children to attack Israel. However, the chapter on Israel in which this claim is presented ignores Amnesty’s report of May 23, 2005, (based on evidence provided by the IDF) regarding the use of Palestinian children to carry explosives for use in terror attacks. As a result of this outstanding contradiction, the allegations of Israeli violations of human rights on this issue are fundamentally unsound at best. Based on his experience with Amnesty, Ehrlich insists “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.”

The problems of credibility in this report are further illustrated by Amnesty’s repetition of the Palestinian narrative regarding Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin as “paralysed and wheelchair-bound”. The fact that before he was killed by Israel, he was the leader of Hamas, arguably the most extreme and murderous terrorist faction operating in the world, and was directly responsible for planning the deaths of hundreds of Israeli civilians, is completely sanitized from Amnesty’s reports.

Similarly, Amnesty fails to provide sufficient evidence for the familiar claims of Palestinian victimization, such as the absence of “education and medical facilities and other crucial services”, as well as “high unemployment and poverty among the Palestinian population.” Terror and rampant corruption, as documented by the World Bank, as well as other casual factors, are completely ignored in the report.

In the place of credible and verifiable reporting on actual human rights issues, Amnesty’s annual report exploits inflammatory rhetoric such as “war crimes”, “violations of international law”, “excessive use of force”, and “crimes against humanity”. In the absence of clear and consistent criteria by which to measure and apply such terminology, it loses all normative and legal significance. As result, Amnesty’s charge that the IDF killed many Palestinians “in deliberate as well as reckless shooting, shelling and bombardment of densely populated residential areas or as a result of excessive use of force", is without support.

At the same time, the expanded analysis of human rights abuses by the Palestinian Authority and “armed groups” is a welcome step towards correcting Amnesty’s historically unbalanced agenda. This section is significantly more substantive than in previous years, although it still reflects the relative lack of resources devoted to analyzing and reporting on Palestinian abuses, in comparison to Israel.

The disproportionate and excessive condemnations of Israel, particularly given the absence of credible research, demonstrate that Amnesty’s dominant political and ideological framework has not been reversed. The report further erases the distinction between open democratic societies under attack, and despotic totalitarian regimes (including terrorist groups) that use violence to pursue their goals. In another critique of the Amnesty report (article no longer available online), David Forman, founding chair of Rabbis for Human Rights asks, “What about the brutality that has infested too much of the African continent? Or, more to the point – what of the intentional Palestinian murders of innocent Israelis? Are these not ‘crimes against humanity’?”

Ehrlich answers that “in the Israeli case, the core issue for [Amnesty International] is not human rights, but rather the political conflict itself.” The report’s section on Israel continues to focus on highly complex questions such as borders and “occupation”, without background or context, including ongoing warfare and the daily threat of terrorism. Amnesty’s critique of “stringent restrictions on the movements of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories” is another clear reflection of this dominant political agenda, which merely annexes human rights norms.

Such observations are not restricted to Israeli critics. In an editorial on the Amnesty report, the Washington Post observed, “lately the organization has tended to save its most vitriolic condemnations not for the world’s dictators but for the United States.” Similarly, the Wall St. Journal contends that, "It’s old news that Amnesty International is a highly politicized pressure group," but that after releasing the report, Amnesty simply "can’t be taken seriously." Op-eds in papers around the world made similar points (see Melbourne’s The Age).

In the U.S., as in Israel, violations of human rights are the exception, not the norm, and such distortions further exploit human rights rhetoric in the service of narrow political objectives. While democratic governments are not and should not be immune from criticism, this process must be based on credible sources, and avoid political filtering. On both counts, Amnesty International has failed to meet the objectives of its mission statement, as the 2004 report clearly demonstrates.