The majority of Amnesty’s publications1 are issued by the International Secretariat (IS), which has the largest research staff. Within the IS, however, there appears to be no consistent decision-making process regarding the topics covered. Decisions (whether ad-hoc or based on some amorphous guidelines) that reflect and determine the allocation of research resources are entirely hidden from members.
A 2007 study published in the Journal of Peace Research on Amnesty’s priorities, conducted by Howard Ramos, James Ron, and Oskar Thoms, confirmed that the media significantly influences NGOs’ priority-setting: “many social movement scholars” believe that “the most influential activists are those capable of packaging their concerns in ways that appeal to the media.”2 In a 2009 article, Ron and Ramos argued that human rights “watchdogs feel compelled to respond to media interest. Supply rises with demand; the more journalists who ask about a country, the more information watchdogs will supply.”3
This “feedback loop” creates “the virtuous (or vicious) cycles that drive public attention.”4 As a result, media focus is a major driver of Amnesty’s research agenda.5 Amnesty also uses media interest in a particular conflict as a fundraising tool, noting that obtaining donations was “easiest when AI has an urgent case backed up by strong testimonies and images.”6
Areas that receive minor media attention, such as conflicts in Central Africa, where mass killings take place with appalling frequency, are given far less attention than issues that receive a great deal of political and media attention. In the words of Ron and Ramos, “neglected countries,” therefore, are “simply too small, poor, or unnewsworthy to inspire much media interest. With few journalists urgently demanding information about Niger, it ma[kes] little sense to invest substantial reporting and advocacy resources there.”7 One senior Amnesty official summed up this attitude, “’You can work all you like on Mauritania, but the press couldn’t give a rat’s ass.’”8
Amnesty’s neglect of the most egregious human rights violations was evident in December 2008 – January 2009, when more than 600 villagers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were killed by the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony. Amnesty made only one apparent reference to these massacres.9 In contrast, Amnesty issued daily statements and numerous publications condemning the Israeli response to Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza during this same period.
Similarly, closed dictatorships in much of the Middle East, where human rights violations are daily occurrences and part of the regime’s control mechanism, receive only minor attention from Amnesty. In one example, it soft-pedaled abuses in Qatar against migrant and domestic workers: the International Trade Union Confederation estimates that at least 4,000 workers will die as a result of the 2022 World Cup, scheduled to be hosted in Qatar. Since 2010, more than 1,200 citizens of Nepal and India have died.10 Yet, in the face of such horrible abuses, Shetty praised Qatar because it has “been quite open to Amnesty’s criticism and recommendations.”11
Within Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) section, Israel receives a disproportionality large share of condemnations. This reflects a combination of media interest, ideology, and political alliances, particularly in the context of UN human rights mechanisms dominated by the Islamic bloc.
Rankings from Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization, while not flawless, provide a general sense of the human rights situation in a country. The following table shows the countries ranked worst12 in 2013 – 2014 on both “political rights” and “civil liberties” rubrics. Amnesty’s publications on the country in the same year follow. Israel, which ranked well on both scales, gained more attention in terms of overall publications than most of the “worst of the worst.”
Freedom House Rankings and Amnesty Reporting 2013-201413
|Country||Political Rights 2013||Civil Liberties 2013||Amnesty documents and reports 2013||Political Rights 2014||Civil Liberties 2014||Amnesty documents and reports 2014 (Through November 30, 2014)|
|Israel||2||2||40 (Amnesty documents categorized as "Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory)||1||2||61|
|West Bank||6||5||17 (Amnesty documents categorized as "Palestinian Authority"||6||5||15|
|Gaza||7||6||n/a (Amnesty does not report separately on Gaza)||7||6||n/a|
|Central African Republic||5||5||22||7||7||36|
Between 2005 and 2013, Amnesty issued 580 publications that focused on Israel and the OPT (the term used by Amnesty for the West Bank and Gaza). While Egypt can be seen to have undergone a broadly comparative level of scrutiny to Israel during this period (720 publications), in practice 68% of those publications were compiled between 2011 and 2013, when the events of the so-called Arab Spring were already grabbing headlines in the West. From 2005-2013, Amnesty produced 760 publications on Syria’s – 59% were published between 2011 and 2013.
After distinguishing between “Urgent Action Items” (short and quickly assembled items) and ”Reports,” which reflect a much greater investment in time and resources, Amnesty’s focus on Israel becomes even clearer. From 2005 – 2013, 52 reports were published on Israel. When these reports are examined individually, it becomes clear that, of all countries in the region, Amnesty focused the greatest level of research on Israel. While a comparable number of reports were published on Iran and Iraq, in terms of report length and depth, more pages are devoted to Israel. The gap is widened if documents focused on Coalition troops in Iraq – which concern Westerners and not Iraqis – are discounted.
Amnesty’s obsessive focus on Israel belittles Israel’s democratic process, independent judiciary, and dozens of Israeli civil society organizations that monitor and report on alleged human rights violations there – a situation that is unique among the 18 countries within Amnesty’s MENA region. Had it not been for the Arab uprisings that began in 2011, this anomaly would have been even starker.
- Amnesty categorizes publications in their Library as: “Reports,” “Press Materials,” “Urgent Actions,” “Audio/Video,” “Event,” and “Other.”
- Howard Ramos, James Ron, and Oskar N. T. Thoms, “Shaping the Northern Media’s Human Rights Coverage, 1986–2000,” Journal of Peace Research, vol. 44, no. 4 (2007) p 385-406, available at http://jamesron.com/documents/scholarly-2007-northern-media.pdf at 398.
- James Ron, Howard Ramos, “Why Are the United States and Israel at the Top of Human Rights Hit Lists?” Foreign Policy, November 3, 2009 available at http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/11/03/are_human_rights_groups_biased?page=0,1.
- Ron and Ramos 2009.
- Section discussing articles by Ramos, Ron and Thoms (2007) and Ron and Ramos (2009) excerpted in part from Anne Herzberg and Gerald Steinberg (ed.) (2013) “Second Class Rights: How Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch Fail Women in the Middle East” NGO Monitor, available at http://www.ngo-monitor.org/article/second_class_rights_how_amnesty_international_human_rights_watch_fail_women_in_the_middle_east at 33.
- Amnesty International, July 2013“International Issues News # 30 (July 2013): Building a culture of philanthropy in AI,” available at http://www.amnesty.org.uk/sites/default/files/iin_jul2013_1.pdf.
- Ron and Ramos 2009.
- Ramos, Ron and Thoms (2007) at 401.
- Amnesty International, “DRC: Governments launching offensives against armed groups must take precautions to avoid civilian casualties,” January 22, 2009, available at http://www.amnesty.org/en/for-media/press-releases/drc-governments-launching-offensives-against-armed-groups-must-take-prec.
- International Trade Union Confederation “The Case Against Qatar, Host of the FIFA 2022 World Cup”, March 2014 available at http://www.ituc-csi.org/ituc-special-report-the-case.
- “Salil Shetty: ‘Speaking truth to power’” Talk to Al Jazeera, February 10, 2014 available at http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/talktojazeera/2014/02/salil-shetty-speaking-truth-power-201427102725815233.html.)
- 1 is the best, 7 the worst
- Document and report counts as of December 1, 2014. Amnesty frequently updates their library.