If human rights organizations can no longer tell their own stories,
others will do it for them
BY GITA SAHGAL
Human rights groups cannot tell the story of the times in
which we live. There is a void, where there should be analysis of the
organizational forms and ideological links of western Islamists Salman
Rushdie has said, ‘When people are told that they cannot freely re-examine
the stories of themselves, and the stories within which they live, then
tyranny is not very far away’. Forty nine years ago, this week, Peter
Benenson struck a blow against tyranny by announcing the formation of a
new organization to support forgotten prisoners who were jailed solely for
In end-May Amnesty International started year-long
preparations for a jamboree titled Amnesty cUF 50. From a small group of
activists it has grown into a gigantic global organization. And in many
ways, has come to resemble the forces that it has done so much to oppose.
Its record of handling one of the greatest challenges to its reputation
suggests that it is entirely unable to examine the story of itself or the
story of its times. So difficult is it for Amnesty International to
provide a coherent account of what has happened over the last few months
that it has chosen to provide no account at all.
In his reports to the international executive committee
circulated for ‘transparency’, the interim secretary general Claudio
Cordone, has airbrushed out any mention of the concerns that I forced
Amnesty International to face when I went public with my complaint that
the organisation has sanitized the reputation of Moazzam Begg, a former
Guantanamo detainee. They have treated him as a human rights advocate,
although he champions Anwar al Awlaki and al Timmimi.
Like all tyrants - whether of the right and left – Amnesty
International raised the spectre of an assault on human rights to avoid
answering questions and to imply that Amnesty International was under
attack. This helped shut down internal debate or demands for
accountability from its own staff. At first the managers suggested that
Begg only expressed his experiences of detention and that they did not
promote his views (suggesting that his views fell somewhat short of a
belief in the universality of rights). Soon, they claimed that his views
were indeed universalist but that he supported ‘defensive jihad’ – which
is after all waged to establish systematic discrimination. Amnesty
International felt that this view was not “antithetical to human rights”.
Although he published in a Muslim Brotherhood journal and has associated
with the Jamaat-e -Islami the senior leadership decided to endorse him as
a human rights advocate which they had refrained from doing before the
But at the AIUK AGM, Begg was not mentioned in reports of
a European tour to advocate for the release of the remaining Guantanamo
Bay detainees. Where they had previously had a picture of Begg at the door
of Downing St with Kate Allen, this picture was dropped from the power
point. No wonder, Amnesty is in a fix. They do not know whether they are
valorising Begg or dropping him.
I met Begg recently and told him that I thought that he
had been true to his beliefs but that Amnesty had not been true to theirs.
Nor has Amnesty International acknowledged their debt to Cageprisoners or
the extent of their relationship with the organization. I intend to do
that work for them. Whatever my views on Begg or Cageprisoners, I do not
think that a collective corporate amnesia is the right approach to take
when finding a way forward.
Now they have announced an internal independent review to
discuss criteria for partnership. The reviewers have said that they are
not investigating allegations against Begg, but only looking at procedures
that were followed and to suggest criteria in order that the organization
can manage its reputational risk. Nor will they examine all available
evidence, only any new evidence that might come to light. The problem is
that no-one knows what evidence was examined, but there was plenty that
was ignored. Senior experts well known to Amnesty International were not
consulted, even though at least one wrote to the secretary general
offering to give evidence at the time I was suspended. Could it be that
the leadership would rather that their research and analysis looked shoddy
and incompetent than admit I was right?
Most western human rights and civil liberties
organizations have watched the unfolding crisis in a frozen and complicit
silence. They say nothing because they too have committed similar errors
of judgement, supporting proponents of radical Islam rather than simply
defending their rights. Too often in Britain, entirely legitimate concerns
about racism and the marginalization of Muslims are allied to the
promotion of groups associated with the Jamaat-e-Islami and Muslim
Their programmes of social control such as promotion of
the hijab are supported quite uncritically. The actions of human
rights advocates mirror those of governments from Chechnya to the UK.
Recruit former insurgents or fundamentalists and subcontract them to
provide surveillance and control over the mass of the population. Defeat
one form of fundamentalism by supporting another.
Human rights groups have entirely ignored this story and
as a result they simply cannot tell the story of the times within which we
live. There is a void where there should be analysis of the organizational
forms and ideological links of western Islamists. There is silence on
faith-based initiatives as part of soft ‘counter-terrorism’ strategies.
They cannot accuse governments without accusing themselves.
Even internal dissent is met with expulsion as Marieme
Helie Lucas, the Algerian founder of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, has
recently explained (see CC, March 2010). And that raises the question as
to whether there is a long term determined programme of support within
human rights organizations for the political programme of Islamists.
Those who make this allegation are immediately accused of
supporting torture or arbitrary detention. Shadi Sadr, the courageous
Iranian lawyer who has been sentenced in absentia to lashings and
imprisonment, has pointed out that while Human Rights Watch and Amnesty
International have rushed to condemn the niqab ban in Europe, not a
word has been heard against increasing dress code restrictions imposed by
the state in Iran and accompanied by draconian punishments.
But it is the bland justification that Amnesty works with
everybody including the Catholic Church which has seemed distinctly
unwise. I expect that the Church might object to being put in the same
category as supporters of Salafi jihadi politics. In any case, Amnesty
should have spoken out against the complicity, cover up and abuse of
children by those exercising religious authority. In the event, they
stayed shamefully silent. As one voice, the leaders stood with the
Catholic establishment and ignored Catholic victims.
As Amnesty trundles towards its 50th anniversary, I will
be working with others to ensure that whether Amnesty is covering up or
cleaning up, whether the review provides any answers, the hidden history
of human rights will be put on record. Peter Benenson said that we work in
Amnesty against oblivion. If human rights organizations can no longer tell
their own stories, others will do it for them.
(Gita Sahgal is a former head of the gender unit at
Amnesty International. She left Amnesty International on April 9, 2010 due
to “irreconcilable differences” She is a film maker and writer.)