In defence of Amnesty International. A response to Nick Cohen.

An edited version of this article was published on the Liberal Conspiracy blog.

Nick Cohen held nothing back in this Sunday’s Observer as he declared that Amnesty International (AI) had ‘lost its way. His attack varied from the organisational to the ideological but always ended with teeth dug firmly into the jugular of the most established human rights organisation in the world.

If you were to work your way through the red mist that hangs over his article you might, at times, find crumbs of real issues and debates – all of which are already taking place within the Amnesty International membership but to which his article adds little. Indeed, the misleading and at times factually wrong nature of Cohen’s claims makes it impossible for a neutral reader to disentangle his hyperbole from genuine debate.

His opening paragraph lays down the foundations for his meandering ideological attack as he accuses Amnesty of both suffering from a ‘post-colonial guilt’ and seeing ‘freedom as a bourgeoisie illusion’.

To simplify this argument in such a flippant way is to undermine the complexity of human rights theory.  These accusations strike at the heart of the debate between and universal absolutist understandings of human rights versus a more relativistic approach. The assertion that AI has fallen victim ‘from both sides’ misses its purposeful allegiance with the argument for universal, indivisible rights.

There is a very real discussion here that is raging within the AI membership. How you reconcile Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ECSR) – which could be argued to be relative to their surroundings – with AI’s traditional absolutist approach. AI would argue that there is no distinction, many members would and do. These sorts of subtleties though find little time in Cohen’s article.

Cohen moves effortlessly in the first two paragraphs from the ideological to the organisational attacking AI saying:

it is a wreck. Staff have gone on strike in both its British and international offices to protest against the management’s decision to sack workers campaigning to defend prisoners on death row, women’s rights, gay rights and refugees”.

Indeed, AI staff have gone on strike and I have blogged about why they have here. I see no reason though for AI to apologise for moving its resources in an effort to globally rebalance its work.

Again though, the debate around growing globally and how this affects national sections is one that is fiercely debated within AI but Cohen seems happy to skip over it. There are many who disagree with me and feel that money raised in the UK should be spent in the UK, others think it is only right and proper to spread influence into geographic areas where traditionally AI has not had a significant presence.

Instead of taking on these interesting and nuanced points, Cohen goes for jugular. He quotes UNITES’s call for Kate Allen to stand down and then inexplicably connects that to Irene Khan’s recent ‘£500,000 pay off’ as Secretary General of AI.

I will not defend the outrageous actions of Irene Khan, nor the mismanagement that resulted in her leaving in the way she did. What I will do is clarify Cohen’s remarks. To start, he puts his comments into the plural “Amnesty’s directors receive £500,000 payoffs”. As far as I am aware only one Secretary General (Irene Khan) has received £500,000.

In addition, this £500,000 was not totally a ‘pay-off’. It included the current years pay and pension contributions. The actual ‘pay-off’ part of the sum was much smaller – although still outrageous.

Equally, it represents less than 1% of the annual budget, so to continue Cohen’s jumble sale analogy – it represents 1 pence of every pound raised being misspent (and that is a one too many).

What Cohen fails to say, is that at the time – the UK director Kate Allen was one of the fiercest critics of this whole debacle and spoke clearly and eloquently on the behalf of the UK membership.  Connecting the Irene Khan debacle with a call for Kate Allen to step down is unfair and misleading.

Cohen though is clearly not worrying about whose toes he is stepping on. He slips effortlessly back into his meandering ideological argument connecting AI financial situation with an accusation that “it is afflicted with a mental deformation: the racism of low expectations; the belief that human rights are “western” rights”. Again, this simply could not be further from the truth. If anything AI is too rigid in its belief that human rights are universal and applicable to all. Cohen offers no support to this statement.

Cohen moves on to take issue with AI’s expansion of its mandate, to include working on issues such as death penalty cases. Cohen argues that these causes AI has adopted (through a slow democratic process) are a ‘hodgepodge’ of campaigns that have resulted in AI work just being a ‘rich man’s self-indulgence’.  This ‘hodgepodge’ he describes partly reflects AI internal democracy (any member can bring a motion to their national AGM who will in turn take some policy ideas to the International Council Meeting to be voted on). It also however reflects AI growing capacity to work on ‘the full spectrum’ of human rights. Some in AI consider this a natural evolution for a human rights organisation.

Personally I see nothing contentious in AI adopting the death penalty as a campaign and developing it as a specialism. Indeed the last 40 years has shown us that AI has played a central role in the fight against the death penalty which has seen it almost eradicated in most of the world. This is a record in which I am proud to have played a small part of.

In what is the first logical step in Cohen’s article he connects AI growing mandate with the much more recent move ‘grow in the global south’ – an admirable goal. He then connects this with AI’s work on economic social and cultural rights, such as the right to education.

Cohen seems to see (or wishes to present no argument for) why AI might be working on issues such as the right to education. Instead he comments “Human rights “for the vast majority of the world’s population don’t mean very much”…Freedom of expression means nothing to a man who can’t read”. You can hear him sneering as he adds, “Poverty, not authoritarianism, was the evil that Amnesty must face”.

As a standalone sentence, ‘Freedom of expression means nothing to a man who can’t read’ makes a lot of sense. As I stated earlier though, there is a very real debate within AI membership about the scope of AI mandate and whether or not it should stretch to ESCR. Again though, Cohen shows no willing to dwell on such important questions.

Instead Cohen skips to another internal disagreement that resulted in the departure of Gita Saghal, the then head of AI gender unit. Cohen states she left because “she criticised its [AI’s} alliances with misogynist Islamists”. By ‘misogynist Islamists’ he means Mozzam Begg, a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner, who now runs the organisation ‘Caged Prisoners’.

I share some, but not all of, Gita’s concerns. Unlike her however, I feel confident within AI for room to debate these issues. The very idea that it was as simple as Gita being ‘forced out’ by AI though is simply misleading. Equally, the assertion that Cohen leaves unchallenged that ‘AI is in cohort with misogynist Islamists’ is also misleading. A curtsey glance at AI work on women’s rights across the Arab world will give evidence of that.

As Cohen’s article drags on so it gets more and more alarmist. He quotes an anonymous source ‘within AI’ that claims “sustained and strategic campaigning that we do with partner organisations, the UK government, the UK public, etc, will end“. This is simply not true. Sustained and strategic campaigning in the UK will remain at the heart of AIUK’s work. Simple.

Cohen finishes with a rallying cry for members to not ‘take it’. And, to an extent, I agree. If you are a member, research these issues beyond Cohen’s misleading snapshots and then come along to the AGMs and debate and vote.

That is how a membership organisation works!  This is how we will ensure AI is able to do what it does best – fight for human rights and shed a light onto some of the darkest situations around the world.


Filed under Human rights

14 responses to “In defence of Amnesty International. A response to Nick Cohen.

  1. Pingback: Amnesty International responds to Panorama’s accusations | Hynd's Blog

  2. gruff billy

    Everybody likes to have high and mighty reasoning about the trouble at AI International and AI UK. Clearly people have little understanding or are muddle by management speak about the problems. Here it is in black and white. Sorry it’s a cut and paste but I’m busy.
    Vote of no confidence and call for the Secretary General and Senior Leadership Team members to step down

    For the first time in its history, the union at the International Secretariat (IS) feels it has no choice but to pass a resolution stating that it has no confidence in the Secretary General and the Senior Leadership Team to manage and lead Amnesty International in the defence and promotion of human rights globally, or to maintain good industrial relations with staff. For those reasons, it calls for the Secretary General and Senior Leadership Team members to step down.

    The union has lost all confidence in senior management because it lacks integrity, competence, transparency and accountability, and appears to have lost sight of the values that gave birth to Amnesty International and that continue to inspire the movement worldwide.

    The organization’s ability to conduct research and campaigning in defence of human rights has been undermined, and the organization faces a threat to its very existence.

    These failings have been particularly revealed through:

     Gross strategic incompetence in managing change processes, particularly Moving Closer to the Ground, which has left affected staff in limbo and facing highly stressful situations for unnecessarily long periods, some for over two years, and led to spiralling costs, repeated missed deadlines, haphazard planning and policies, opaque decision-making, contradictory or woefully inadequate internal communications and a confused vision of objectives – all of which has hampered or harmed our human rights work.

     Financial incompetence, for which staff (excluding Senior Leadership Team) are being asked to pay with cuts to their pay and benefits, and for which Amnesty International is paying with ill-thought-out cuts to jobs and core work.

     Wasting money as a result of hiring expensive consultants rather than using in-house expertise or recruiting staff in a timely fashion, and poor planning.

     Rapid and inappropriate corporatization of Amnesty International and the adoption of fundraising methods previously eschewed, putting at risk the values and reputation of the organization.

     Inability and failure to adequately consult with Amnesty International members and partners on the likely effects of decisions, and the disregarding of the professional advice of International Secretariat staff, partner organizations and human rights NGOs outside the UK when consulting over options to decentralize the International Secretariat.

     Inability to retain and maintain the trust of talented staff with sound expertise and judgement at all levels of the organization.

    The failings in relation to industrial relations have been evidenced by:

     Repeated breaches of agreements on staff terms and conditions that have been reached with the union, leading to abysmal industrial relations, staff demoralization and large amounts of time and therefore money wasted in needless meetings between managers and staff to resolve disputes.

     Threats to the union, including a threat to derecognize the union and the current threat to terminate all contracts and impose new terms and conditions.

     Falsely presenting the union as being opposed to decentralization of the International Secretariat and other change.

     By unilaterally calling a halt to negotiations on the redundancy policy and seeking to coerce the Union into accepting management’s draft policy under the threat of imposition, management has breached international and regional standards on the right to collective bargaining that Amnesty International calls on governments to uphold, including ILO Convention No. 98 and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

    Because the union believes that the incompetence and failings of the current leadership represents a real and current threat to the future effectiveness and existence of Amnesty International, the union will publicise this vote of no confidence and send it to the Secretary General, the Senior Leadership Team, the International Executive Committee, staff in Sections, Amnesty International members, volunteers and supporters, calling for their support. We also call on the International Executive Committee to exercise its responsibility and hold the Secretary Gen and senior management to account


  3. Marcia Lieberman

    Dear Mr. Hynd (I couldn’t find your first name). Please start by getting the fundamental facts straight. Amnesty was founded on the basis of a narrow, precise mandate: free prisoners of conscience, demand fair and prompt trials, stop and end torture without reservation (meaning in all cases), and opposition to the death penalty, again without reservation. Whoever wrote that Amnesty later added the death penalty as an issue is wrong. Opposition to the death penalty was one of our core issues from the very start. .
    I stumbled on your blog somehow, in the course of reading posts within the fierce debate being carried on within AIUSA. If some in the UK conflate what is going on in AI-UK with what is going on in AI-international, things look somewhat different on our side of the pond. Parts of the membership of AIUSA are in open rebellion against what many see as a coup by our new AIUSA Executive Director, changing us from a grass-roots organization to a tightly controlled, top-down bureaucracy, It’s all connected, at the root, with the direction now taken by AI international, but we’re righting on our home ground right now.
    Marcia Lieberman, Providence, Rhode Island, USA


    • @Marcia – I try to research my articles the best I can before I publish. Amnesty was founded in 1961 and I believe only started to work on the death penalty in 1968 (see When was AIUSA founded? – If it was after 1968,then yes,since AIUSA’s start it would have been working on death penalty.

      Also, you are of course right to point out that there are national sections all around the world who are healthy and working well.


  4. Pingback: How Nick Cohen misleads in his attack on Amnesty International | Liberal Conspiracy

  5. eol11

    I wonder when you have actually debated within Amnesty the issues raised by Gita Sahgal? Can you refer to at least one discussion on the actual issues she raised as opposed to all staff meetings on strategies for avoiding reputational risk or guidelines on partnerships? I have been working in the IS for the last 5 years or so and I can’t remember an internal debate about the actual issues she raised, neither before, nor after Gita’s departure.


    • Depends if you mean formally or informally. You are right in the sense that I have never seen an AGM motion (although anyone would have been free to propose one). But in and around the conf bars and cafes there was, believe me, no shortage of debate.


  6. organic cheeseboard

    Cohen states she left because “she criticised its [AI’s} alliances with misogynist Islamists”.

    This, of course, isn’t really true either. She was ‘forced out’ because when she lost an internal debate on AI’s hosting Begg among others, she ran to the papers and criticised her employers. Say what you like about the merits of her stance on this, but she did not leave because of her criticism of Begg, she left because she publicly criticsed her employers in the press having failed to convince them she was right.


  7. Chris Usher

    Nick Cohens assertion that amnesty believes human rights are western rights perhaps betrays his personal view of what constitute human rights, as he then goes on to complain about Amnesty taking up a “hotch potch” of issues such as the death penalty (first addressed by AI in 1968) the first campaign against torture was not until 1972, a full four years after cohen implies that we had begun to lose our way. He tries to say that our move to work more in the south is not because of the horrific human rights abuses that take place there, which he acknowledges, but a betrayal of other victims of human rights abuses (presumably not in the south) and the reason is western liberal post colonial angst – in fact it is much more because we have listened to the voices of our members in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America explaining how the people they talk to don’t understand why we can make a noise about a man sentenced to death in the USA and not make a noise about millions of people disempowered, by poverty, alack of education and the overriding need to find food and water for their children to the extent that they have no idea that their government is also abusing their right to free expression, to freedom of assembly and access to justice. We need to address the situations of both. Last but not least, he says we arent short of money because our memebrship is growing – is he living in a fanciful world where he believes that the new supporters who make up the growing membership in the global south are in a position to sign up to a direct debit of £5 a month? WE are short of money, because our ambition for human rights ALWAYS outsrips our budget, and I for one hope it always will – now maybe NC will explain what on earth he menas by he means by “the racism of low expectations” – I think Amnesty members the world over have anything but low expectations


  8. Jane Salmonson

    Well said Steve. A good response to a cheap easy attack. Jane


  9. Kate

    The members of AIUK are calling an Emergency General Meeting. I hope you’ll go along to it.


    • Disenfranchised?

      Well, I’ve spent the last hour trying to find out how to lodge my proxy vote AGAINST the 7 resolutions (as I’m not able to attend the meeting) and have failed miserably. So my vote will not count.
      Details are given on the AIUK site for appointing the proposers as proxies (I assume that would only apply if you voted for .. particularly given the bitterness of the debate here .. but not against). No details are given of how to appoint a proxy to vote against. I cannot find a local group that is prepared to take a stand on the EGM motions.
      From my angle, this EGM looks like a stitchup of those proposing the motions.


  10. Pingback: No, Mr Cohen, Amnesty is not fit to fight on anyone’s behalf | RIGHTS in context DERECHOS en contexto

  11. Edward

    Great and very insightful article!


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