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.