This year Amnesty International marked its 50th anniversary since it was founded by English lawyer Peter Benenson after an article he had published in The Observer newspaper about some political prisoners in Portugal, then under the Salazar fascist dictatorship.
Despite a mention of AI’s ‘mandate’ in a current Wikipedia article on the organization, this in fact was scrapped some years ago. It was quite specific and narrowed AI’s mission to acting on behalf of prisoners of conscience who had not used or advocated violence, also it campaigned against unfair trials and against the use of torture and the death penalty. In the 1990s it included LGBT people who had been imprisoned because of their sexual orientation. This last part of the mandate took years to be adopted because of opposition from AI sections in many developing countries who said homosexuality was ‘against their culture’.
From my perspective, and I worked for the international headquarters of the organization for many years, these sections in developing countries have been largely responsible for the weakening of AI’s influence and for scrapping its very important mandate which kept it focused on what it could do best: fighting for political prisoners, those imprisoned because of their sexual orientation, because of unfair trials and also fighting for abolition of the death penalty and against the use of torture.
The laughable thing about the scrapping of the mandate is that staff on the front desk where I worked at the time, dealing with visitors and people who called in by phone and email, were not told of the scrapping of the mandate. I found out by accident over a year later after telling many people who phoned in or called that their problem was not covered by AI’s mandate. True the relevant decisions were published in various AI documents, but we on the front desk had little opportunity to browse through pages and pages of these.
If you go on AI’s website you will find this general statement of their aims and mission:
Amnesty International is a global movement of more than 3 million supporters, members and activists in more than 150 countries and territories who campaign to end grave abuses of human rights.
Our vision is for every person to enjoy all the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards.
We are independent of any government, political ideology, economic interest or religion and are funded mainly by our membership and public donations.
Now this is very vague and, in my opinion, it has completely destroyed AI’s once unique role of campaigning on behalf of political prisoners and allied issues.
For instance, included in the human rights AI is now supposed to be embracing are those in the economic and social field. This, apparently, was in response to views expressed by some sections in the developing world who argued that until they enjoyed full economic and social rights they could not properly address issues such as political prisoners. In other words, people imprisoned because of their political beliefs were not the number one priority.
My view is that people who felt this way should not be in the organization at all, let alone deciding its policies without much responsibility for implementing them. There are plenty of other organizations able and equipped to deal with these economic and social rights including charities like Oxfam, War on Want, various trade unions and political parties. AI was simply not able to campaign effectively on these issues, nor on a host of other human rights such as universal access to health care in the developing countries through the availability of free or cheap medication, etc. All excellent things to campaign for, but should an organization like AI which, as it name implied, was established for a very specific purpose be getting involved in a wide range of issues like that for which it had neither the expertise nor financial resources to do much about?
The unique effectiveness of AI in its original guise was a letter writing and publicity campaign focusing on political prisoners, including highly publicizing individual prisoners, which greatly embarrassed the governments concerned and often led to release of the prisoners concerned, or at the very least to better treatment.
By adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in full as part of its mission AI set itself an impossible task given its limited resources, and also in my view greatly weakened its effectiveness.
Take economic and social rights, for instance. AI was not in a position to do much in a practical way about this issue. It was not a political party, a trade union nor a charity with the resources to distribute food, medicine, build homes, etc. in the areas where these things were needed. While a government may well be embarrassed by world publicity about individual political prisoners, the use of torture, about unfair trials, etc. and may well be prompted to act accordingly to rectify these injustices, can these same governments really be expected to take any notice of AI when it says people are not getting enough wages, food or shelter and the government ought to do something about it?
For myself and my colleagues on the front desk and switchboard it made our job impossible. If someone rang or came in complaining they were not being paid enough, were we supposed to refer them to the research team of that country to campaign for their wages to be increased? What about the drunk who wandered in one day from Rosebery Avenue, can of beer in hand, and complained to me on Reception that Lord Rosebery had not left him any money in his Will? Was I supposed to take that up as an ‘economic and social right’ he had been denied? Where were we supposed to draw the line?
It was ironic that just as the Soviet bloc with its political prisoners collapsed, AI decided to adopt the Soviet version of human rights itself: the right to a job, to free health care, to financial security, etc. All economic and social rights the Soviet Union and its allies prioritized over political rights such as freedom of speech.
To make matters even worse at the time of 9/11 and the threat of terrorism from Al Quaida and other Islamic extremists, AI had a CEO from an Islamic country who made a statement comparing the US imprisonment facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, housing many political prisoners from the Islamic world, to a Soviet gulag. This immediately discredited AI in the eyes of many Americans, however illegal and unjustified the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay was. This sort of statement should certainly never have been made from someone from an Islamic country. In the days of the Cold War AI made certain that criticisms of Soviet policy were not made by Americans and vice versa. There was also the ‘own country’ rule which restricted members from campaigning on behalf of political prisoners in their own country. These things were to insure impartiality and also, in the case of the ‘own country’ rule, to protect members themselves who otherwise might be in danger of arrest and becoming political prisoners themselves.
AI is now all things to all people, and consequently has, in my view, greatly weakened its effectiveness and the once unique character and mission of the organization has disappeared.
Other organizations have suffered a similar fate. When the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, for example, started to get involved in issues like the Vietnam and subsequent non-nuclear wars, and in campaigning against the peaceful uses of nuclear power, it was diluting its main message and alienating some of its support. The original mission of CND and its predecessor, the Direct Action Committee for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons Tests, was around the issue of nuclear weapons and in particular British nuclear weapons (because CND was a British organization). It called for unilaterial nuclear disarmament by Britain as an initiative to world nuclear disarmament.
It is true that various wars could have escalated into a nuclear confrontation, and also that the main reason for many nuclear power stations was to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, but nevertheless getting side-tracked by these other issues deflected CND from its main objective and it also lost a lot of support because of this. Nowadays CND organizes very few national demonstrations against Britain’s nuclear weapons and contents itself with joining in demonstrations organized by the Stop The War Coalition, mainly about the conventional wars and military intervention going on in Afghanistan and Iraq. These really have nothing to do with nuclear weapons or Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system.
It is, in my view, high time both AI and CND got back to their original missions and left the other issues, however related to the main ones, to organizations more equipped to effectively deal with them. AI is not a trade union or political party, neither is CND. Both are essentially single-issue campaigns, and this was always their main strength, gaining them maximum support on these focused aims. Diluting their aims meant also diluting their support and effectiveness.