By Bev Cotton
The internationally renowned journalist, Greg Palast offers the following advice in his 1999 book "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy" - "if you are a member of Amnesty International, quit". Mr. Palast's brush with Amnesty was in a court case in which he was sued after quoting Amnesty research containing allegations against the multinational mining company, Barrick. Amnesty refused to verify their own research in court. As Palast says, "Amnesty wants journalists to report their material. I would say to any journalist that they would be completely, utterly and absolutely insane to ever cite Amnesty again."
Failure to prioritise human rights
Why do increasing numbers of people believe that Amnesty has abandoned the cause of human rights? As Francis Boyle, ex board member of Amnesty International USA - and renowned expert in international law puts it:
"Amnesty International is primarily motivated not by human rights but by publicity. Second comes money... To be sure, if you are dealing with a human rights situation in a country that is at odds with the United States or Britain, it gets an awful lot of attention... But if it's dealing with violations of human rights by the United States, Britain, Israel, then it's like pulling teeth to get them to really do something on the situation".
That was in 2001. A neater solution to this problem has been found by Amnesty since - to issue very little meaningful data at all. Issues from the entire region of the Middle East and North Africa are now channeled through a single Amnesty office, MENA. As its UK director describes it "I should say a little about the campaign I manage here - Crisis & Transition in the Middle East & North Africa (MENA). It’s fair to say it is an ambitious, labyrinthine and long term campaign but when I am asked what it is really about I say “Solidarity with people peacefully demanding change”.
All of which means, well, nothing really. When asked recently why Amnesty International Ireland (AII) had failed to issue any briefings over the past year about a supposedly priority campaign for Zimbabwe, the answer was that the whole organisation was 'still in transition'. In transition to what, exactly? And from what? Meanwhile MENA, originally a military campaign term, serves to bury the vast scale of human rights abuses in Palestine by losing them in a stream of information about a region that includes 523 million people and 6% of the world's population.
As ex Amnesty supporter Paul De Rooij writes in CounterPunch:
"Reading AI’s reports doesn’t reveal why there is a conflict in the area in the first place.... The portrayal of violence is stripped of its context, and historical references are minimal.... The fact that Palestinians have endured occupation, expulsion, and dispossession for many decades, the explanation of why the conflict persists, is nowhere highlighted in its reports".
He concludes, "today, most AI pronouncements range between moral flatulence and moral fraudulence".
Lack of transparency
You would think that transparency would be a cornerstone of a human rights campaign group. However, Amnesty International Ireland has still failed, even after a resolution calling for openness at its 2011 AGM, to publish its staff salaries. The approximately 20 local groups are sending no more than a few thousand euro each to AII annually, and membership subscription internationally is falling after the scandal over the expensive and unexplained sacking of two of Amnesty's senior staff in 2009. When asked by members of the Clonakilty group recently a representative of AII was unable to explain what its sources of funding are, how much they receive and on what it is spent.
Meanwhile AII is running a Mental Health Campaign part funded by Atlantic Philanthropies that bears an uncanny resemblance to the government's rationale for its attempts to reduce services and cut funding. AII threw itself behind government closures of allegedly failing residential centres in the claimed expectation that "care in the community" was a more humane policy. Investing in improving the much needed centres was off the agenda. As was expected by many who depend on them, closures of residential services have gone ahead speedily and efficiently while the corresponding funds for care in the community have not only failed to materialise but existing funding has now been drastically cut.
The popular Amnesty saying "The only thing necessary for the persistence of evil is for enough good people to do nothing" turns out to be not a warning but an instruction. AII claims that its members "set our agenda,....have the opportunity to take action against human rights abuses and ...will be informed of our campaigns". The experience of this ex-member does not bear this out. In a cull of staff apparently necessitated by a failed and expensive property investment, the people who used to update the website at AII were 'lost'. Faced with a lack of information about rights issues in Zimbabwe from AII on what it claimed was a campaign priority for it - and after numerous requests, a local branch member eventually did some research on the situation and presented news items and press reports to the group. Unapologetic about the lack of information, a visiting, paid AII staff member nevertheless told him that in no circumstances should he do such a thing again.
The same AII person was also critical of an article on the Clonakilty group blog that campaigned for the employment of more mental health nurses - one of her Dublin colleagues having earlier demanded that the group take down a blog post about violently enforced deportations in Ireland. The information published about human rights abuses in the latter was verified by eye-witnesses and lawyers, and sources were quoted. An attempt by AII to censor the blog on grounds of inaccuracy therefore failed. The following instruction was sent by Dublin:
"I appreciate the article appeared because of a genuine, compassionate concern about the issue of refugee deportations and this particular incident, but despite the positive intent it is still something we need changed. If the group is ever concerned [that] AI should be taking a position, please feel free to contact us directly and we can advise on what we're doing and what can be said, if anything.....However, in the short term, I would ask you ... to ensure this post is deleted as soon as possible".
The last straw for this member of the Clonakilty group was when a day set aside for discussion by its members was effectively hijacked by the representative from Dublin. The intention had been to define a shared direction for the group that reflected each person's commitment to human rights. The rep, invited to the meeting for reasons this author is unsure of, substantially derailed the original agenda and was emphatic that local groups were only allowed to pursue human rights issues decreed and defined by Dublin, even when no information from Dublin was forthcoming. If true, this reverses the previous, democratic policy of AII which respected the autonomy of its individual groups and their right to challenge any human rights abuses that came to their attention. It is also indicative of where the avowed 'transition' (above) is leading the organisation. A rights campaigner who visited Amnesty in Dublin a few years ago was told that the national organisation would be happy to recommend the campaign in questions but that Dublin did not have the authority to direct groups about which issues they should support, it was up to the individual groups to decide themselves.
The Clonakilty meeting became quite heated when answers to questions about transparency, funding and the setting of campaign priorities in Dublin were not forthcoming. One member said he had protested the lack of information about salaries paid to staff in Dublin by not paying his subscription. He was told he had no right to speak for Amnesty in that case. What the position would be on all the fundraising support he had given was not discussed. There was an awkward moment, however, when other members then confided that they hadn't piad their subscriptions either. Apparently, the only autonomy local groups have left is for fund raising.
Amnesty International Ireland claim their membership is growing, against the international trend. If so, this would not be representative of the Clonakilty group. For a long while it has been the most active Amnesty group in Ireland and was commended at the national AGM in April for its contribution. Nevertheless there have been four resignations in the last year while a number of other members have simply stopped attending.
The curtailment of free and open discussion among members, coupled with Amnesty's frequent dissembling in the face of human rights abuses that warrant its unreserved condemnation, has resulted in the organisation hemorrhaging members, many of us convinced that it is now most of the way to becoming an agent of the very thing it purports to challenge. In Ireland there is also atrociously poor communication from Dublin. Emails and phone calls go unresponded to, requests for receipts have not been not forthcoming and undertakings given are delayed or not met at all. The most worrying aspect of what is happening is that Amnesty's priorities are now transparently synchronous with US foreign policy - noticeably so in parts of the world like Syria and Iran where public opinion is being softened up for an acceptance of a 'justification' for more invasion, occupation and appropriation. Local groups are now being carefully controlled to stay on a centrally dictated message. As Amnesty puts it itself "The denial of the right to freedom of expression goes hand in hand with violations of other rights".