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Global Petition to Amnesty International: Restoring the Integrity of Human Rights

by Open-Publishing - Thursday 4 March 2010
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Demos-Actions Democracy

As organisations and individuals who stand for and support the universality of human rights, we have noted with concern the suspension of Gita Sahgal, Head of the Gender Unit at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International in London, for questioning Amnesty International’s partnership with individuals whose politics towards the Taliban are ambiguous.

We come from communities that recognize and appreciate the work of Amnesty International in defending human rights and women’s rights around the world. Many of us work closely with Amnesty International in their campaigns at various levels.

We believe that Gita Sahgal has raised a fundamental point of principle which is “about the importance of the human rights movement maintaining an objective distance from groups and ideas that are committed to systematic discrimination”.

This issue of principle is critical at the present moment, with the United States led “War on Terror” leading to the suspension of human rights and increased surveillance over individuals and the body politic. Ironically, the language of human rights and human rights defenders is being taken over by the US/NATO alliance in its efforts to legitimise a re-born imperialism. Equally disturbingly, this language is also being hijacked by organizations that espouse extremist and violent forms of identity-based politics. The space for a position that challenges both these is shrinking, and human rights are becoming hostage to broader authoritarian political agendas, whether from states or communities.

In this context, it is crucial for human rights defenders and organisations to clearly define principles and core values that are non-negotiable. Our commitment to countering, among others, Islamophobia, racism, misogyny and xenophobia should at no time blur our recognition of the authoritarian, often fascist, social and political agendas of some of the groups that suffer human rights abuse at the hands of the big powers.

The broader issue of principle which we raise here, is one which concerns all of us as human rights defenders from different parts of the world. Many of us who work to defend human rights in the context of conflict and terrorism know the importance of maintaining a clear and visible distance from potential partners and allies when there is any doubt about their commitment to human rights. Given the circumstances in which questions regarding the partnership with Cageprisoners appear to have been raised, we feel that Amnesty International should have refrained from providing them with a platform. It should have been possible for Amnesty International to campaign against the fundamental human rights abuses that have occurred at Guantanamo and elsewhere without making alliances that compromise Amnesty International’s core values, just as other human rights organisations have done.

History has repeatedly shown us that anti-democratic organisations can and do manipulate information and their own self-representation for narrow political advantage. In any situation of ambiguity, we feel that the benefit of doubt should have been given to the expert staff members of Amnesty International. We feel that in this instance there has been a lack of respect for the opinions expressed by Gita Sahgal, who is a senior member of staff, and a critical failure of internal democratic functioning at Amnesty’s International Secretariat.

What is needed is democratic debate, internally as well as in the public sphere, on the human rights principles that should guide Amnesty International and all of us in determining our alliances. We have to ensure that the partnerships we form are true to the core human rights values of equality and universality. Our accountability in this area, internally as well as externally, to all our diverse constituencies, cannot be put at risk. We need a rigorous examination of potential partners. Given the complex situations we work in, what is needed is open debate, not a censoring and closure of discussion on these important issues. Shifting the debate and turning this into a discussion about ‘Othering’ and ‘demonisation of Guantanamo prisoners’ is merely obscuring the real issues at stake. It puts at risk the work that Amnesty International is attempting to do in Afghanistan and other areas. Unfortunately, it also fails to answer the very serious questions that have been posed to which we are also seeking answers.

In the present context of ‘constructive engagement’ with the Taliban, as proposed at the recent Conference on Afghanistan in London, it is our obligation to ensure that we do not barter away the human rights of minorities and of women for ‘peace’. There are enough recent examples of such attempts which show that these deals are a chimera and do not result in either peace or security. Whatever the nature of ‘engagement’ with authoritarian groups, and whatever partnerships and alliances we enter into with individuals or organisations involved in such ‘engagement’, the positive conditionalities and checks based on human rights, which are universal and indivisible, must remain central and non-negotiable for human rights organizations and defenders.

We call on Amnesty International to clearly and publicly affirm its commitment to the above in all areas of its work; and to demonstrate its obligation to make itself publicly accountable, as it has so often demanded of others.

We extend our solidarity and support to Gita Sahgal, who is well known and widely respected for her principled activism on human rights internationally, for her courageous stand in raising this issue within and outside Amnesty International.

Drafted and initiated by:

* Dr. Amrita Chhachhi, Women, Gender and Development Program, Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, member Kartini Asia Network of Women/Gender Studies
* Sara Hossain, Advocate, Supreme Court of Bangladesh
* Sunila Abeysekera, INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre, Sri Lanka

To sign and endorse the above statement go to:

Forum posts

  • Amnesty International, Moazzam Begg and Gita Sahgal
    3 March 2010, 12:11PM

    Widney Brown on the case of Guantánamo detainee Binyam Mohamed

    An article in London’s Sunday Times on 7 February 2010, Amnesty International is ‘damaged’ by Taliban link, has triggered three weeks of public controversy. Broadcast and print media, respected commentators, human rights activists and others have joined in, often on the basis of inaccurate or incomplete information.

    At the heart of the controversy is an important issue: how do human rights organisations work with others, and how do they give voice to victims, without promoting all of their views?
    It is a familiar debate within Amnesty International. We have been weighing relationships with individuals and organisations for decades. We are regularly accused of mixing with the wrong sort, or of being manipulated, or of having a secret agenda. We do not claim to always have the best answers, and we know from experience that judgment calls in this area are difficult.
    There are victims with whom we would not associate, while unreservedly campaigning against any abuses of their rights. For example, we denounced the waterboarding of Khaled Sheikh Muhammad, the Guantánamo detainee accused of the 9/11 attacks and other atrocities. But we would never share a platform with someone like him, who openly espouses an ideology predicated on hatred and the killing of civilians - in short, views that are clearly antithetical to human rights. The answer in this case is easy.

    But in other cases the answer is not easy. For example, should we not work against the death penalty with an influential actor like the Catholic Church because we disagree with their stand on women’s reproductive rights and homosexuality? There are valid arguments for and against. We chose to work with the Catholic Church against the death penalty.
    Our joint advocacy for the Guantánamo detainees with Moazzam Begg and his group, Cageprisoners, has earned us accusations of being pro-Taliban and promoting violence and discrimination against women. Most recently we spoke together with him in a coalition of NGOs to persuade European states to receive Guantánamo detainees who were cleared for release but risk further human rights abuses if returned to their home countries.
    Moazzam Begg is one of the first detainees to have been released from Guantánamo and to disclose information when much of what was going on in the camp was shrouded in secrecy. He speaks powerfully from personal experience about the abuses there. He advocates effectively detainees’ rights to due process, and does so within the same framework of universal human rights standards that we are promoting. All good reasons, we think, to be on the same platform when speaking about Guantánamo.

    Moazzam Begg and others in his group Cageprisoners also hold other views on whether one should talk to the Taliban or on the role of jihad in self-defence. Do such views mean we should not work with these people on a particular issue? Our answer to that question is no, even if we may disagree with them - and indeed those of us working to close Guantánamo have a range of beliefs about religion, secularism, armed struggle, peace and negotiations. The rest of what we have heard against Moazzam Begg since 7 February include many distortions, innuendos, and "guilt by association" to which he has responded for himself. If any evidence emerges that Moazzam Begg or Cageprisoners have promoted views antithetical to human rights, or have been involved in even more sinister activities, Amnesty International would disown its joint advocacy. But to disown our work with them on the basis of what we have been presented so far would betray basic principles of fairness which are also at the core of what we stand for.

    The controversy since 7 February has also generated perceptions in parts of the world that Amnesty International is somehow weak on women’s rights and "soft" on armed groups like the Taliban. This is ludicrous. We started a major global campaign to end violence against women at the same time as we were fighting for the closure of Guantánamo. We consistently document and condemn abuses by Taliban or other Islamist armed groups wherever they occur. Only last month, at the time of the London conference on Afghanistan, we warned that human rights, including women’s rights, must not be traded away during any reconciliation talks with the Taliban. Our full record of work on such abuses is available for everyone to judge.
    Finally, the choices we make on how best to work with other people and organisations are informed by frank internal debate. We are an organisation of activists with strong and different views on how best to achieve our common goals; dissent is inevitable, indeed welcome. Decisions are reviewed.

    Gita Sahgal, the head of our London-based Gender Unit, who went to the Sunday Times with her concerns about Amnesty International’s association with Moazzam Begg, has contributed significantly to Amnesty International’s gender work, but she was not promoted in our organisation with the promise that she could "clean up this Begg situation" as claimed in the Wall Street Journal on 25 February. She wrote her 30 January memo, cited in The Sunday Times, at the request of Amnesty International’s senior management, after she raised her concerns verbally. While her concerns were not new, we nevertheless decided to look again into the issues she raised and informed her of that intention. We regret that she decided to go to The Sunday Times only a few days later.

    We suspended Gita Sahgal in order to make clear that she was no longer speaking on behalf of Amnesty International once she made her disagreement public and in a context of misrepresentations in the media. However, she remains employed on full pay pending an investigation according to our negotiated employment policies, which provide her with every opportunity to make her case. In order to protect all those involved in a personnel matter, our policies include a requirement of confidentiality on all parties. This is why we are speaking about this issue only to the extent required to respond to inaccurate information in the public domain.

    Amnesty International is committed to working in partnership and giving voice to the victims, while maintaining impartiality and distinguishing between defending people’s rights and promoting their views. Getting those judgments right is important and remains as challenging today as ever, particularly on divisive issues such as terrorism and counter-terrorism. We regularly evaluate our work also in this respect, and in so doing we very much welcome the comments and advice of many in the human rights movement who share our goals and challenges.

    Widney Brown
Senior Director of International Law and Policy
Amnesty International