A non-sequitur about Amnesty

by Chris Bertram on May 28, 2004

My post the other day about Amnesty International generated some comments, as I expected. It also led to Jacob Levy over at the Volokh Conspiracy getting excited over the following statement by AI:

AI is independent of any government, political ideology, economic interest or religion. It does not support or oppose any government or political system, nor does it support or oppose the views of the victims whose rights it seeks to protect. It is concerned solely with the impartial protection of human rights.

Now I happen to think that’s a reasonable thing for an organization like Amnesty to say. Libertarian Cain and Socialist Abel may disagree on a lot of things. Cain believes that socialized medicine is the first step on the road to serfdom and Abel believes that the capitalist system inevitably leads to exploitation and oppression. No matter. They can work together to protest against torture, extrajudical killing and so on—which they agree are bad things. An organization that insisted the everyone sign up to an analysis of underlying causes would be sectarian and ineffective. But because the smart thing for an organization like Amnesty to do is to stay out of the business of root causes, that doesn’t mean it is committed to the positive view that Jacob now attributes to it in a further post. To whit:

I emphasized the organization’s institutional stance that no system of government is preferable to any other, that human rights abuses just kind of happen rather than being matters of official policy in some cases and not in others. This requires a pose of believing in equivalence among liberal democracies, theocracies, military dictatorships, and so on.

No way is such “equivalence” entailed by the Amnesty statement of aims that Jacob quoted and it is lazy of him to suggest that it is.

(I should add that Jacob does have a point about the emphasis of some of Amnesty’s up-front press releases, but it is absurd to suggest as Frida Ghetis does in the TNR piece that Jacob approvingly links to that Amnesty “has decided to stop doing its job”—since it demonstrably continues to produce the many detailed country-by-country resports that are its staple.)

{ 28 comments }

1

Glenn Bridgman 05.28.04 at 9:55 pm

(Shameless, shameless whoring ahead, so be warned)
I wrote on this yesterday over at my site:http://www.pretentiousbastards.com/index.php?m=200405#a38

My post essentially agrees with yours.

2

Chris 05.28.04 at 10:06 pm

I’m sure it was a typo, but the expression is “to wit,” not “to whit.”

3

DCharles 05.28.04 at 10:33 pm

I wonder if CT ought to amend the links on the Right Hand Side of the page to include a section called “Sin Bin”, “Intellectually Lazy” or some other choice phrase. In that section, blogs with a proven display of intellectual laziness would be moved. Of course, proof of intellectual laziness would have to include the refusal of the offending blog to acknowledge the mistake and post a correction. Innaccuracy is of course not an offence if it is acted upon when this is pointed out.

I simply mention this now since it would seem most likely that the Volokh Conspiracy is going to “get pasted” over the remark quoted above.

4

Kieran Healy 05.28.04 at 10:49 pm

I wonder if CT ought to amend the links on the Right Hand Side of the page to include a section called “Sin Bin”, “Intellectually Lazy” or some other choice phrase. In that section, blogs with a proven display of intellectual laziness would be moved.

Give over, dcharles. Jacob’s one of the good guys.

5

DCharles 05.28.04 at 11:12 pm

Kieren-
Are you suggesting that any ILAs (intellectual laziness alerts) applying to blogs written by “good guys” should not be highlighted?

6

Matt 05.29.04 at 3:22 am

I’m spending the summer at a non-profit immigration law organization which shall go nameless, but which was involved in bring over larger numbers of jewish refugees at various times, including some famous philosophers. I just want to add here that in asylum and refugee work the AI country reports are invaluable- easily the best things we have to work with. Whatever else one may want to say about them, this must be noted, and to say that they are “not doing their job” is to look pretty silly, especially when one isn’t doing anything nearly as substantial one’s self.

7

Thorley Winston 05.29.04 at 3:36 am

Christ Bertram wrote:

Libertarian Cain and Socialist Abel may disagree on a lot of things. Cain believes that socialized medicine is the first step on the road to serfdom and Abel believes that the capitalist system inevitably leads to exploitation and oppression. No matter. They can work together to protest against torture, extrajudical killing and so on — which they agree are bad things. An organization that insisted the everyone sign up to an analysis of underlying causes would be sectarian and ineffective. But because the smart thing for an organization like Amnesty to do is to stay out of the business of root causes, that doesn’t mean it is committed to the positive view that Jacob now attributes to it in a further post.

However when upon reading the two articles from AI that Jacob Leavy linked to in his piece, we find the following:

While governments have been obsessed with the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, they have allowed the real weapons of mass destruction– injustice and impunity, poverty, discrimination and racism, the uncontrolled trade in small arms, violence against women and abuse of children — to go unaddressed,” said Irene Khan.

There are unequivocal signs of a global justice movement — the millions of citizens who took to the streets around the world in solidarity with the Iraqi people, Spaniards who marched in the name of humanity after the attacks in Madrid, global citizens who gathered at the World Social Forum in Brazil.

“Governments need to listen. In times of uncertainty the world needs not only fight against global threats, but to fight for global justice,” said Irene Khan.

http://news.amnesty.org/mav/index/ENGPOL100162004

And

We must campaign to redress the failure of governments and the international community to deliver on social and economic justice.

. . .

Iraq and the “war on terror” have obscured the greatest human rights challenge of our times. According to some sources, developing countries spend about US$22 billion a year on weapons and, for $10 billion dollars a year, they would achieve universal primary education. These statistics hide a huge scandal: the failed promise to attack extreme poverty and address gross economic and social injustice.


http://web.amnesty.org/report2004/message-eng

Looks like AI has gone far beyond “protest[ing] against torture, extrajudical killing and so on” and has gotten into the “business of root causes.” Leavy’s point seems even more poignant in light of the fact that AI seems to take positions on issues beyond “torture, extrajudical killing and so on” and is now offering opinions on issues such as education, poverty, defense spending, etc. all of which undercut any claims that this is a “non-political” organization that some have used to justify its unwillingness to “notice the difference between liberal democracy as a system and theocracy, military dictatorship, or totalitarianism as systems” in its “human rights agenda.”

8

Giles 05.29.04 at 6:54 am

The times isn’t too impressed with Amnesty either

Amnesty time
Charities need heads as well as hearts

Charity and politics make for an uneasy mix. The Red Cross’s reluctance to publish its reports to governments about the vile abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq was a recent reminder of how responsible charities strive to avoid being dragged into national political debates. Yet Amnesty International, which seems likely to gain charitable status in Britain for the first time under this week’s draft Charities Bill, seems to be losing the non-partisan, apolitical moorings that once anchored its international credibility. It is drifting into a fashionable agenda far from its original mission, and is making statements that are increasingly political.

The charities that do the most good tend to be those that stick almost religiously to a few, clear objectives. The less focused the mandate, the more susceptible an organisation becomes to entreaties from a vast range of good causes beyond its core expertise — and to politicisation. Unicef was arguably more effective when it concentrated on its original mission of helping poor children to survive to adulthood than when it was distracted by promoting the “rights of the child”, and became embroiled in childish rows about bisexuality. Neverthless, most large charities at one time or another face strong temptation to empire-build and suffer from mission creep.

Amnesty International has played a vital and unique role over 40 years in turning a spotlight on prisoners of conscience who would otherwise have languished forgotten in hellish jails. It has many dedicated staff who have worked tirelessly for little reward other than knowing that they were fighting for one of the truly great causes. They have succeeded in making human rights a mainstream concern and in mobilising ordinary people to light candles, write letters and influence the fate of writers, thinkers and dissidents from their homes.

But a champion of human rights must be unequivocal and impartial in its condemnation of abuses. Amnesty’s comments over the past year, and in its latest annual report, imply that the organisation has become infused with a political correctness that is far from impartial. It has been quick to condemn the United States for real and imagined improprieties during the Iraq conflict, yet virtually silent about terrorist abuses. The accusation by its secretary-general this week, that America has damaged human rights more than any other country in the past 50 years, is as ludicrous as it is irresponsible. What about Pol Pot? Or Mao Zedong’s China? Kim Il Sung’s North Korea?

Concerns about the organisation are coming not only from America. Human rights campaigners in Moscow are furious that Amnesty has refused to declare the Russian billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky a poli- tical prisoner. They suspect that he is a little too wealthy to win Amnesty’s support.

Could such attitudes partly explain why Amnesty’s roster of political prisoners has shrunk? The organisation claims that its list has dwindled because of competition from other agencies and the understandable difficulties of tackling armed gangs which cannot be shamed into action as some governments can. Yet Amnesty’s embrace of fashionable objectives must also dilute its commitment to prisoners. Domestic violence, its latest cause, is a completely different rights issue. There is a world of difference between holding governments to their obligation not to torture people, and promoting vague rights to health and welfare. It would be a shame if such a worthy organisation were to lose respect. The message to all charitable organisations must be to beware of reaching for a halo. Prisoners of conscience may not be a trendy cause, but support for them is still of vital importance.

9

bryan 05.29.04 at 7:41 am

‘It has been quick to condemn the United States for real and imagined improprieties during the Iraq conflict, yet virtually silent about terrorist abuses. ‘

Indeed, here we have the crux of the matter, Amnesty’s shameful reluctance to urge people to send letters to the relevant Terrorist bureaucracies informing them that world opinion is really against Terror, their refusal to organise protests outside the embassies of Terror, and their thickheaded inability to see that the Premier of Terror is as much to blame for the actions of the armed forces and political police of Terror as the leaders of other governments are responsible for the misdeeds of their functionaries really makes me afraid that Amnesty is not as clear-thinking about these issues as I am.

“The accusation by its secretary-general this week, that America has damaged human rights more than any other country in the past 50 years, is as ludicrous as it is irresponsible”

Oh, this must mean it is not very much of either. When the major western democracies, the originators of Humanism and the concept of Human Rights, are shown to be violators of those rights, it becomes inherently more difficult to send a letter to the next third world strong man’s secretary of dissident control protesting some abuse.

In a dictatorship it must often seem that Human Rights are a vain delusion which interferes with the very real requirements of running a country practically, all the while breaking eggheads for omelettes, and what better proof of the impracticality of these so-called rights can one have than the fact that the U.S is a torture state. I know that if I were the aforementioned secretary of dissident control I would send replies on the order of “please see enclosed torture photos from Iraq in response to your query, thank you.”

“Human rights campaigners in Moscow are furious that Amnesty has refused to declare the Russian billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky a poli- tical prisoner. They suspect that he is a little too wealthy to win Amnesty’s support.”

Fucking tool.
Who the fuck are these Human Rights Campaigners in Moscow? When I see phrases like this I immediately become suspicious, are these in fact people with connections to Khodorkovsky?
Also it reminds me of Glenn Reynolds with his tiresome repeated canards that Amnesty did not say something about abuse x, the day after abuse x occured, Amnesty is of course a bureaucracy, and it does not move at internet speed. It can take quite a bit of time to investigate and make statements about a particular abuse, with the result that some weeks or months after Reynolds throws his little hissy fit Amnesty puts forth a twenty page document or series thereof, and starts an actual campaign to deal with the matter while Attention Deficit Disorder-Pundit has moved on to his next little moment of rightwingeous indignation.

As for the idea that this has not happened yet because the guy is wealthy, well, if whoever wrote this was not a fucking fucktard from Fucktardia they might have the intelligence to realize that most political dissidents, writers and so forth in any society tend to come from the well-off parts of that society. This is another instance in the right’s long-running campaign to smear all lefty organisations as being somehow poverty enamoured marxists.

Better Troll media, please.

10

pepi 05.29.04 at 8:57 am

Exactly. Chris you put it so well, what I was trying to say in exceedingly long comments.

I really get the feeling a lot of people confuse those up-front AI press releases with the entirety or their work; or somehow assume that the work is shaped by conclusions, not the other way round. Or indeed they’re just lazy.

11

pepi 05.29.04 at 9:35 am

“The accusation by its secretary-general this week, that America has damaged human rights more than any other country in the past 50 years”

There’s that straw man again. How boring.

12

pepi 05.29.04 at 9:41 am

Thorley – since you reposted your comment here, I’ll repost my answer:

What is so outrageous in those boldened paragraphs? What exactly is wrong with outlining that human rights issues have gone unaddressed? or that there’s too little spending and commitment put on social issues?

Yes, those are opinions, conclusions, complaints and criticism. Of course one can address what you describe as the “root causes” of human rights violations and lack of democracy, in making reports thereof. Doh. Doesn’t mean there’s “vote for xyz” sticker in there.

Every opinion is political, more or less overtly. That’s still a long way from being political as a political party is, and even the most overt political statements you may consider politically wrong – condemnation of x action by y government – still don’t detract from the _facts and figures outlined in reports_.

You might also keep in mind the area of interest for an international organisation is the entire world.

So there’s no need to filter everything through American political discourse for which it would seem sometimes that even a simple mention of “social and economic justice” – or worse, that scary word, “global”! – is an endorsement of socialism.

13

bryan 05.29.04 at 9:54 am

perhaps Thorley can explain what parts of social and economic justice he finds incompatible with Democracy.

justice is bad, m’kay.

14

pepi 05.29.04 at 9:59 am

cf the “virtually silent about terrorist abuses”:

- From the Summary of report on the PA:

Hundreds of Palestinians remained in detention without charge or trial. They included alleged members of armed groups and people suspected of “collaborating” with Israeli intelligence services. Some alleged “collaborators” were killed by armed Palestinians. Palestinian members of armed groups killed some 200 Israelis, most of them civilians. Adequate investigations into such attacks were not carried out and none of those responsible was brought to justice.

… Palestinian members of armed groups killed some 200 Israelis, including at least 130 civilians, among them 21 children, and around 70 soldiers. Many were killed in suicide bombings claimed by the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (an offshoot of Fatah), the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades (Hamas), Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Palestinian armed groups also repeatedly launched mortar attacks from the Gaza Strip towards nearby Israeli cities and into Israeli settlements inside the Gaza Strip.

… The collapse of internal order and security in several West Bank and Gaza Strip towns created a situation where groups of armed Palestinians had almost free rein to carry out unlawful killings and other abuses.

At least 10 Palestinians suspected of “collaborating” with Israeli intelligence services were unlawfully killed by members of armed groups or by armed individuals. Most of the killings were carried out by members of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. The PA consistently failed to investigate these killings and none of the perpetrators was brought to justice.

More than 600 Palestinians were held in Palestinian prisons, detention centres or makeshift detention centres at undisclosed locations (so-called “safe houses”). Most were held on criminal charges, and about 100 were detained on charges of “collaborating” with Israeli intelligence services. Some 470 remained held without trial. There were some reports of torture and ill-treatment by various Palestinian security forces.

… Sergeant Rani Darwish Khalil Shaqqura, a member of the Palestinian security services from the Gaza Strip, was sentenced to death by firing squad by a military court on 17 May for the killing on 15 April of another member of the security services, Captain Hani ‘Atiya al-Madhoun.

And that’s just the summary of the report on the PA. Check all other countries with active terrorist groups. If that’s “silence”, I wonder what “denouncing” is.

Unless by “silence” one means, pointing out those abuses _while also pointing out the violations or questionable tactics by Israel_.

Because I can’t otherwise see what’s wrong in this:

The Israeli army killed around 600 Palestinians, including more than 100 children. Most were killed unlawfully – in reckless shooting, shelling and bombing in civilian residential areas, in extrajudicial executions and through excessive use of force. Palestinian armed groups killed around 200 Israelis, at least 130 of them civilians and including 21 children, in suicide bombings and other deliberate attacks.

…Certain abuses committed by the Israeli army constituted war crimes, including unlawful killings, obstruction of medical assistance and targeting of medical personnel, extensive and wanton destruction of property, torture and the use of “human shields”. The deliberate targeting of civilians by Palestinian armed groups constituted crimes against humanity.

Will someone please reword all that to make it more “impartial” and less “biased”, so that we can learn what exactly is meant by “impartial” and “bias”? thanks.

15

Chris Bertram 05.29.04 at 10:28 am

Ok folks, let’s not make this into a simple repeat of the previous Amnesty thread.

And re Kieran’s point: Jacob is indeed one of the good guys – tho I often disagree with him and this is a one such instance.

16

pepi 05.29.04 at 1:14 pm

Ok, sorry Chris for being so repetitive. I am not familiar with the Volokh writers so I don’t have an opinion on who’s the good guys. I just get really pissed off when I read stuff like that. It’s basically the same “Abu Ghraib – not as bad as what Saddam did” rhetorical crap. Democracy – not as bad as dictatorship. Three cheers for free countries, boo for tyrannies, match is over. Hurrah we win again. We’re not as bad as them. Objections dismissed. *Applause* Groan…

17

tr 05.29.04 at 1:46 pm

I suppose Amnesty don’t want to get dragged into political debates which is why they refrain from making judgements about governmental structures.

Police who give speeding tickets don’t tend to comment on the way that car occupants interact with each other. “That’ll be 100 dollars for speeding, and may I just say that you are hen-pecked and your wife should keep her mouth shut more.”.

18

Nicholas Weininger 05.29.04 at 3:25 pm

Jacob Levy’s point about the importance of systemic differences to human rights is certainly valid. But I don’t think that means it’s bad for Amnesty to catalog abuses without regard to whether such abuses are “official policy” or not. Liberal democracies are as liberal democracies do; and a country might maintain the forms of liberal democracy, including stated official disapproval of human rights abuses, while in fact becoming extremely illiberal and abusive. A watchdog organization that considers the facts of abuses case-by-case without regard for the systems in which they occur is an important defense against this sort of perversion: its official blindness insulates it from being deceived by a facade of liberalism.

I’m actually kind of surprised that Levy doesn’t take this into account. He is a libertarian, after all, though not as extreme a one as I am. And the notion that the substance of human rights may be rotted away while the systemic forms remain unchanged is a pretty common one in libertarian theory.

19

pepi 05.29.04 at 5:44 pm

Try and read this comment on political bias vs. agendas (projections of agendas), then re-read it by replacing “media” with “Amnesty”. See if it applies.

20

Randy Paul 05.29.04 at 8:38 pm

It has been quick to condemn the United States for real and imagined improprieties during the Iraq conflict, yet virtually silent about terrorist abuses.

Uhh . . . it’s called Google. Here’s a sample of what it turned up:

More than two years into the Bush administration’s lurching war on terror, William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, is aiming some of his sharpest criticism not at the White House, but at the American political left. His message: Take on the terror threat, or risk irrelevance.

War protesters of various stripes, alongside anti-globalization and human rights activists, have staged several large rallies nationwide this year, channeling their anger at the Bush administration through slogans like “No blood for oil,” “End the imperialist occupation” and “Regime change begins at home.” But in an interview with Salon, Schulz said that the political left has thus far botched a key mission. “There’s been a failure to give the necessary attention, analysis and strategizing to the effort to counter terrorism and protect our fundamental right to security,” he said. “It’s a serious problem.”

AIUSA, by the way, is the world’s largest section.

21

cases 05.30.04 at 7:31 am

AI has failed to make many cases in the past. Personally I think that there are sufficient cases in the US itself that they should focus on….reports are good but getting results is better.

22

Helga 05.31.04 at 6:24 am

Hello all visit my home page

23

Helga 05.31.04 at 6:32 am

Hello all visit my home page

24

Randy Paul 05.31.04 at 7:42 pm

Helga:

I might change my mind and start advocating the death penalty, but only for comment spammers.

25

Tom T. 06.01.04 at 6:15 am

I just find it interesting that the comment “AI has failed to make many cases in the past” was written by someone named “cases”. Basically, he’s saying, “AI has failed to make many of me in the past.” Under almost any definition, I think that’s outside its mission.

26

Lexey 06.01.04 at 11:15 am

“It is concerned solely with the impartial protection of human rights.”

That is just laughing stock to any Russian… AI gladly turned a blind eye to genocide of non-Chechens in Grozny in 1991-1994, and to mistreatment of minority Russians everywhere in the former USSR. However any alleged mistreatment in Russia of anyone branding him/herself “liberal” or “democratic” gets an absolute avalanche of a responce.

Key AI figures have recently co-signed a letter demanding an execution of 2 Russians currently held in Quatar, arguing that doing so would “change Russian government’s perspective on human rights”.

To sum it up, AI is just a front for clandestine political interests, just like most other NGOs.

27

Randy Paul 06.01.04 at 2:22 pm

No links or sourcing. Don’t you just love it.

28

pepi 06.02.04 at 9:34 pm

“Key AI figures have recently co-signed a letter demanding an execution”

That’s just as likely as Bush signing up to the AI campaign to abolish the death penalty. And probably just as true.

“To sum it up, AI is just a front for clandestine political interests, just like most other NGOs.”

Yeah, sure, just like all intelligence services are a front for terrorist groups. All governments are a front for banks. And all banks are a front for drug dealers. And terrorists, again. The world is a giant vicious conspiracy of fronts.

Comments on this entry are closed.