Amnesty’s slow burn

By skepticlawyer

This story has been something of a slow burn over here, but it’s starting to gain a bit of momentum now, to the stage where the implications are actually pretty awful:

A SENIOR official at Amnesty International has accused the charity of putting the human rights of Al-Qaeda terror suspects above those of their victims.

Gita Sahgal, head of the gender unit at Amnesty’s international secretariat, believes that collaborating with Moazzam Begg, a former British inmate at Guantanamo Bay, “fundamentally damages” the organisation’s reputation.

In an email sent to Amnesty’s top bosses, she suggests the charity has mistakenly allied itself with Begg and his “jihadi” group, Cageprisoners, out of fear of being branded racist and Islamophobic.

Sahgal describes Begg as “Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban”. He has championed the rights of jailed Al-Qaeda members and hate preachers, including Anwar al-Awlaki, the alleged spiritual mentor of the Christmas Day Detroit plane bomber.

Amnesty’s work with Cageprisoners took it to Downing Street last month to demand the closure of Guantanamo Bay. Begg has also embarked on a European tour, hosted by Amnesty, urging countries to offer safe haven to Guantanamo detainees. This is despite concerns about former inmates returning to terrorism.

Sahgal, who has researched religious fundamentalism for 20 years, has decided to go public because she feels Amnesty has ignored her warnings for the past two years about the involvement of Begg in the charity’s Counter Terror With Justice campaign.

Where the story gets really interesting is that Sahgal has now been ‘suspended‘ for her whistleblowing (it seems, these days, that no-one is willing to man up and use the word ‘sack’). Weasel Words ‘R’ Us, I’m afraid.

Sahgal herself has a long history of activism on human rights, women’s rights and the dangers posed to both by religious fundamentalism. While Sahgal wholeheartedly supported the Amnesty campaign against the illegal detention and torture of Muslim men at Guantánamo, she raised pertinent anxieties about Amnesty’s close engagement with Begg internally several times without success. She pointed out the obvious but significant fact that being a victim of human rights violations does not automatically make you a defender of human rights, the dangers in eliding the two and the need for Amnesty to maintain a distance from individuals whose attitude to the Taliban could undermine otherwise excellent work done by Amnesty on violence against women.

Within hours of the article appearing she was suspended from her job by Amnesty for, as Gita says in her statement, “trying to do my job and staying faithful to Amnesty’s mission to protect and defend human rights universally and impartially”. And for some hours yesterday, negative posts on Amnesty’s website were being filtered out.

Even worse, Amnesty’s response to criticism has been to resort to the worst sort of postmodern obscurantism, revealing that this once fine bastion of liberal ideas (John Stuart Mill, Harriet Taylor, Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, remember them?) has been infected from bow to stern with a philosophy that, while interesting and often illuminating, is fundamentally illiberal. I mean, Nietzsche started it — what do you expect? As Norm Geras points out in this very funny post:

The criticism of Amnesty International is not that it doesn’t ‘other’ Mr Begg in the sense of treating him as less than human. It’s that a human rights organization, rightly regarding no one at all as other in that sense, rightly regarding everyone as being a bearer of human rights, has made common cause with others who may be less than friendly to human rights and be somewhat indulgent towards a movement very unfriendly to human rights. No one should be othered who is a human being. However, if ‘to other’ someone meant to regard him as an unsuitable ally, then there are others whom supporters of human rights should certainly want to other.

It seems that Amnesty does not care what Mr Begg believes. As long as he does not believe it out loud on their dime and time, then all will be well:

[…] The best that they can say is that he hasn’t promoted the more, ahem, problematic components of his politics from an Amnesty platform.

Perhaps he hasn’t. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Cageprisoners spokesman calling for violent jihad against Britain and in support of the Taliban from an Amnesty platform. They normally save message for University ISOCs and Hizb ut Tahrir platforms, after all.

So, looking forward to seeing Nick Griffin on the Amnesty International Free Speech Tour – just as soon as he promises not to preach race hate while standing under the Amnesty banner!

As someone with a public commitment to freedom of speech, I am aware that this can mean sticking up for some pretty toxic people; as I mentioned in my comments on the current Geert Wilders blow up, sometimes this can even go so far as ‘Illinois Nazis’ (with apologies to the Blues Brothers). However, there is a fine but very clear line between public support for freedom of speech and public support for the views that the censors wish to censor. Often (not always, of course), censors have quite sure instincts about what is bad speech, and it is pretty clear that the stuff both Illinois Nazis and Talibs spout falls into the category of ‘bad speech’. The task for people like me is to argue that the best response to speech is more speech, not repression. It is not the easiest argument to win (repression is so much easier), but it has to be made.

Amnesty International’s position in this situation is analogous to that of the free speech advocate: there is a fine but distinct line between arguing that Illinois Nazis have human rights and arguing that Illinois Nazis may have something meaningful to say about human rights. They don’t. Nor do the Taliban. 

Part of the problem is the modern tendency to feel sorry for victims and losers, and to think that victims and losers should always and everywhere have a voice or be enabled to speak in their own voice, without the ventriloquism usually provided on their behalf by a more powerful individual or organisation. Amnesty have not only spoken up for Mr Begg (legitimately), they have given the man a star-studded revolving platform funded by member donations from which to pontificate (illegitimately). They have — cliche time — crossed that fine but distinct line:

What worries her [Sahgal] is the assumption among some of her Amnesty colleagues that Begg is “not only a victim of human rights violations but a defender of human rights” (my italics). Sahgal raised the issue in two memos before her concerns became public at the weekend. But what she has identified is too important to be dismissed as an internal matter, namely an intellectual incoherence which isn’t confined to the higher echelons of a single human rights organisation.

The thinking goes like this: someone who has suffered terrible human rights abuses must necessarily be opposed to similar abuses against others. It’s a nice idea but history tells us it’s wrong; today’s prisoners of conscience may turn out on release to be doughty campaigners for human rights, but they might just as easily become tomorrow’s apologists for extremism.

Gita Sahgal’s sacking offence seems to have been to make the mistake of believing that Amnesty should ‘defend human rights universally and impartially’. Universal human rights. Defended impartially. How old fashioned of her. How… liberal.

[Note to US readers: the English definition of liberal is much closer to your ‘classical liberal’. English people have great difficulty recognising the version of ‘liberal’ commonly labelled as such in the USA].

UPDATE: Gita Sahgal now has her own website, but is struggling to get legal representation [a tip of the hat to Lorenzo and Chris Hitchens]:

As I write this, she is experiencing some difficulty in getting a lawyer to represent her. Such is—so far—the prestige of Amnesty International. “Although it is said that we must defend everybody no matter what they’ve done,” she comments, “it appears that if you’re a secular, atheist, Asian British woman, you don’t deserve a defense from our civil rights firms.”

Gita, if you’re reading this, if you can find me a leader I’d make a very useful junior counsel 🙂


  1. Nick Ferrett
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    I guess you have to ask: “Where do you draw the line?”

    Putting a face to an outrage is a common political tactic. Amnesty ends up aligning itself with some nasty types when it adopts that campaign tactic, but if it campaigns in the abstract (i.e., even if these people are awful, we can’t have their human rights infringed), the campaign is much less likely to stir the sympathy that is needed to change public opinion.

    The Hicks case was a perfect example. David Hicks was a schmuck. The infringement of his rights was outrageous and dangerous, but he was a schmuck who subscribed to a cause which was at odds with the interests of citizens of this country. And Amnesty basically tried to deify him. It did that, one infers, because it wanted to stir people to action. All very nasty and dangerous.

  2. Anthony
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure why you’re referring to Saghal as a ‘whistleblower’. In the Guardian piece by Rahil Gupta that you quote from, Gupta rightly points out that she wasn’t revealing activities anyone was trying to conceal.

    You say that “Gita Sahgal’s sacking offence seems to have been to make the mistake of believing that Amnesty should ‘defend human rights universally and impartially’.” But I think she admits that the questions she raises have been a matter of discussion within Amnesty for some time. So her sacking offence seems to have been publicly claiming to the press that her current employer is in league with the Taliban

  3. Posted February 15, 2010 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    I can’t quite put my finger on why, but Amnesty gives me the creeps. Whenever I read one of their leaders banging on, I suddenly feel the need to bathe or shower.

  4. Ken N
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Amnesty lost me some time ago. They too often seem to align with those they are supporting.
    More impressive, for me is Reprieve
    Mostly working to get people off death row in the US but also active in Gitmo, it concedes that many of it’s clients are not nice people. But they deserve justice and certainly do not deserve to die.

  5. Posted February 15, 2010 at 11:50 am | Permalink


    That’s how Amnesty started. Now, at least their Australian branch, focuses on issues such as “the human right to housing is not severable from the human right to a fair trial”

  6. ken n
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Yes PP – do these organisations get captured of is it just mission creep?
    Might be fun to look at the drift

  7. Phoenix
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Many years ago, I joined Amnesty, but leaving after a couple of meetings.

    At that time they appeared to be a group of disaffected people, a couple even “damaged”, who needed a cause – any cause. One had hoped they had matured … but …

  8. Anthony
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]: “They too often seem to align with those they are supporting”

    I don’t quite know what you mean by that.

    In any case, if Reprieve are supporting people on death row in the US then they’re supporting people who are probably more objectionable that Moazzem Begg

  9. Patrick
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Really, Anthony? Do you want to reflect on that one a little longer?

  10. Posted February 15, 2010 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Patrick, Begg seems to have odious political views and some highly suspect connections. There are plenty of people on death row who have actually killed other people in horrific circumstances.

    It’s the nature of both Amnesty’s work and Reprieve’s work that they end up supporting people who are Not Nice.

    In any case, Reprieve have thrown their support behind Begg as a one-time Guantanamo inmate.

  11. Ken N
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Maybe, Anthony. I’m mostly interested in Reprieve’s death row cases. Their aim is to stop people being executed – which I wholeheartedly agree with, no matter how bad the convicts are.
    As it has turned out, many have been shown to be innocent.

  12. Anthony
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Ken, I know death row inmates will be a mix of innocent and guilty, as will be the inmates of Guantanamo. And the discomfiting part of Amnesty and Reprieve’s work is that one doesn’t make a distinction.

    The substantive issue here seems to be whether Amnesty has overstepped some line in its relationship with Begg. This is a matter of valid debate, but has to be seen in the context that Amnesty – like Reprieve – will find itself supporting wholly unlikeable people, so it seems a question of degree.

    My problem with Helen’s original post was that this was not a matter of Sahgal being a whistleblower: she is not. Similarly, it is not a matter of Sahgal being persecuted for her opposition to Amnesty’s strategy: she was able to express such opposition internally without losing her job. At one level it seems to be an employment law matter that if you publicly denounce your current employer as being in league with the Taliban, you might suffer disciplinary consequence. At another level, Sahgal’s comments either wittingly or unwittingly give a lot of fuel to those who have already made up their mind that Amnesty is an organisation to be denounced. Nick Cohen would be an example, but Pete and Ken on this thread would be another: rather than engage with the Begg issue, their comments seem to merely be a virtual roll of the eyes: oh yeah, Amnesty, tell us something we don’t know

  13. Posted February 15, 2010 at 5:00 pm | Permalink


    I am all for Amnesty’s work of the type helping prisoners, but when it presumes a privileged voice in Australia civic discourse premised on the moral/political/legal legitimacy of the UN over the Australian people, then I consider Amnesty an enemy of Australian democracy, and to be hunted down and skewered at every opportunity.

    Amnesty needs to stick to its knitting, and butt out of our agora.

  14. ken n
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    1. Every dog can choose the tree up which it will bark. Here I am not especially interested in Gitmo – another time perhaps.
    2. I am interested in death row and believe no-one should be executed no matter how bad they are.
    3. One of the things Reprieve’s work has shown up is the very bad state of justice in some parts of the US. Texas and parts of the south. As I said, many of those on death row turn out to be not guilty. It is a terrible irony that almost certainly there are many in jail not on death row who are also innocent. Reprieve and services run by many law schools concentrate on capital cases and these cases have to be ignored.

  15. Posted February 15, 2010 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    Amnesty seems to be taking sides more and more. The whole point was not to. It was the basis of their credibility.
    I mean, Nietzsche started it — what do you expect?
    I don’t think he started it he just announced it.

  16. Posted February 15, 2010 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    And the Taliban and Nazis have lots to teach us about free speech and human rights. As in how shithouse it is when you don’t have ’em.

  17. Posted February 15, 2010 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    Evidence of absence is not absence of evidence… or, in other news, the Brasenose College server decided to roll over and sleep, which is why I have been absent. I am therefore alternating between the Bod and the cafe next door.

    I will try to read all your comments now.

  18. Tim
    Posted February 16, 2010 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    If the government is not involved in suppressing expression, I see no issue of censorship or freedom of speech. I see instead a healthy debate within Amnesty International. Supporting the expression of those who are engaged in hate speech, imo, is not completely free of some endorsement of their message. In the U.S., hate speech receives less protection, vis-a-vis government regulation, than speech that is does not advocate violence or hate.

  19. Posted February 16, 2010 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    I wonder to what extent Amnesty International has been inundated with Manichean activists. People who believe that because X, say Gitmo, is evil then the opposite of X must be good.

  20. Anthony
    Posted February 16, 2010 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    In all my years of trawling the intertubes (yawn!) I have rarely seen a comments thread that so resolutely refuses to engage with the ostensible matter of the post.

    In using Begg in its campaign against Guantamamo, has Amnesty somehow overstepped a mark? If so, has Sahgal dealt with this in an appropriate or inappropriate way?

    Any one? Anyone?

  21. Posted February 16, 2010 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Well Anthony, I think it has overstepped the mark; I thought (mentioned by Nick aways up the thread) that there were similar problems with David Hicks, who they tried to turn into a member of the sainted multitude. Yes I know this is difficult and complex (which is why I used the free speech analogy), but there is a line. Begg is a grub, and his heavy involvement in Amnesty is putting people — especially women — off the organisation. This post was inspired, in part, by seeing women in Oxford refusing to engage with Amnesty people because of Begg’s prominence. If Amnesty is losing the good liberal (lib-dem, actually) peeps of the City of Oxford over this guy, then his presence is counter-productive, and if an employee calls them on it, then that is a good thing.

    Think how many people would be applauding her if it were Goldman Sachs she’d dumped on. Accountability is not just for the City; it is for the third sector as well.

    Much of the anger stems from the fact that he deliberately took his wife and two daughters to live in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in 2001 where, of course, they could no longer attend school, being mere females.

    If he’d been caught leaving the country, he’d have very likely had his children removed by social services, and quite possibly been charged.

  22. Posted February 17, 2010 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    The issue is getting a fair bit of coverage. Christopher Hitchens has a view. Russell Blackford has some pertinent things to say as well.

  23. Posted February 18, 2010 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Peter Patton @14 said

    “I am all for Amnesty’s work of the type helping prisoners, but when it presumes a privileged voice in Australia civic discourse premised on the moral/political/legal legitimacy of the UN over the Australian people, then I consider Amnesty an enemy of Australian democracy, and to be hunted down and skewered at every opportunity.”

    I accept Anthony’s comment that this quote wasn’t actually engaging with the topic at hand, but it still needs a response.

    Amnesty’s actions in Australia have nothing to do with some imagined “moral/political/legal legitimacy of the UN over the Australian people.” Virtually every one of the international human rights laws which Amnesty often points to have been ratified by the Australian government. Amnesty seek to ensure that governments – including Australia’s -are held to standards which they say they support.

    As regards David Hicks, while I couldn’t vouch for every comment made by every representatives of every organisation who campaigned for his release, in my memory the point was very regularly made that he was no saint and appeared to have done some dubious things. The fact is that most of those who resisted or opposed proper process for David Hicks usually didn’t engage with the point of principle, but just relied on trying to paint him as being as bad a person as possible.

    This makes it harder to stop the two separate matters – due process vs Hicks’ character – conflating in peoples’ minds, but I think most of those campaigning for Hicks did a reasonable job in keeping the focus on the main principle involved. And upon his release, Hicks hasn’t gone around spruiking in favour of the Taliban or promoting human rights violations, so I don’t think it’s a very good analogy.

    The situation in the UK in regards to Begg seems to have gone somewhat further, based on what I’ve read here – at least in regards to not publicly opposing some of Begg’s more obnoxious views – although there may be other facts that I haven’t seen .

    (I should note that I have some involvement with Amnesty but don’t in any way speak on their behalf in this instance)

  24. Posted February 18, 2010 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    This makes it harder to stop the two separate matters – due process vs Hicks’ character – conflating in peoples’ minds

    Indeed, How To Be a PR Bastard For Dummies – First chapter: ‘Muddy Water: How To Conflate Two Issues To The Detriment of the Facts.’

    I do remember there was some rhetoric that aimed to paint Hicks rosy. To what extent this was an over-reaction to those howling for his blood on behalf of the Let’s Save Western Civ By Trashing Western Civ brigade, who knows.

  25. Anthony
    Posted February 18, 2010 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    Helen, Begg, as you describe him, might well be a ‘grub’. But Amnesty, along with Reprieve, support death row prisoners worldwide. Lordy be there must be a fair share of grubs amongst them – as I said earlier, in some cases we’re talking about men who actually slaughter women rather than just express politically obnoxious opinions about their status. Why hasn’t this put people off the organisation until now? Begg’s role with Amnesty seems to be confined to talking about Guantanamo and rendition and the whole black prison archipelago. Are we saying that we shouldn’t condemn such things because Amnesty has got a ‘grub’ condemning them?

  26. Peter Patton
    Posted February 18, 2010 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    I think Alan Dershowitz has the right balance. Sure, defend Nazis, KKK members, in court. But once they’ve had their best shot at justice, then get the hell away from them. Don’t pal around with them, like you are some groupie.

  27. Anthony
    Posted February 18, 2010 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    Peter, the whole point about Amnesty is that they don’t defend people who have had “their best shot at justice”. Rather they defend people who have been denied their political and civil rights which often means being denied a fair trial. And they oppose torture point black which Dershowitz doesn’t do. I’m not sure how you draw the line between opposing the torture of fellow human beings and ‘pal(ing) around’ with them or being a ‘groupie’.

  28. Peter Patton
    Posted February 18, 2010 at 6:25 pm | Permalink


    I’m not. The point is the difference between on the one hand assisting people – however loathsome – access to the justice process, and on the other hand, after that process is over to pal around with them.

  29. Anthony
    Posted February 18, 2010 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Pete, the whole comparison with Dershowitz’s work (leaving aside his defense of torture) is slightly obtuse. Returning to the issue at hand, it is not a matter of Begg being assisted to have access to justice and ‘after that’ having Amnesty paling around with him. The point is that Begg – along with other Guantanamo detainees – did not have access to justice: this is the point of Amnesty’s campaign. So long as it carries on this campaign, it will find itself ‘paling’ around with people we perhaps might find ‘loathsome’.

  30. Posted February 18, 2010 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    I think — leaving aside Dershowitz’s view of torture — that the comparison is a fair one. You’ll get no objection from me when it comes to fighting to ensure that assorted nasties (Begg, Illinois Nazis, whoever) get access to justice. Guantanamo denied that access to justice and that is why it is wrong. So far, so good. The problem came afterwards, with the blurring — even elision — of the line between ‘victim of human rights abuses’ and ‘spokesman for human rights’.

    One point that has been made by a few commentators over here is that part of Amnesty’s problem here has stemmed from taking on an entire organisation (Cageprisoners), with all the problems of corporate identity that entails. Apparently Friends’ House (the Quaker body that has also does a lot of work with prisoners of conscience) gets around the issue by only ever representing individuals, not corporate bodies.

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