Amnesty: human rights, political wrongs

An intense controversy over Amnesty International's association with people who reject its universalist principles has been sparked by its treatment of a senior figure who raised the issue. Here, a global petition signed by prominent writers and activists poses questions to the human-rights organisation and defends the now suspended Gita Sahgal; and Amnesty’s own statement reaffirms its values.

(This article was first published on 22 March 2010)

David Hayes
25 March 2010

The most interesting disputes often begin inside an organisation, initiated by those who voice fundamental disagreements with the way it is operating - and perhaps with its departure from its core principles. This seems to have been the case with Gita Sahgal, the head of the gender unit at the international secretariat of Amnesty International, who on 7 February 2010 expressed concern “about the importance of the human-rights movement maintaining an objective distance from groups and ideas that are committed to systematic discrimination.”

The reference is in particular to Amnesty’s work with the former Guantánamo detainee Moazzam Begg and the organisation he represents, Cageprisoners - itself a “human-rights organisation” that exists “solely to raise awareness of the plight of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and other detainees held as part of the War on Terror”. Begg had been held without charge or trial for three years, January 2002-January 2005: in Pakistan, Bagram (Afghanistan), and (for two years) in Guantánamo. Since his release he has campaigned and written widely on behalf of the inmates still held in the prison-camp; his book Enemy Combatant: A British Muslim’s Journey to Guantánamo and Back (2006) was published on both sides of the Atlantic.

The nature of Begg’s political views and affiliations has long been questioned, not least whether he endorses the ideas and agendas of the kind of radical Islamism espoused by the Taliban (see Jane Kinninmont, “Guantánamo and back: an interview with Moazzam Begg”, 6 March 2006). For Gita Sahgal, Amnesty International’s collaboration with him raised serious issues which she tried to bring up internally: “I sent two memos to my management asking a series of questions about what considerations were given to the nature of the relationship with Moazzam Begg and his organisation, Cageprisoners. I have received no answer to my questions.” It was only after her concern "to restore the integrity of the organisation and remind it of its fundamental principles" became public on 7 February 2010 that these issues could be properly discussed - though at considerable cost to Gita Sahgal’s own professional life.

More broadly, the dispute involving Gita Sahgal, Moazzam Begg and Cageprisoners, and Amnesty International highlights Amnesty’s evolution in the past decade; in particular what the scholar Stephen Hopgood has called its attempt to switch “from moral to political authority” (see “Amnesty International: the politics of morality”, 7 June 2006).

Stephen Hopgood’s subtle and incisive study - Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International (Cornell University Press, 2006) - elaborates his argument via close, sympathetic anthropological observation of an organisation living through change. He considers what is lost and what gained when moral authority is replaced by political:

“The difference between them can be caught by a simple idea. The trust that a moral authority inspires is that it speaks for everyone, without fear or favour, from a vantage-point that is somehow detached from the perspective of any one person or social group. It is just a question of the facts, of what is right or true. This is the position of a judge, or a witness.

The trust that a political authority inspires is almost the opposite. It is derived from being a representative of a perspective or an interest, from possessing the marks of belonging, or at least of being openly partial to the cause one is advancing. This is the position of the advocate.”

In this larger perspective, the Gita Sahgal/Moazzam Begg affair was waiting to happen. As it unfolds, its character and implications are for many other organisations and individuals to ponder.

David Hayes

Deputy Editor



The global petition to Amnesty International:

Restoring the Integrity of Human Rights

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 recognise 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 its 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 reborn imperialism. Equally disturbingly, this language is also being hijacked by organisations 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 Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo 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 conference on Afghanistan in London [on 28 January 2010], 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 organisations 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.

Initiated and drafted by:

* Amrita Chhachhi, senior lecturer in the women, gender and development programme, 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

The petition’s signatories include the following (a fuller list can be found here):

Rhonda Copelon, director of International Women's Human Rights Clinic (IWHRC)

Meredith Tax, president of Women's World

Michael Walzer, co-editor of Dissent

Salman Rushdie, writer

Amitav Ghosh, writer and professor of comparative literature at Queens College, New York

Malalai Joya, Afghan politician

Nawal El Sadaawi, writer and activist, Egypt

Martha Nussbaum (professor of law and ethics, University of Chicago; co-founder of the Human Development and Capabilities Association (HDCA)

Yakin Ertürk, board member of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD)

IA Rehman and Iqbal Haidar, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, professor, Columbia University

Marieme Helie-Lucas, coordinator of Secularism is a Women's Issue, Algeria & France

Charlotte Bunch, founder of the Center for Women's Global Leadership (CWGL), Rutgers University

Rosalind Petchesky, professor of women's studies and political science, Hunter College

Katha Pollitt, columnist for the Nation

Judy Norsigian, co-founder of the Boston Women's Health Collective

Jodie Evans, founder member of CodePink, Women for Peace

Kum-Kum Bhavnani, filmmaker, US

Gila Svirsky, co-founder of the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace, Israel

Sonia Correa, Brazilian Interdisciplinary Aids Association (Abia)

Carole Vance, associate clinical professor, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University

Steven Lukes, professor of politics and sociology, New York University

Tom Harrison, co-director, Campaign for Peace and Democracy (CPD)

Patricia McFadden, editor of Southern African Feminist Review (Safere), Zimbabwe

Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, distinguished professor of sociology, City University of New York

Kristin Booth Glen, legal scholar and surrogate-court judge in Manhattan

Mariella Sala, writer and former director of Relat, a Latin American network of women writers, Peru

Virginia Vargas, sociologist and founder of the Flora Tristan women's association, Peru

Dubravka Ugresic, writer, Netherlands

Wanda Nowicka, co-founder of the Central and Eastern European Women's Network for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (Astra), Poland

Dan Connell, distinguished lecturer in journalism and African politics, Simmons College, Boston

Lynne Segal, anniversary professor of psychology and women's studies, Birkbeck College, London

Doug Ireland, investigative journalist, US

Nayantara Sahgal, writer and former diplomat, India

Romila Thapar, historian, India

Lilian Halls-French, president, European Feminist Initiative (IFE-EFI)

J Sri Raman, journalist and peace campaigner

Madanjeet Singh, Unesco goodwill ambassador and founder of the South Asia Foundation, India

Kamla Bhasin, co-president, PeaceWomen Across the Globe, India

Hameeda Hossain, South Asians For Human Rights, Dhaka

Yvonne Deutsch, co-founder of Women in Black Jerusalem

Shabnam Hashmi, founder of Act Now for Harmony and Democacy (Anhad), Delhi

Kushi Kabir, founder of Nijera Kori, Dhaka

Harsh Mander, founder of Aman Biradari, India

Andrej Grubacic, associated with Global Balkans Network

Sunanda Sen, economist, India

Kumudini Samuel, Women and Media Collective, Sri Lanka

Caroline Fourest, editor of ProChoix, France

Bruce Portugal Amoroto, Diversity and Equality in the Philippines

Sonia Jay Wright, Mulher & Democracia, Brazil

Houzan Mahmoud, representative of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq

Martha Villanueva, GrupoSafo

Stasa Zajovic, founder of Women in Black-Belgrade

Ramachandra Guha, historian, India

Asghar Ali Engineer, director, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai

Sultana Kamal, director of Ain O Salish Kendra

Mazher Hussain, director, Confederation of Voluntary Agencies (Cova), Hyderabad

Gautam Navlakha, People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), Delhi

Kavita Srivasta, People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Delhi

Deniz Kandiyoti, professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

Mohammad Tahseen, executive director, South Asia Partnership - Pakistan, Lahore

Sheema Kermani, dancer, and founder of Tehrik-e-Niswan, Karachi

Zoya Hasan, professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi

Abid Suleri, executive director, Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), Islamabad

Nira Yuval-Davis, director of the Research Centre on Migration, Refugees and Belonging (CMRB), University of East London

Babu Gogineni, international director of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), India

Kumudini Samuel, Women and Media Collective, Sri Lanka

Sumit Sarkar, founding member of the Subaltern Studies Collective, India

Tanika Sarkar, professor of history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, India

Dilip Simeon, founder of Aman Trust, India

Urvashi Butalia, founder of Zubaan Books, India

Pragna Patel, Southall Black Sisters, London

Jessica Almy-Pagán, Universidad de Puerto Rico en Arecibo

Pamela Philipose, director of Women’s Feature Service, India

Meghna Guhathakurta, scholar, Dhaka

Subhashini Ali, president, All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA)

Javed Anand, general secretary, Muslims for Secular Democracy, Mumbai

Karamat Ali, founding member of Pakistan Peace Coalition

Ruchir Joshi, writer and filmmaker, India

John Dayal, secretary-general of All India Christian Council

Nick Cohen, journalist, London

Kalpana Kannabiran, Asmita, India

Tahir Mahmood, member, Law Commission of India

Peter Waterman, scholar and initiator of a Global Labour Charter, Netherlands

Cherifa Kheddar, president, Djazairouna association, Algeria


Amnesty International statement on its work with Moazzam Begg and Cageprisoners

This comment, by Amnesty International’s interim secretary-general Claudio Cordone, was released on 11 February 2010.

There has been a lot of controversy in the media surrounding Amnesty International’s work with Moazzam Begg and Cageprisoners, in light of statements by Gita Sahgal, an Amnesty International staff member.

Contrary to Gita Sahgal’s assertions to the media, she was not suspended from Amnesty International for raising these issues internally. In fact, we actively welcome vigorous internal debate. Up to now we have maintained confidentiality in line with our policy but wanted to correct this misrepresentation. This is not a reflection of the organisation’s respect for her work as a women’s-rights activist and does not undermine the work she has done over the last few years as the head of Amnesty International’s gender unit.  

Our work with Moazzam Begg has focused exclusively on highlighting the human-rights violations committed in Guantánamo Bay and the need for the United States government to shut it down and either release or put on trial those who have been held there. Moazzam Begg was one of the first detainees released by the US without charge, and has never been charged with any terrorist-related offence or put on trial.

When President Obama promised to close Guantánamo, Amnesty International hoped that we could wind down our campaign and focus more broadly on human-rights abuses related to security and terrorism. However, as that promise remains unmet, Amnesty International continues to work with Moazzam Begg and other former detainees to ask European governments to accommodate those who cannot be returned to their country of citizenship without risk of torture or ill-treatment.

In this complex and polarised world, we at Amnesty International face the challenge of  communicating clearly the scope of our work with individuals and groups. Amnesty International champions and continues to champion Moazzam Begg’s rights as a former detainee at Guantánamo. He speaks about his own views and experiences, not Amnesty International’s. And Moazzam Begg has never used a platform he shared with Amnesty to speak against the rights of others.

Amnesty International has a long history of demanding justice – in the case of our Counter Terror with Justice Campaign we called for both an end to human-rights abuses at Guantánamo and other locations, and called for those detained there to be brought to justice, in fair trials that respected due process.

However, our work for justice and human rights spans a far wider range of issues than counter-terrorism and security. Amnesty International has done considerable research on the Taliban and campaigns to stop violence against women and to promote women’s equality. We continue to take a strong line against abuses by religiously-based insurgent groups and/or governments imposing religious strictures, Islamic or otherwise, in violation of human-rights law. Sometimes the people whose rights we defend may not share each other's views – but they all have human rights, and all human rights are worth defending.

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