Commentary Magazine


The Human-Rights Facade Is Beginning to Crumble

The collaboration between Amnesty International and an unrepentant Islamist named Moazzam Begg has been a source of wonderment among those who follow these kinds of things, but only back-burner wonderment, obscured by the media’s general tendency to protect the credibility of “human rights” NGOs, or at least not ask too many questions.

The UK Times was impelled, finally, to give some space to the fact that Amnesty, one of the two largest human-rights groups* (the other being Human Rights Watch) has been promoting Begg, a former Gitmo detainee and booster of terrorists and radicals. What finally attracted press attention to this outrageous state of affairs was the appearance of a whistleblower from within the ranks of Amnesty.

Meet Gita Sahgal, the head of Amnesty’s gender unit. She went public with her disgust after spending two years in a failed effort to separate Amnesty from Begg:

“I believe the campaign [with Begg's organization, "Cageprisoners"] fundamentally damages Amnesty International’s integrity and, more importantly, constitutes a threat to human rights,” Sahgal wrote in an email to the organisation’s leaders on January 30. “To be appearing on platforms with Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgment.”

No kidding. But this story doesn’t have a happy ending. Amnesty responded to her going public by suspending her. The excellent British blog Harry’s Place has posted her statement:

A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when a great organisation must ask: if it lies to itself, can it demand the truth of others? For in defending the torture standard, one of the strongest and most embedded in international human rights law, Amnesty International has sanitized the history and politics of the ex-Guantanamo detainee, Moazzam Begg and completely failed to recognize the nature of his organisation Cageprisoners. …

The issue is a fundamental one about the importance of the human rights movement maintaining an objective distance from groups and ideas that are committed to systematic discrimination and fundamentally undermine the universality of human rights.

Or, as a British blogger puts it, “upholding concepts of due process and women’s rights may not be best served by strolling along to Downing Street hand in hand with Moazzam Begg, a Salafi Islamist who has attended Jihadi training camps in Afghanistan and Bosnia.”

There is a vital role for groups like HRW and Amnesty to play in the world. Properly understood, their mission is to use their moral authority to shame and condemn tyranny and those who wish to make the world a hospitable place for tyrants and terrorists. But moral authority requires moral clarity. HRW and Amnesty have been overtaken by activists who use their position to wage easy campaigns against open societies instead of taking on the more difficult, thankless, and sometimes dangerous struggle against closed ones.

For people who do not follow these issues closely, there have been a few recent moments that indicate beyond any doubt that something is rotten in the “human-rights community.” One moment was when HRW went to Saudi Arabia to raise money. We have arrived at another such moment: a human-rights organization has suspended an employee for complaining about the organization’s partnership with a terrorist.

*In my opinion, the largest and most important human rights organization in the world is the U.S. Army, but that’s an argument for another time.