Kenney vs. Amnesty: The case against Amnesty International

My latest column points out that a lot of people are just generally fed up with Amnesty International and that a lot of them are political conservatives. Here’s what that’s about, since it will be news to many readers.

Christopher Hitchens, hard to pin down on any left-right spectrum and widely admired for that, is the earliest Amnesty critic I found in a quick search. In 2005 Amnesty called Guantanamo Bay “the gulag of our times.” I think Guantanamo Bay is pretty bad today, was far worse when Dick Cheney was running it, and has never been as bad as the gulag was. Hitchens’ line is pretty close to that, but his overriding argument was that these qualitative judgments should never have been Amnesty’s business:

The founding statutes were quite clear: An Amnesty local was to adopt three “prisoners of conscience,” one from either side of the Cold War and one from a “neutral” state. Letters were to be written to the relevant governments and to newspapers in free countries. Though physical torture and capital punishment were opposed in all cases, no overt political position was to be taken.

Hitchens expanded on this argument in a 2010 column.

In time, the organization also evolved policies that opposed the use of capital punishment or torture in all cases, but the definition of “prisoner of conscience” remained central. And it included a requirement that the prisoner in question be exactly that: a person jailed for the expression of an opinion. Amnesty did not adopt people who either used or advocated violence.

So the Hitchens critique of Amnesty amounts to a finding of mission creep. Amnesty, in this reading, no longer restricts itself to what it was founded to do, and therefore debases what it was founded to do.

A similar argument was made in a widely-noted editorial in The Economist in 2007. Again: the organization was founded to shine global attention on the plight of people who were in jail because they had said what they thought. And now it was doing all sorts of things that had nothing to do with that.

Another of Amnesty’s 12 campaigns is on “Poverty and Human Rights” which asserts: “Everyone, everywhere has the right to live with dignity. That means that no one should be denied their rights to adequate housing, food, water and sanitation, and to education and health care.” A similar theme is struck by the “Economic Globalisation and Human Rights” campaign—reflecting Amnesty’s enthusiastic support for the World Social Forum, a movement which holds annual anti-capitalism shindigs. Sometimes there seems to be a desire to be even-handed between pariahs and paragons: Amnesty recently surprised observers of the ex-communist world by producing a critique of the language law in Estonia—a country usually seen as the best example of good government in the region.

The big question in all this is priorities. Cases do exist where violations of political rights and of economic ones are hard to separate; one such case is Zimbabwe, whose government has engaged in politicised food distribution and slum clearance at the same time as judicial repression.

But the new Amnesty is surely open to the charges both that it is campaigning on too many fronts, and that the latest focus comes at the cost of the old one.

Within the past few years, the case against Amnesty has progressed to the point where, for some observers, the organization has simply discredited itself. As an example, take this 2010 column by Mona Charen, a former speechwriter for Nancy Reagan and Jack Kemp. To her, Amnesty has simply never been a serious organization, and she’s surprised the world has taken so long to figure it out.

I’m just passing Charen’s column along. The Economist leader and the Hitchens columns make more compelling arguments, to me. Amnesty may argue (and is welcome to; I’ll post here any response Amnesty wants to send me) that it’s perfectly fair for an organization to evolve over the decades. It is indeed; but Amnesty’s evolution has upset some former supporters. And that’s the climate of opinion within which Kenney is operating.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.