Many rights, some wrong

27 March 2007 at 6:21 am | Posted in Amnesty International, Irene Khan, News, Sydney Peace Prize | Leave a comment

The following excepts are from the print edition of The Economist, 22 March 2007. Click here for the full article.

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The world’s biggest human-rights organisation stretches its brand

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL is the biggest human-rights organisation in the world, with 70 national chapters and 1.8m-plus members. Its battle honours glitter. It has defended moral giants among prisoners of conscience such as Vaclav Havel and Andrei Sakharov.

Amnesty still champions such causes, rattling dictatorial governments (and governments with dictatorial tendencies). But its mission has also become broader and more ambitious, calling for political and economic improvement as well as freedom from judicial persecution. “Working on individuals is important, but if we don’t work on systemic change we just exchange one group of sufferers for another,” says Irene Khan, its secretary-general.

Ms Khan infuriated both the American government and some Amnesty supporters in 2005 when she described Guantánamo as the “gulag of our times”. She stands by her statement: like the gulag, Guantánamo “puts people outside the rule of law”, she says. Yet the comparison seems odd in scale and in principle: the gulag embodied the Soviet system; Guantánamo is a blot on the American one.

Not that old-style Amnesty was soft on the West. Using the moral authority it had won by confronting both apartheid and communism, it challenged Western governments whenever they seemed to be cutting legal corners; in that spirit, it opposed Britain’s policy of internment in Northern Ireland.

But these days America does seem to have a strangely high priority, given the enormity of human-rights scandals elsewhere. One of the four “worldwide appeals” launched in March urges the public to press the American government to grant visas to the wives of two Cubans jailed for acting as “unregistered agents of a foreign power” (in effect, spying). Zimbabwe, scene of bloody repression in past weeks, comes fourth—but the appeal deals not with current events but with the persecution of a movement called “Women of Zimbabwe Arise”, an admirable but narrower cause.

Another of Amnesty’s 12 campaigns is on “Poverty and Human Rights”… 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… 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.

Amnesty’s website is, insiders acknowledge, a campaigning tool; it does not fully reflect the depth of the organisation’s expertise, or its internal priorities. Ms Khan admits a tension in the organisation’s “business mix” between high profile and less immediately rewarding work.

But she insists that there is no drift towards America-bashing for the sake of popularity, and that the emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights does not reflect a preference for any particular system of government.

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