Amnesty International staffer Gita Sahgal says that a former prisoner from Guantanamo, Begg whose case was taken up by AI had advocated jihad as a personal obligation to fight war and supported fundamentalists who denied women's rights. This undermined Amnesty's work upholding universality and the rule of law.
I was asked to sign a petition on behalf of a suspended Amnesty International staff person, Gita Sahgal, who had complained internally in her organization about what she saw as a troubling tendency not to distinguish between the need to defend someone's civil rights, as part of the organization's mandate, and the requirement to disassociate the organization from a victim's own views, which may be antithetical to human rights. The Amnesty leadership explained that she was suspended during the controversy so that it was clear that she did not speak on behalf of the organization, while they investigated the issue.
In this case, the victim involved, Moazzam Begg, an inmate in Guantanamo released to the UK, formed an organization Cageprisoners to raise ongoing concerns about Guantanamo. The AI staffer felt that the former prisoner held views counter to human rights, as can be seen in the video above. As one petition leader Meredith Tax has pointed out, in Begg's own book, he discusses his combat in the war in Afghanistan and his belief that Afghanistan is better off under the Taliban.
Says the petition:
We come from communities that recognize 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 their 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”
Gita went to the Sunday Times with the story; that seems to be the AI gender expert's greatest offense to some, ostensibly putting the discussion into a polarized political space where the organization -- and by extension the international human rights movement -- could be attacked and undermined.
I read through the materials and decided to sign the petition for a number of reasons. I realized that doing so might bring charges of "breaking the 11th commandment" ("thou shalt never criticize a fellow NGO or victim of human rights abuse") but increasingly, I think this must be done and more space created for vigorous debate on the ethical and moral dimensions of an issue all too often seen in purely legalistic terms -- the violation of Art. 30: "Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein."
I think it's important to point out that this is not a global Skokie, exactly. It's not a case of wavering in "Defending My Enemy" as some are seeing it or standing up for all civil rights, even when the victims of suppression of civil rights are odious and their speech or assemblies are unpleasant and hateful. It's not about "getting it" that if we don't defend rights for all, our rights are undermined too. It's about imagining if you had to campaign further to get these rights, and not only to go to Washington to speak on a platform with that KKK member whose march permit you urged to be issued, or even went to Moscow with him them in your delegation. It's not just about speech, it's about the moral consequences of solidarity with people whose own rights are violated, who are not only talking about violating other people's rights, but violating them too.
The debate has taken the form of asking whether you can "share a platform" with a jihadist for the principle of denouncing the use of torture but it must be seen in broader terms. It's about building a global movement for human rights affirming universality of all human rights for all as distinguished from building an internationalist movement for social justice. They are different.
"NOT USE OR ADVOCATE VIOLENCE"
There was a mantra that used to be repeated constantly by Amnesty International itself 20 and even 10 years ago, that in order to obtain prisoner of conscience (POC) status, a prisoner "could not use or advocate violence". In fact, this mantra has now fallen by the wayside at AI and other groups; the very institution of the POC has also largely been retired at AI, with only some strategic cases emblematic of larger issues kept, and the old networks of defending massive numbers of prisoners all over the world with this status has been dismantled, in favour of a different organizing principle around thematic campaigns.
In fact, so far gone is the old constraints against the idea "not to use or advocate violence" that in defending Amnesty's position on Gita's case and the partnership with Begg, Claudio Cordone says casually:
Now, Moazzam Begg and others in his group Cageprisoners also hold other views which they have clearly
stated, for example on whether one should talk to the Taleban or on the role of jihad in self-defence. Are such views antithetical to human rights? Our answer is no, even if we may disagree with them – and indeed those of us working to close Guantánamo have a range of beliefs about religion, secularism, armed struggle, peace and negotiations. I am afraid that the rest of what we have heard against Moazzam Begg include many distortions, innuendos, and “guilt by association” to which he has responded for himself.
Naturally, this has caused a storm of criticism and protest as well as defensive re-interpretation. What I think Claudio is saying is that *Begg's right to speak of jihad in self-defense* isn't itself a violation of human rights (in the U.S. we would say it is not yet "incitement to imminent violence"). But...since when did Amnesty International members develop a "range of views" about armed struggle? That doesn't sound like the Amnesty I remember from college days or even 15 years ago when we so intensively worked on POCs from Latin America to the Soviet Union -- when there was a clear-cut mandate for the Prisoner of Conscience as a person who "did not use or advocate violence" that would never have been undone in the Secretariat by having staffers who "have a range of beliefs about...armed struggle".
That means a hugely important educational tool as well as transformative method in social movement organization, a by-product of the AI chapters' work, has been lost. In the old days, you could tell groups in another country that they had to be careful not to include anyone who had used or advocated violence in their lists of "political prisoners" or Amnesty could not accept their case -- it was a kind of "EU accession" process for political prisoners all over the world to make that grade -- and for civic groups organizing to start to *make the distinction between non-violence and violent struggle and which form of struggle gained international solidarity, and which did not*. That didn't mean that you couldn't do anything about people who suffered from lack of due process or were tortured or sentenced to the death penalty but had used or advocated violence -- all of those single issues and the cases that illustrated them could still be invoked under the other human rights parts of Amnesty's mandate -- but at that time, not in the personalized way that a POC could.
The concept of not using or advocating violence is a very good one to have in any movement, specifically devoted to human rights or to political change, but it was one in which the international movement has began to suffer some moral backsliding with the Kosovo independence movement and the intifada in Palestine among other social struggles. I have written about Durban where there was a shocking disregard for the ethical problem posed by groups that justified armed struggle or violent direct action in the belief that their justice cause was so imperative that some slack had to be cut them in the struggle, and the issue of their violence not pressed.
In Durban, international NGOs were pointedly reminded that Amnesty hadn't taken up Nelson Mandela's case back in the day because the ANC had accepted violence as a means of struggle, and that failure to solidarize in this fashion with Mandela has cost the Northern human rights groups their credibility. Put into a guilt-inducing difficult position of this sort, Westerners had a hard time being able to stand firm, look a black African colleague squarely in the eye, and continue to say: "But violence is wrong". The still, small voices of some who kept saying this anyway were drowned out in a louder, more raucous message coming from some social groups of this type: "but structural violence is built into international financial and econonomic systems" or "neoliberal policies are a form of violence" -- a decidedly Marxist and extremist point of view denying qualitative differences between countries with the rule of law and without it, and in any event, an analysis that led you away from the struggle for universality and human rights, and toward political struggle and armed insurrection.
When groups claimed to see violence everywhere in every structure, it became harder to admit that its presence in the midst of their own social movements was wrong, too. When an ill-advised World Bank program to build a dam could be theorized into a hysterical rant about "structuralized violence," a man with a gun even committing armed insurrection or terrorist acts could be theorized up into merely acting in "self-defense". It also became harder for people to see how they could solve social justice problems by human rights alone. Therefore the violence of this or that group, compared to abuses of large systems like "globalization" or "transnational corporations" seemed trivial indeed to such extreme thinkers. That Gandhi or Marin Luther King, Jr. or the Dalai Lama or even Nelson Mandela himself after he was released from prison did not speak in these terms but urged their followers to refrain from violence was not seen as the inspiring model of civic action it once was.
Today, in the absence of a new generation of moral giants like those figures, the work of parsing rights and incitement to violence falls to Amnesty staffers, in an environment of states' "war on terror". Yet somehow, even in an age when anybody can become a newspaper or a television station out of their mobile phone and i-pad, we aren't creating the substrate of an ethical, peaceful international citizens' movement that fosters a climate where violence is not acceptable, and where the patient work "by human rights alone" rather than armed struggle is embraced.
THE NATION SUPPLIES QUALIFIED SUPPORT FOR GITA
In response to the petition campaign, two authors from the Nation have taken on the case and concluded that that both sides somehow need to perform penance:
The butterfly that set this particular tempest blowing beat its wing decades ago in some British inner city. Islamophobia, antifeminism, the mutual mistrust between Muslims and the secular left have all fanned the breeze. If successive governments had not encouraged minorities to define themselves by religion, if they had answered racism and poverty with justice instead of tokenism, Gita Sahgal and Moazzam Begg might not be on opposite sides of this destructive argument.
In the current climate he might be forgiven for being protective of his community, but if he is to be taken seriously as an advocate for universal human rights, he needs to clarify his views about fundamentalist clerics his organization embraces. Amnesty needs a more transparent culture to match its principles; women's rights must be integral to all of its campaigns.
Now, faceless forces like "racism" and "poverty" and "Islamophobia" or "distrust between Muslims and the secular left" are blamed for Begg's views, although he is still urged to "clarify" his views about fundamentalist clerics -- although he is not asked to change them, and indeed, it would be wrong to impose a loyalty test for any victim of human rights abuse that involved him endorsing women's rights that he may be uncomfortable accepting, for for which he could face peer pressure from his community.
Meanwhile, AI is admonished to have a more "transparent" culture -- although you can't get more transparent than having your internal staff quarrel discussed in the Sunday Times. AI is told to integrate women's rights into all campaigns -- but it already does that as we can see from a human rights summit in the U.S. now
But there isn't a recipe here for Gita's future work, and there isn't a methodology outlined for AI or any group to be able to both care for victims and get publicity for human rights violations exemplified by individual human beings, and yet make the organization's own mandate of "all human rights for all" more clear, and more useful as an organizing tool not only for itself, but for groups forming and acting in the developing world, so that the notion of "do not use or advocate violence" and "respect women's rights as human rights" can gain some traction -- so that rights culture can grow.
"DO NOT SHARE A PLATFORM"
In various discussions with colleagues about this episode, I've heard some people invoke the old Amnesty mandate restriction that said that AI can never share a platform with another group. That AI never co-sponsors any petition or letter and never mingles its own functions with that of its clients. This "sterilization of the platform" is offered as a way out of the dilemma. You can advocate to close Guantanamo and restore the rights of inmates without having to appear on a platform with one of them, so reason those in the old school.
Yet AI will not be returning to that old restriction -- it began co-sponsoring actions with other groups years ago. And this notion of a separation platform has eroded especially in the era where a "platform" is the entire Internet, where your client is not just a case who stays in a folder, or stays in his jail, but can have just as much presence as you on the Internet, sometimes even writing from jail and espousing his views. The bricks-and-mortar building and microphone with a meeting of 50 or 500 people isn't the platform anymore; it's a Facebook group that could instantly have 50,000 people or a Twitter comment that might be seen by tens of thousands of people; it's an online letter that could be reblogged and tweeted and texted to millions "before the truth has time to get its pants on".
In that context, voices can be amplified in good and bad ways and a group should know its own mind and know it's own brand, so to speak, but it also has to continue to perform its mandate for helping victims.
What is to be done?
AFFIRMING THE ETHICS OF HUMAN RIGHTS WORK
o The first thing to be done is to reinstate Gita, and to expunge from her record, if it exists, any "offense" that would be interpreted as "the sin of telling this to the Sunday Times at a time when they would exploit this in their coverage of the war on terror". Sorry, the human rights movement has to pick its way through this mine field, and can't insist on omerta among its members never to discuss a disagreement on policy or the anti-human rights movement views of its clients for fear of how it will be used; the answer to the problem is not to grow silent and make no comment about controversies but to keep talking and keep refining and reiterating your human rights position
o The second thing is to really do due diligence on the nature and views and activities of the groups supposedly endorsing fundamentalists or even jihadists to see if they used or incited violence or advocating suppression of women's rights. Unfortunately, while normally one should not be forced to check these bona fides when picking up a case of wrongful detention or torture, in *this* case, where Amnesty's reputation and mandate and its relationship with the women's movement are on the line, it has to be done. I don't know the facts of this case, but I can see that facts as found and presented in other blogs by women's rights activists such as Meredith Tax are squarely at odds with the way the group is being portrayed in The Nation.
Pervis James Casey, writing a letter in the Nation, points out that Begg himself did not pose a threat or he wouldn't have been released, or if released, if an actual jihadist, he'd be fighting in Afghanistan. To be sure, he has not been seen "inciting to imminent violence," as the Supreme Court ruling has it. But that isn't the point. The point is that he is endorsing the views of clerics who may have these violent or anti-women views and may practice violent jihad AND he is on record himself as supporting violent jihad in his book. So now we are now one and then two steps removed from mandating-holding AI -- the fellow believers of a client whose civil rights were properly defended.
'WE DO NOT USE OR ADVOCATE VIOLENCE"
I don't know why it's so hard for human rights groups, like the curators of blog comments or the editors of mainstream newspapers, to say "The views expressed on this platform do not necessarily reflect the views of this organization" -- to provide some sort of disassociation from potential bad actors -- and to say "and the views of this organization are that we do not use or advocate violence".
o Rather than merely reinforce women's rights in programs or becoming "transparent", Amnesty and other groups should, in my personal view, create a set of ethics, not as a loyalty test for clients, and not as a whip for bad-minded governments to beat disfavored NGOs, but as their own publicly expressed moral guiding light. Chief among these should be a robust affirmation of the principle that the human rights group itself -- again in distinction of those whose cases are taken up on due process grounds -- does not use or advocate violence and recognizes all human rights for all -- and also that no one right can trump another right, and that all must be enforced, i.e. freedom of religion does not justify violation of women's rights. Art. 30 must be lifted from its obscurity at the very end of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and from sounding like the fine print on a mattress tag, to forming the ethical core of human rights work promoted everywhere, in every program.
o In addition, the notion of the "prisoner of conscience" should be restored -- not using or advocating violence should be accepted as a mantra that defines the gold standard for civic action, and not be jettisoned in favour of fashionable extremism in the name of "people's justice". Why the gold standard? Is this an imposition of a "bourgeois Western notion" upon brutal sets of circumstances? No. It's the only honest position that *a human rights organization* can take to ensure its publicized and celebrated clients *do not themselves violate other people's human rights and work at cross purposes to universality and all human rights for all*.
"NO HIERARCHY OF STATE/NON-STATE VICTIMS"
o Human rights groups should have an open and pluralistic dialogue and debate about how to address terrorism and its victims. The other letter at the Nation, a heartfelt indictment of Western human rights groups who couldn't find a way to address Islamic fundamentalism behind violence in Algeria, is profoundly unsettling. Marieme Helie Lucas speaks of a "hierarchy of victims," where the fundamentalists arrested by the state could fit in the neat template of the human rights mandate-bearer better than a woman oppressed by those fundamentalists.That shouldn't happen.
I remember those days well. I remember how glad I was, working at the Committee to Protect Journalists at the time, to have a way out of this dilemma of "non-state actors and state actors and international human rights instruments" by simply being able to invoke professional solidarity. We took up the list of journalists killed by various factions in the conflict, which included the secular journalists targeted by the fundamentalists -- the longest list of killed journalists in the world at that time -- and we raised them everywhere in every way.
Using the "professional solidarity" angle could get one far enough with teachers or scientists or librarians. But what of the ordinary truck driver or vegetable stall holder? The internationalist social justice movement radiates solidarity for what it sees as victims of oppression of "evil transnational corporations and neoliberal governments"; can't the global human rights movement for universality muster some solidarity for terrorism's victims within a rights-based framework? The solidarity approach has always taken us in fact into politicized movements and away from the human rights approach, but ultimately, it's about insufficient solidarity with all victims, not just the solidarity approach itself.
THE RISKS OF DENOUNCING VIOLENCE
There's a reason why local groups in particular become sketchy and evasive and even belligerent about the call to renounce violence. If they do (and those that do not use violence and are not armed believe in this value) they run the risk of contrasting with armed rebel movements that do not have such a profile, and then risk seeming to "show them up". They run the risk of seeming to draw fire from the government on to those attacking the state. This is a very deadly reality that leads moderates insufficiently supportive of armed rebels to be murdered in large numbers all over the world.
There's a reason why international groups become sketchy and evasive and even belligerent about the call to renounce violence, too -- they depend on local groups and individual fixes for reporting and don't want to alienate "their people".
SYMPATHY FOR THE REBEL
But there's another factor. Some human rights groups, made up of both intellectuals or urban-dwelling professionals as well as farmers in rural areas, are really sympathetic to rebels. I've found it chilling over the years to suddenly stumble across sentiments in people I thought were "on the same page" with me in terms of eschewing violence to see them nod in admiration at the Chechen rebel hostage-taking in Budyonnovsk or to speak positively about the Taliban fighting U.S. forces in Afghanistan or to angrily insist on giving a pass not only to Palestinian rock-throwers, but Palestinian suicide-bombers in a "defensive jihad".
This casual and even defiant tolerance of violence was repugnant to me and I might debate a victim or colleague in those times, yet I was given sober pause: by human rights alone I could not immediately save them or their relatives from torture; by human rights alone I could not stop the violence raining down on them from a violent government. I've seen time and again in many places of the world that groups turn to other ideologies besides human rights, whether extremist political or religious belief systems because they don't feel that human rights works.
Even so, I don't counsel despair or quietism or worse, a slide into tolerance of reprehensible violence, or, the dropping of the more limited civic struggle for universality in a global human rights movement, versus the political struggle of an internationalist social justice movement. And the reason is simple even if it requires lots more complex thought and development: because people fighting for human rights should not tolerate those abusing them and defeating their purpose. Indeed, they don't have to tolerate them and their methods to concede that as victims, they deserve the defense of their rights. It's about creating the moral distance and the legal distinction in which the space for civil society and justice for all can grow.
WHERE'S THE PEACE MOVEMENT?
I think even with the challenge of the "war on terrorism," the international human rights movement and various national groups can still set the tone, still bear witness, and still be clear on their own moral guideposts -- and in that way actually make the internationalist movement less prone to violence and less tropic to oppressive governments some see as "enemies of my enemy who are my friend" (like Hugo Chavez).
To be sure, the morality of non-violence isn't contained in international human rights treaties; but there is no reason why moral imperatives like "no violence" cannot be invoked as an organizing principle of human rights work itself, and no reason why "non-violence" is sought as a characteristic of those defended as colleagues and shown solidarity as colleagues.
I do think that the human rights movement ultimately is not sufficient and cannot develop a sufficient intellectual and legal framework for itself to deal with the vast numbers of victims of terrorism and the glaring intellectual and political problem of violent groups using or condoning terror as their method. Simply other kinds of movements have to come into being, whether political parties or peace movements, that take up this emblem. Even so, the human rights movement can go a very long way -- if it doesn't lose its way and succumb to the temptation of seeing violence as just.
The absence of a credible and moral peace movement -- or even any peace movement at all, really -- is one of the reasons why this problem fell into Amnesty's lap. Twenty years ago, a leftist peace movement would have had rebels or "victims of American imperialism" on their platforms without qualms because they would have melded the anti-imperialist struggle into an often one-sided "peace" rhetoric that was about the West giving up its nuclear missiles and colonializing missions, but not the Soviet Union. That would leave the human rights movement from having to take on the burden of "solidarity" with violent people. (It was always, of course, hypocritical of movements calling themselves "peace" movements that they would make common cause with violent governments like the Soviet Union or violent movements like the Palestinians.)
Today, the imperative and the space are needed more than ever for citizens' movements to be able to find common ground on ethical and moral principles, not just strict-constructionist human rights mandates that only looks at state discrimination or state killings and can't find a way to raise killing by non-state actors -- and not just at solidarist movements that can never take a hard look at the human rights views of jihadist who are also social justice victims. That is, I'm a big believer in human rights groups sticking close to a rights mandate, and not straying into baggy notions of "campaign causes" like "anti-poverty" or "women's empowerment," and instead, be more sincere and transparent and accountable in admitting that these solidarist struggles are political in nature and are about taking power from states or overthrowing them, not making them follow their own or international laws.
I'd also have to say quite frankly in reply to Guttenplan and Margonis that the "butterfly" that set a women's rights activist against an ex-prisoner from Guantanamo isn't only in a British slum or under an American waterboard or in a British government's definition of immigrants by their religion: it's inherent in extremist fundamentalist ideologies themselves that are antithetical to human rights, notably women's rights, that in fact are common to oppressive regimes in the Middle East that are the very first ones defining Muslims by their religion -- regimes from which families fled even to British slums, and from which even prisoners do not want to be renditioned. That reality cannot be overlooked.
While groups purport only to work "by human rights alone" and not create solidarity movements or political parties which they claim they refrain from, the reality is that when a person is a victim, and when you put him on your platform in order to highlight a human rights abuse, you inevitably solidarize and link yourself to the victim's cause. In this fashion, solidarizing has spread casually, to the point where the youngest people in the human rights movement see no discrepancy between making a hero of a victim of Guantanamo who fought with the Taliban as much as making a heroine of a woman bravely running a radio promoting women's rights in Afghanistan against the Taliban.
Yet given that human rights groups are the connective tissue between such different worlds represented in the victims' stories, they ought not to lose the opportunity to polish off or create their ethics statements and publish their disassociations from violence and the abrogation of the rights of others: "all human rights for all," and by human rights alone, not armed struggle.