For the last two months Amnesty International has been embroiled in a bitter row over its choice of partners - particularly when it comes to defending the rights of those with suspected links to terrorism.
The former head of the gender unit at Amnesty's international secretariat, Gita Sahgai, argued that Amnesty’s relationship with Moazzam Begg -- Britain’s most high-profile and well-known Guantanamo Bay detainee -- and his organization, Cage Prisoners, “fundamentally damages” the organization's reputation.
Since Begg was released from Guantanamo Bay, he has gone on to become the director of Cage Prisoners, which ostensibly campaigns against human rights violations committed during the War on Terror.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with this. The human rights of terrorist suspects have, on occasion, been violated -- it is right, therefore, that state power be checked by third parties.
But Sahgal’s concerns centered on the broader remit of Cage Prisoners’ activities, which included the promotion of al-Qaeda theorists such as Anwar al-Awlaki.
Cage Prisoners popularized, through its websites, this American-born cleric of Yemeni origin, and even offered readers the ability through the websites to forward messages to him.
Awlaki has been a cause of concern to US authorities for some time. Charles Allen, former Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis in the Department for Homeland Security, described Awlaki in the following terms:
Another example of al-Qa’ida reach into the Homeland is U.S. citizen, al-Qa’ida supporter, and former spiritual leader to three of the September 11th hijackers Anwar al-Awlaki—who targets U.S. Muslims with radical online lectures encouraging terrorist attacks from his new home in Yemen.
The extent of Awlaki’s targeting of American Muslims became evident late last year when Major Nidal Hasan launched a terrorist attack against his fellow soldiers at the Fort Hood military base in Texas. Following the attack, FBI investigators discovered that Hasan had been in regular contact with Awlaki, who celebrated the Fort Hood shootings on his website. Awlaki wrote:
Nidal Hassan is a hero. He is a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people.
... Nidal opened fire on soldiers who were on their way to be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. How can there be any dispute about the virtue of what he has done?
... Nidal has killed soldiers who were about to be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in order to kill Muslims. The American Muslims who condemned his actions have committed treason against the Muslim Ummah and have fallen into hypocrisy.
... May Allah grant our brother Nidal patience, perseverance and steadfastness and we ask Allah to accept from him his great heroic act. Ameen.
More recent reports have suggested that Awlaki was also in contact with -- and may even have directed -- the abortive Christmas day attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Delta Airlines.
The association between Awlaki and Cage Prisoners is not, however, the only case where the organization has given cause for concern. Asim Qureshi, a senior researcher for Cage Prisoners, delivered the following speech in 2006 at a rally outside the American embassy in London:
So when we see the examples of our brothers and sisters, fighting in Chechnya, Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan, then we know where the example lies. When we see Hezbollah defeating the armies of Israel, we know what the solution is, and where the victory lies. We know that it is incumbent upon all of us to support the jihad of our brothers and sisters in these countries when they are facing the oppression of the West. Allahu Akbar!
Although Moazzam Begg, director of Cage Prisoners, has never been charged with any offences at Guantanmo Bay, nor has he been convicted of any crimes, this is not the end of the story.
Begg previously ran a bookstore, Maktabah al Ansaar, in Birmingham, with an Algerian who is identified in British court documents only as “D.” The Home Secretary certified “D” as a suspected international terrorist in December 2001, and sought his deportation. A subsequent judgement, issued by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, found that “D” is “an active supporter of the GIA” (an Algerian terrorist group). The judgement also held that “D” is “involved with other extremists, in particular Djamel Beghal, Abu Qatada and members of the latter’s group, and Begg, with whom he worked at the Maktabah Al-Ansar Book Shop in Birmingham.”
This perturbed Sahgal. After two years of voicing her concerns privately to Amnesty, Sahgal, having grown frustrated with the group and its inaction, went public in February.
The response from Amnesty was swift and firm - they suspended Sahgal. Amnesty’s interim Secretary General, Claudio Cordone, issued a statement backing the group’s relationship with Begg: “Our work with Moazzam Begg has focused exclusively on highlighting the human rights violations committed in Guantanamo Bay and the need for the U.S. government to shut it down and either release or put on trial those who have been held there.”
Had Amnesty limited its campaigning to that, Sahgal would not have complained. She explains, “Amnesty International could have involved [Begg] in meetings to describe his experiences at Guantanamo, without whitewashing his views. For instance, it is clear that he was an admirer of the Taliban [...] and had sold books and videos promoting global jihad and terrorist attacks [...]. These things could have been stated in his introduction to make it clear that he held abhorrent views, but nevertheless his rights should be defended.”
This is where groups like Amnesty draw their immense strength and moral courage - from their willingness to champion the human rights of groups and individuals who would deny these very rights to others.
But herein lies the dilemma of Amnesty’s engagement with Begg: Amnesty provides a prestigious and prominent platform to anyone it hosts. By regularly hosting Begg, Amnesty appears to approve his views: “Anyone receiving such extensive coverage is legitimized as a human rights advocate. This is undoubtedly true of Begg,” Sahgal says.
The reception Begg has received is symptomatic of the peculiar pathology that a large swath of the British public has undergone in recent years. Consider if, for example, Begg had been a committed white fascist. In this case, “Amnesty International would understand the distinction between protecting his right to be free from torture and arbitrary detention, and treating him as a hero,” Sahgal suggests.
Amnesty’s departure from its founding charter is not new. Nicholas Cohen at Standpoint Magazine, has charted how, from the early 2000s, Amnesty became increasingly equivocal about political violence, torture, racism and the hatred of women and gays.
Amnesty’s recent prevarication over Begg has only underscored those concerns. Further, as Amnesty rallied to Begg’s defence, it went on to argue that the idea of jihad in self defence is not antithetical to human rights. Meanwhile, Sahgal could only watch from the sidelines as twenty years of her research into religious extremism and human rights work simply disappeared.
Last week, Sahgal finally gave up and formally resigned her post. With her goes Amnesty’s “Stop Violence Against Women” campaign.
In her resignation statement Sahgal states:
The senior leadership of Amnesty International chose to answer the questions I posed about Amnesty International’s relationship with Moazzam Begg by affirming their links with him. Now they have also confirmed that the views of Begg, his associates and his organisation, Cageprisoners, do not trouble them. They have stated that the idea of jihad in self defence is not antithetical to human rights; and have explained that they meant only the specific form of violent jihad that Moazzam Begg and others in Cageprisoners assert is the individual obligation of every Muslim...
Unfortunately, their stance has laid waste every achievement on women’s equality and made a mockery of the universality of rights. In fact, the leadership has effectively rejected a belief in universality as an essential basis for partnership.
In essence, this is the lesson Amnesty International has failed to learn -- that being the victim of human rights abuses does not automatically make one a campaigner for human rights.