A few days ago, Sir John Tusa asked himself and his readers: Is Amnesty in a mid-life crisis? Amnesty International is the largest human rights organisation and this year celebrates its 50th anniversary. Tusa looks back at AI founder Peter Benenson‘s dream:
“The absurd act of faith that writing letters about prisoners of consciencemight have an effect on the most hardened of dictators.”
For Tusa, AI may now be victim of its own success. The work on socioeconomic rights over the last decade and its current global campaign on human rights and poverty, (((Demand Dignity))), show in his opinion that Amnesty hast lost sight of the dreams of its founder:
“It is rather like a secular church, though many would feel uncomfortable with such a thought. Even its friends say it is a bit colonial too. Can it be truly internationalised?
More simply, is Amnesty trying to do too much? Is it now simply: too much about everything?
Does it need to reconnect to the original single simple improbable vision of its founder Peter Benenson?”
Just a few days later, on New Year’s Eve, Stephen Kinzer wrote in The Guardian a much more bitter article, this one focused on the whole of the human rights movement and on Human Rights Watch in particular. Kinzer thereby advocated the end of what he calls “human rights imperialism“. Just a few quotes reflect his point and tone:
“(Human rights groups) promote an absolutist view of human rights permeated by modern western ideas that westerners mistakenly call ‘universal’. In some cases, their work, far from saving lives, actually causes more death, more repression, more brutality and an absolute weakening of human rights.”
“(I)n many countries, there is a stark choice between one set of rights and the other. Human rights groups, bathed in the light of self-admiration and cultural superiority, too often make the wrong choice.”
“Human Rights Watch wants Rwandans to be able to speak freely about their ethnic hatreds, and to allow political parties connected with the defeated genocide army to campaign freely for power. It has come to this: all that is necessary for another genocide to happen in Rwanda is for the Rwandan government to follow the path recommended by Human Rights Watch.” (sic)
Those who are familiar with Amnesty’s work and the overall advocacy for human rights will not find there anything really new. I was not really surprised either, although I think that Kinzer’s aggressive attitude plays down the partial merit that he might have (Sometimes human rights clashes with other important values, such as peace and security; it would be naive to deny it as a matter of principle; we can talk about it some other day…).
I would have probably let this go, but somebody bring them back to my attention. Last weekend, with a cup a coffee and a piece of cake, my partner’s mum, who had heard Sir Tusa on the radio, asked me: ‘Does it really matter if Amnesty has more or less supporters? At the end of the day, media coverage is what really makes a difference; don´t you think, Koldo?’
Both articles came to my mind straightaway. ‘How many individual letters do we need in order to ‘compensate’ a furious diatribe like the one by Kinzer?’, I thought.
Kinzer departs from the assumption that the human rights community is spurious to the South. Many violators of human rights over there wouldn´t have any problem to agree with him. True: Amnesty (and HRW, and most human rights groups) is still very Northerner. But also true: Amnesty is now significantly much less Northerner than just a decade ago. AI is growing step-by-step in the Global South, and so is the rest of the human rights community. If AI’s presence in the South was as qualitatively/quantitatively important as in the North, the advocacy for human rights would necessarily change, and so would the very same content of the idea of human rights. In fact, Amnesty’s (still) incipient work for economic and social rights is the consequence of the pressure exercised by human rights defenders mostly from the Global South, who complained about the normative and conceptual inconsistencies of working for the right to freedom of expression and not for the right to education.
‘Individual‘ and ‘People‘ are keywords here. They make sense out of Amnesty’s candle. Amnesty International 2011 is the consequence of five decades of hard work by thousands of thousands of individuals. Nowadays, AI counts on more than 3 million supporters all over the world. More than international law, more than media support, more than effective lobby strategies and even more than the philosophical foundations of human rights, individuals like you and me, groups like you and us, constitute the added value of Amnesty International. And this is something that both outsiders and insiders should always keep in mind.
My response to my girlfriend’s mum looked like the following:
There is something that the human rights community doesn´t do very well. We don´t tell good stories as often as we must. In 1945, a handful of countries had eliminated the death penalty from their domestic law; today, 4-5 carry out nearly 99% of the executions in the world and ‘only’ 20-25 still practice the capital punishment. Since 1961, AI has helped releasing more than 45,000 prisoners of conscience. We cannot attribute these and other good news solely to AI’s work and not even to the whole of the human rights community. But there is something that shouldn´t go unnoticed. There is a clear correlation between a progressive improvement of human rights in global terms and a progressive growth and recognition of the human rights movement worldwide. This correlation ought to be enough to make us carry on.