Amnesty International and Political Culture

1 Background and Introduction

I have been an active member of Amnesty International for the past couple of years. The reasons why I joined AI were twofold. First, AI obviously does a lot of good work in the field of human rights. And second, I believed that some of AI’s activities aren’t really compatible with the idea that human rights should be for everyone. I had naively hoped that I could offer suggestions that would help rectify this perceived problem. On the occasions that I did raise my concerns they were listened to but ultimately I was answered with the standard refrain, “that’s not part of AI’s mandate”. This has the effect of halting further discussion.

Based on this experience I thought what I needed to do was present my concerns within a coherent framework that couldn’t be dismissed with the above refrain. In particular, rather than making vague statements about ‘consistency’ and ‘honesty’, an argument with a strong logical structure was required. Before I started however, September 11 happened. Subsequently my concerns about AI grew and at the same time many people wrote on the ways in which the tragedy and its response may be analysed. By using September 11 and the Middle East as the central examples, I have been then able to create a logical framework by simply paraphrasing others’ work. With this framework in place it has been a straightforward matter of applying it to AI.

With the benefit of hindsight I can see that the difficulties I have with AI stem from the observation that AI’s discourse is restricted in such a way that the conflict with the goals of Western imperialism is minimized. Without doubt AI cannot ignore the surrounding political culture. Specifically, the further it departs from consensus opinion the greater the attacks on it by State and non-State groups, particularly on issues relating to the distribution of power and the use of violence. The purpose of this article is not to try and argue against this fact. Rather, the purpose is to question whether AI has struck the right balance between the universality of human rights and the mechanics of its own survival and growth.

The layout of this article is as follows: Section 2 outlines the overall themes that exist in the problem of human rights, and section 3 then discusses where in this big picture AI’s work fits. With this in mind, sections 4 to 7 discuss areas of possible improvement in AI’s activities and section 8 provides a summary and offers some speculations. 

2 Themes in Human Rights

This section summarizes Chapter 5 of “Liberating Peace” which is titled “Human Rights, Political Democracy and the Survival of Cultures” (Rajini Kothari, United Nations University Press, 1987). It is contended there that: “Any interpretation of human rights which does not take into account the contradictions in economic, social and political life will miss the distinctive quality of its reality”. The problem of human rights is then considered under the following headings (if the reader is not interested in detail, the following could be skim-read):

·         “a depiction of the basic dynamic trend towards deprivation and oppression, and the counter-trend towards struggle for the restoration of certain measure of human rights and democracy”; Against notable achievements is the continuation of militarized politics in the Third World and imperial geopolitics and marginalization of minority groups in the First World.

·         “state-building as a contributing factor”; While state formation has performed certain liberating roles, it has, as the central coercive mechanism, produced a variety of repressive arrangements, particularly when the boundaries of the state have been artificially constructed.

·         “capital formation patterns as a contributing factor”; In newly industrialized countries it is often argued that repressive polices are required in order to eliminate the investment disincentives caused by labour unrest and political opposition. However, this State-society tension arises in these cases because only a small proportion of the potential workforce benefits from such export-led growth. The subsequent vicious cycle of radical opposition and increasing repression is more vicious for the mass of the people than for any privileged classes.

·         “interventionary diplomacy and geopolitical rivalry as a contributing factor”; This can be summarized by Henry Kissinger’s often quoted “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people”, illustrating the contempt powerful states have for subordinates. Other factors noted at this point of the chapter are: the threat posed by cultural chauvinism or religious bigotry; rampant and corrosive communication media and; the threat to the World’s intellectual community.

·         “the special phenomenon of the nuclear national security State”; Nuclear weaponry and doctrines governing its uses are incompatible with the idea that a State is subordinate to societal will. More generally, militarization works against political democracy, human rights, and the survival of cultures.

·         “political style as an outcome of overall process towards militarisation”; The modernized or modernizing State, with its essentially militarized approach towards internal and external law-and-order challenges, tends to require a type of leadership that it not sensitive to political democracy, human rights, and the survival of cultures. When there are the additional dimensions of debt burdens and large-scale corruption, active resistance can assume desperate forms. This dynamic encourages repressive responses, and a basic pattern for Third World State-society relations is established. One widespread tendency in the face of this situation is to find effective means to depoliticise the society as a whole, via the control of media and education. Such a process of depoliticisation is characteristic of virtually all parts of the world system.

·         “positive prospects and alternative approaches”. While many of the basic culminative trends are apparently unfavourable, there are positive counter-tendencies at work.  For example, the establishment of NGOs which work towards the protection of human rights and ethnic and cultural identities. India provides a case where formal freedoms have been put to great use by non-State actors and movements to counter repressive State agencies. Elsewhere the necessity for repression is being challenged on the grounds that favourable economic performance would be enhanced by creating conditions more conducive to democratic and humane patterns of governance. Similarly, in the advanced country context of the industrialized world there are popular peace movements and a growing concern about intervention in foreign societies. Finally, over time the concept of ‘human rights’ has grown to cover previously neglected elements of human existence. 

3 Amnesty International and Human Rights

To see where AI fits into the seven themes above here are AI’s vision and mission:

“Amnesty International’s vision is of a world in which every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards. In pursuit of this vision”,

“Amnesty International’s mission is to undertake research and action focussed on preventing grave abuses of the rights to physical and mental integrity, freedom of conscience and expression, and freedom from discrimination, within the context of its work to promote all human rights. Amnesty International forms a global community of human rights defenders with the principles of international solidarity, effective action for the individual victim, global coverage, the universality and indivisibility of human rights, impartiality and independence, and democracy and mutual respect. Amnesty International addresses governments, intergovernmental orgainisations, armed political groups, companies, and other non-state actors.”


For the purposes of this article I shall divide AI’s activities into two types. First there are micro issues that can in some sense be considered in isolation, such as ending torture. Second there are macro issues, such as those surrounding the response to September 11, whose accurate description necessarily involves the types of issues outlined in section 2. (Note that AI’s vision will only be attained if all of the human rights themes outlined in section 2 are addressed.)

The remainder of this article discusses the tension between these macro issues AI is involved in, the surrounding political culture, and the principle of universality.

4 A Basic Framework for Analysing Human Rights Abuses

In January 2002 Stephen Shalom interviewed Noam Chomsky on how one might analyse the U.S. ‘war on terrorism’, given questions on whether pacific means can adequately combat terrorism ( Chomsky’s response was that a definitive answer is very difficult to find but as a framework for searching for answers two obvious points are a useful start:

·         “If we propose some principle that is to be applied to antagonists, then we must agree – in fact strenuously insist – that the principle apply to us as well.”

·         “While we should certainly seek to reach our own considered judgments about questions of fact, we must recognize that it is a very long step between our opinions, however convincing we find them, and proposals for action. That step requires argument – substantial argument when the actions proposed have large-scale human consequences: bombing some country, for example.”

These points can be applied to the public face of AI’s campaigning also. In particular they may be paraphrased for the purposes of this article as the following two principles:

1.       Consistency principle: If a human rights abuse in criticised in one place, then it ought to be criticised in all places where it occurs in a consistent manner (at least as far as resources permit).

2.       Transparency principle: Nobody (or any organization) can claim to fully describe what needs to be done to rectify a situation of human rights abuse. The best that can be done is to give the reasons for one’s view.

These two principles will be referenced several times in the remainder of this article.

The application of these principles is best illustrated by example, which I shall take to be September 11. First some facts (as far as I have read): the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan were illegal; more Afghani civilians died as a direct consequence of U.S. military actions as did people in the Twin Towers; the way the U.S. went about removing the Taleban was not desired by the Afghani people; the U.S. actions were incompatible with the consistency principle (point 1) above (the references have the preface and are respectively CrisesCurEvts/mandelillegal.htm; herold.htm; rawastate.htm; shalom0122.htm). Notwithstanding the fact that all this is counter to AI’s vision, AI did not campaign directly on these points (recall Article 28 of the UDHR: Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized). The focus was instead on calling for the U.S. to respect laws regarding the targeting of civilians rather than whether the U.S. action was legal or appropriate to begin with. Also (and obviously) there were calls for the perpetrators of September 11 to be bought to justice. Indeed AI stated (presumably without a sense of irony) that: “The shock, outrage and grief following the attacks of 11 September gave rise to strong public demand for the punishment of the perpetrators and the prevention of similar attacks” ( It would be an interesting counterpoint to see whether AI called for the U.S. administration to be bought to justice for the 500,000 deaths that have resulted from the U.S. imposed sanctions on Iraq.

How might this be understood? I believe the answer to this question is not simply to do with the restrictions placed by AI’s mandate, since whatever form the mandate takes it ought not to absolve AI of the requirement of the consistency principle above. Rather, it is most likely to do with AI’s marketability. AI must necessarily market itself and this marketability is increased when AI issues statements that appeal to its membership and potential membership. If AI insists on rationalising its position via only its mandate, rather than providing the reasons why its mandate takes the form it does, then its position becomes obscurantist. (I am not trying to say AI’s mandate takes the form it does purely for the reasons implied here.) If AI chooses to sacrifice consistency for marketability, it should ideally be clear about it, in line with the transparency principle. Some comments on the trade-off between marketability and honesty are left for section 8.

5 Dominant Ideas and the Use of Language

Edward Herman and David Peterson wrote soon after September 11 that “One of the marks of exceptional hegemonic power is the ability to define words and get issues framed in accord with your own political agenda” ( It is uncontroversial to state that a country’s mass media is subservient to the dominant powers within that country. A consequence of this is that the general population is depoliticised when in comes to analysing the actions of their own State (as also mentioned in section 2). Herman and Peterson describe this as the “epistemic bind of not knowing that they do not know”.

AI cannot escape the fact that the words and issues surrounding the ‘war on terrorism’ have a biased rather than neutral meaning amongst the general population. Again, this is best illustrated by an example. AI has stated “As with any serious abuses of human rights, Amnesty International calls for those responsible for the crimes of 11 September to be brought to justice, in proceedings which at all stages must be in accordance with international human rights standards, and for the victims to receive full reparation”. AI made no such calls regarding the U.S. response in Afghanistan and instead noted that “Amnesty International maintains neutrality on the issue of resort to military force and does not take sides in any conflict. Accordingly, Amnesty International neither opposes nor supports the use of military action against any country where alleged perpetrators may be found” ( If all the issues surrounding terrorism were analysed consistently in public discourse, then AI’s position would be of lesser importance. However, the inconsistent use of the word terrorism allows it to play an important role in state propaganda. Therefore, AI’s position serves to reinforce its biased usage. This has serious implications. All the authors cited in this document note that the world-view promoted by the mass media serves to rationalize numerous human rights abuses. Furthermore, since part of AI’s purpose is to promote all human rights, then reinforcing this propaganda becomes particularly problematic.

One possible reason for AI’s inconsistency is that AI may feel (implicitly, by averaging over the views of its membership) that while the actions of the U.S. and its allies are not perfect, they are better than the alternative choices for a global police officer. If this is the case then AI should be clear about it, in accordance with the transparency principle (section 4). (Although one might expect differing reactions to this contention amongst the First and Third Worlds.) Another possible reason for AI’s inconsistency might be that AI feels it will not be listened to if it issues statements contrary to the standard propaganda, given the pervasiveness of that propaganda. Herman and Peterson make a similar speculation about the Left generally. Their answer to this ‘pragmatism’ is as follows: “We believe it is of utmost importance to contest the hegemonic agenda that makes the U.S. and its allies victims of terror, not terrorist and sponsors of terror. This is a matter of establishing basic truth, but also providing the long-run basis for systematic change that will help to solve the problem of “terrorism,” however defined.”

The key point of this section is that AI cannot claim that it is possible to frame its statements on macro issues in a truly neutral manner. Almost everything can either reinforce propaganda or counter it. Whichever of these alternatives AI adopts, the choice should ideally be made in accordance with the consistency and transparency principles. Some speculations on how this might be best achieved are left for section 8.

6 Imperialism and Human Rights Discourse

“It takes a heavy dose of racism to believe that, without our constant interventions, Third World peoples could not find better paths of development than the present ones… If one thinks it through, one sees that the countless losses of opportunity suffered by the poor majority of the world translate into tens and even hundreds of millions of lost lives. To contemplate this seriously is heart-rending.” This extract is taken from Jean Bricmont’s article on the relationship between power, war and human rights ( His central thesis is that compared to the attention given to the world’s uneven economic relations, the attention given to its uneven military relations is inadequate. Many of his comments are of significant relevance to AI. For example,

·         “The human rights ideology, as used by the US and its Western supporters, rests on an extremely selective reading of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Only the sections on Civil and Political rights are referred to, and even these are interpreted according to double standards.” Under this emphasis it is obvious which parts of the world come in for the most criticism and, more importantly, what types of things receive the most criticism. The mainstream human rights discourse therefore sits as well as can be managed within the goals of Western imperialism. This is despite the fact that this imperialism has caused, and is causing, massive human rights abuses.

·         “In the end, the Cold War was quite similar to the present ‘war on terrorism’: a continuation of centuries of domination by the advanced industrial powers of the rest of the world, ensuring popular support at home thanks to a clever and scary rhetoric. Of course, there was a real conflict, as there is now. But, then as now, the relationship of forces was enormously unequal, the response totally disproportionate to the actual dangers, and the real goals, although concealed, not hard to figure out.” Also, recall from section 5 Herman and Peterson’s contention: “it is of utmost importance to contest the hegemonic agenda that makes the U.S. and its allies victims of terror, not terrorist and sponsors of terror”. In contrast to all this, AI’s comments following September 11 in no real way sort to disabuse the public of the idea that the U.S. attack on Afghanistan was a ‘just war’. Indeed, if anything, AI’s statements implicitly reinforced the idea. This is despite the fact that a genuine application of the (whole of the) UDHR would require one to do so. As for the reasons why, see the bullet point above.

·         “Any public statement is a political act and its moral worth should be evaluated according to its likely consequences. Our moral imperative is not to tell the truth, no matter what, but rather to “tell the truth as best one can, about things that matter, to the right audience. [Chomsky]” To be more specific, there is a big difference between denouncing terrorism in the mainstream Western press, and giving arguments against terrorism when one discusses with people who actually support it in some way or other. In the first case, the exercise is easy and often purely ritual while in the latter a discussion about alternative strategies inevitably arises. This is much more interesting but also leads us to reflect on how much the policies of our own states makes such alternatives hard to implement.” Again the implications for AI are clear. For example, not only do AI’s public statements have a moral dimension, but it is also quite possible that the absence of a statement can also have a moral dimension.

Having said all this it is also worth stating the obvious. If AI were to criticise the existing world order, particularly from a military perspective, it would come under furious attack from those with a vested interest in its current structure. As Bricmont has alluded to, criticism is only tolerated under strict guidelines. Some speculations on how AI might negotiate this minefield are left for section 8.

7 The Violence of the Oppressor and the Oppressed

Paul Foot wrote on the Israel/Palestine conflict that whenever news comes of further atrocities “there is a universal shaking of sophisticated heads and a weary, liberal sigh. Tut tut, there they go again” (,4273,4367838,00.html). Foot goes on to say however, “The beauty of this approach is that it requires no intellectual effort, no analysis, no history, above all no need to distinguish between the violence of the oppressed and the violence of the oppressor. …Anyone who… denies the right of violent resistance to the Palestinians is siding unequivocally with the oppressor against the oppressed”. (See also the quoted text in the third bullet point of section 6. Note also that this is entirely separate to the issue of advocating violence)

When combined with the comments in section 5 regarding dominant ideas and use of language, it does not require much modification to this line of criticism for it to be applicable to AI. For example, AI makes much of the idea of standing in solidarity with the civilian victims of both sides of the Israel/Palestine conflict. While this has some obvious utility, it has the effect of equating the plight and therefore violence on either side (perhaps not an obvious point for those indoctrinated into the ways of oppressors). Since the prevailing wisdom, as relentlessly stated by the mass media, is that the Palestinians employ terrorism and the Israelis act in self-defence, AI’s position essentially involves siding with the oppressor. Returning to the transparency principle, if this is indeed AI’s position, AI should be open about it and give the reasons why.

As with the previous section, if AI were to issue statements outside of accepted guidelines, significant attacks on its character should be expected.

8 Summary and Speculation

The excellent work AI has carried out and continues to carry out is plentiful and no attempt has been made to enumerate it here. Micro issues such as the campaign against torture fit into this admirable category. The reason for this is that these issues can in some sense be considered in isolation and are therefore relatively uncontroversial. Conversely, it has been argued here that when it comes to the types of campaigning activities that involve the macro considerations outlined in section 2, AI’s performance is less than ideal. In particular, AI is guilty of:

·         double standards and a lack of transparency (section 4);

·         indirectly reinforcing the propaganda of large-scale human rights abusers (section 5);

·         restricting its statements in such a way that the resulting conflict with the goals of Western imperialism is minimized (section 6 – perhaps the most important of all);

·         implicitly equating the violence of the oppressed with the violence of the oppressor (section 7).

While it is true that if AI chose to overcome these shortcomings it would in principle require comparatively little effort, the following interrelated counter-forces have been noted:

·         AI’s ability to market itself (section 4);

·         the weight of existing propaganda (section 5);

·         the ability to step outside of accepted guidelines in criticising existing power structures (sections 6 and 7).

What is the best compromise between these criticisms and counter-forces? It goes without saying that AI’s executive knows more about human rights campaigning than I, and therefore it makes no sense for me to offer opinion on specific strategies. Some broad-brush comments are still possible, however.

1.       With the necessary give-and-take of real world campaigning, there is no surprise in who does the giving and who does the taking. But on a macro level it is then not clear to me whether AI’s resultant work is helping or hindering certain groups of oppressed peoples (e.g. Afghanis post September 11). While it can be argued that a profit driven organisation can benefit from such trade-offs, I cannot see out how it is appropriate for a human rights organisation, ostensibly based on principle, to benefit. By benefit I mean in the marketing sense discussed in section 4. Maybe at times it’s better to say nothing.

2.       Being the highest profile human rights organisation in the world, AI implicitly has a significant influence in defining mainstream human rights discourse. It therefore has a moral obligation to be clear and open about the limitations imposed by the political culture within which it works. AI ought to be able to survive the attacks that would result from this limited level of honesty.

3.       AI illustrates the difficulties faced by an essentially First World organisation that deals mainly with issues in the Third World. Perhaps AI should set up systems and processes whereby its branches in the Third World can work autonomously. This would allow those branches to issue statements that may contradict some of the statements issued from the First World. The ensuing debate would be a valuable education process.

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