“It’s one thing to keep an eye on the human rights situation in North Korea, China, or Uzbekistan. But monitoring human rights in Britain or Germany would be laughable.”

Ludmilla Alexeyeva, doyenne of the Russian human rights movement1


Amnesty International has a principle known as WOOC, which stands for Work On Own Country. The principle says (roughly) that members of Amnesty International are not permitted, as members, to do campaigning work on cases in their own country2. The lobbying and campaigning that members do has to be directed (primarily) at governments other than one’s own. Thus, if you are a member of the UK Section of Amnesty, you are likely to be fighting for the rights of individuals living in Sudan, in Burma, in France or Bulgaria, rather than for victims of the British government located in the UK. If you are a member of the fledgling branches of the organisation in – for example – Russia, Argentina or Burkina Faso, then you are more likely to be fighting to repeal the death penalty in the US, than to be applying pressure on behalf of (respectively) Russian, Argentinian or Burkina Faso victims.

The reasons for the rule are fairly sound: first, the organisation does not want to put members in danger, and criticising your own government can be a risky business. Second, the organisation can better ensure objectivity and impartiality, if people work on issues which do not directly concern them (or their nearest and dearest). Third, human rights violations are not supposed to be any more reprehensible or unacceptable just because they happen in another country than your own: fighting for rights in different parts of the globe is tied in with international solidarity and the universality of human rights.

Those are all important principles. But in almost any part of the world other than the comfy regions of the global north, the strictures of WOOC can appear nonsensical – at least for an organisation concerned with urgent matters of life and death, concerned with challenging the power of government in the most effective way, and with working to achieve real change. WOOC is, after all, an upside down view of activism.

You see this very clearly in Russia and the former Soviet Union, where real human rights activists are rarely members of Amnesty International, and members of Amnesty are rarely real human rights activists. It is probably the same in other regions, and is not all that surprising: real activists in Russia (for example) are keen to work on the problems created by their own government – the problems which they see all around them – and most of them simply laugh at the idea that rather than lobbying their local leaders, they should instead be sending letters or faxes off to the President of Chad or the Prime Minister of Great Britain. They laugh at the idea that letters addressed to President Putin (now Medvedev-Putin) from the citizens of Chad might alter his behaviour or policies; and they laugh at the idea that rather than protesting about torture in Russian gaols, racist attacks in Russian cities, continuing abuse in Chechnya or corruption in the legal system, they should be standing on the street collecting signatures to protest about the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. You can sort of see their point.

The geography of human rights

But exactly the same point ought to apply here in the UK, and it is strange in some ways that the so-called human rights activists3 in this comfy region, or in the United States of Europe and America do not see the problem. People in the UK – and not only, as the quote above illustrates – do not in general question Amnesty’s policy, because it is assumed that real human rights violations do not happen in the rich and established democracies (so-called): they happen in the third world (so-called). Here, they are assumed to be no more than a fringe phenomenon, a freak, not systematic and entrenched. That means that any British resident who wants to fight against human rights violations automatically assumes that his or her support is needed most urgently outside the borders of this country.

That is a very natural assumption, but it all depends on what you understand by violations ‘happening’, and on how you think it might be most effective to concentrate energies in order that the ‘happening’ does not happen. If you believe that a violation of human rights ‘happens’ where the victim is located, then it is probably true to say that there are fewer violations of human rights in the so-called established democracies (the richer ones, in other words). But if you think that the importance of the happening lies not so much in who the victims are, nor in where they are located, but rather in the location of those responsible for the violation – then that claim collapses. In the UK, for example, real human rights violations can surely be said to ‘happen’ when we fabricate a war in distant lands and destroy a nation (or two).

So one problem with WOOC is that it only makes a bare amount of sense to people who assume that their own government is not carrying out systematic human rights violations, of the very worst sort. It only makes sense, in other words, to do-gooders in the richer world, who want to save the world, and who see on their own doorstep neither the cause nor the consequences of the current unsafe, vile, violent world.

Because there is a second problem with WOOC: if you did see the cause of the violence and vileness in other regions of the world on your own doorstep, and if you really were concerned to stop it, then you would behave like the real activists in other regions of the world, and you would stop fiddling about with Amnesty and WOOC. From an activist’s point of view, it is much more effective, where possible, for those closest to the cause of violations to try to address that cause directly. Power and influence dissipate with distance, and the further you are from a source of power, the harder it is to influence or deflect it.

None of our business

WOOC makes absolutely no sense in countries like the UK, where the danger involved in fighting for human rights is minimal. Unless, of course, you think – like Amnesty – that starting wars, fighting wars, failing to clean up after wars, bombing, killing, maiming, destroying physically and mentally those unwittingly caught up in wars, occupying their land, and making off with the proceeds of wars – that all of those are not human rights issues.

What does Amnesty think about war?

Amnesty International is independent of any government, political persuasion or religious creed. It neither supported nor opposed the war in Afghanistan in October 2001, and takes no position on the legitimacy of armed struggle against foreign or Afghan armed forces4.

I wonder how it would be possible ‘neither to support nor oppose’ a war which was unnecessary, which has brought only misery to people in one of the poorest countries on this earth, which was predicted to do so, and which will continue to do so for decades to come – if you really were concerned about human rights. And I wonder how you can condemn the consequences – which are terrible, by any scale, and Amnesty condemns them – yet not condemn the actions of those who brought those consequences about deliberately, with foresight, and who have since failed to secure the most basic living conditions or security for the country they are occupying.

Amnesty International can think what it likes, of course, and it can even savour its famed impartiality and objectivity at the expense of potential victims of war the world over, if it chooses. But it should be noted that it is doing so in this country (alone) at a cost of £22 million (about $44 million), taken from individual supporters who have trusted the organisation to tell them where the real human rights offenders are, and to use the funds effectively5.

More seriously, for those who are the victims of British policy around the world, that £22 million, and the efforts of Amnesty UK’s 260,000-odd supporters – who now think that they have done their bit for human rights – are thereby stolen from the real human rights campaigns we should be fighting in this country. Instead of campaigning against the violations committed on their own doorstep, by their own government, against the weakest and defenceless of the world, Amnesty International advises that those wanting to ‘protect the human’ avert their gaze, adopt a position neither supporting nor opposing an unprovoked war of aggression, and direct their efforts overseas, to other people’s governments.

How fitting, but how tragic, that a country which has, throughout its history, been better at repressing other people than its own, and which has with great efficiency exported its worst crimes overseas, should have given birth to a human rights organisation which serves that purpose perfectly. How inconvenient it would be, after all, to have Amnesty International’s 260,000-odd supporters banging on the door of 10 Downing Street. How much better that they bang on doors in other countries, and leave our warmongers in peace.



1. This comment was made when the Russian government announced that it was planning to set up an organisation to monitor human rights in the west (see here for details)

2. ‘The principle intended to establish an objective distance between the Amnesty activist and the human rights concern. Amnesty groups must not ask for, assess, or act upon information about individual cases in their own country.’ From AI UK’s site. The rule has been relaxed slightly since its earlier manifestations, but the principles remain.

3. Very much so-called. In the UK, real human rights activists probably call themselves activists, without the human-rights tag. The human rights armies (who use the tag) are very rarely activists.

4.Of course, they refused to condemn the Iraq war as well. For Irene Khan’s pathetic plea to the Security Council, urging them to ‘put the protection of human rights and humanitarian concerns for the life and safety of the Iraqi population at the forefront of your deliberations’ see this page (and my comments on it here)

5. A lot of the £22 million is spent on gimmicky campaigns, publicity and super-flash websites with interactive, cool ways of getting involved in human rights. A lot of it (of course) is spent on highly paid ‘experts’, managers, fundraising and publicity consultants – and plush offices for all these individuals. As one researcher said, quoted in Stephen Hopgood’s book Keepers of the Flame: ‘I mean, when the people that I work with, when they see this office, my God, it’s… we look like the UN, don’t we? You know. And I can remember being really embarrassed in a sense. When we moved from our shabby old place in Covent Garden and we came here. And that was the embarrassment. I mean, we are working with the poorest of the poor. And the, the most powerless people in the world. and they come here and course what do they think? You know. We are, we are a rich Western organisation.’



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