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What is really behind the implosion of Amnesty International?

2012 November 15
by Paul Vallely

For more of the past 50 years it has been regarded as the paragon of human rights organisations – a globally admired beacon of liberty and hope. But in recent times a note of discord crept into the public reputation of Amnesty International. Behind the scenes lurks a crisis that threatens its very existence.

Staff are striking in Amnesty offices across the globe and a vote of no confidence has been passed in its leadership. On the face of it the human rights organisation is being riven over a structural reorganisation and a couple of dozen redundancies among its 700 staff. But the real problem goes much deeper and has been characterised as a “struggle for the soul” of the human right movement.

There are disputes at the International and UK arms of the organisation, both of which are headquartered in London. Staff at Amnesty International UK (AIUK) have called for the resignation of its director, Kate Allen. Staff at Amnesty’s International Secretariat have issued a vote of no confidence in the ability of the wider movement’s Secretary General, Salil Shetty, and his senior leadership team to continue leading the organisation.

The increasingly bitter crisis comes as cuts of £2.5 million are being implemented at AIUK, despite a steady annual growth in income, and despite staff agreeing to a pay freeze. The dramatic cuts are being implemented so senior managers can switch large amounts of money to Amnesty’s International Secretariat in a plan to run down the London operation and build new “regional hubs” in Nairobi, Johannesburg, Bangkok and Hong Kong.

Amnesty management has responded by saying: “This statement by the union is not a fair or accurate representation of what has been a highly consultative and inclusive process of change”.

But a senior director, Susan Lee, who runs Amnesty’s programme in Latin America, has now resigned in protest at the way staff are being treated. Picketlines have formed outside Amnesty’s offices in Senegal, Paris, Uganda, Beirut, New York, Hong Kong and Johannesburg. One union official, Alan Scott of Unite has described Amnesty as “one of the most mendacious employers” he has known. “Amnesty International cannot be an effective or credible human rights organisation,” he said, “if it does not respect the rights of its workers”.

High on the complaints of the staff is the lack of agreement on redundancy terms. But the unhappiness at Amnesty is far wider and deeper than the issue of redundancy.

It points to a deep ideological rift. One side insists that Amnesty must physically position itself in solidarity with those whose causes it champions, and those are mostly in the poor world. The other alleges that diligent and effective human rights research is being sacrificed by marketing managers who want to “build the Amnesty brand” to recruit more members and raise more funds to do more broad-brush campaigning.

The clash has been building for decades. Amnesty was founded in 1961 to campaign for Prisoners of Conscience jailed for their beliefs by authoritarian regimes. But as the years passed its brief has been steadily broadened – to the point where, some allege, it has lost its singular effectiveness.

In the early years it widened its concerns to campaign against the death penalty and torture, for which it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 . It then widened its brief to include concerns about “fair trial” and oppose internment without trial. But then in 2001, in a world changed by globalisation and 9/11 terroism, it underwent a major shift. It began to concern itself with not just civil and political concerns but also  economic, social and cultural rights. As Salil Shetty later put it: “The ultimate torture is poverty. There are many more prisoners of poverty today than prisoners of conscience in the old way.”

Shetty was brought in as head of the International Secretariat two years ago with the specific brief to rectify what was seen as a “specific weakness” in Amnesty – that it was far stronger in Europe and the US than in the global south where most of its concerns were geographically located. Under him Amnesty has adopted the slogan of Demand Dignity which concerns itself with everything from forced evictions to corporate accountability.

Using the jargon “moving closer to the ground” he devised a plan to move campaigners, researchers and media staff to “regional hubs” much as he had, in a previous job, as head of the aid agency ActionAid, moved its entire HQ from London to Johannesburg.

As the years have passed mission creep has engulfed Amnesty International. So much so that some supporters have been alienated and have left. In 2007 the Catholic Church, traditionally a strong Amnesty enthusiast, withdrew its support when Amnesty added abortion to its palette of rights. In 2010 Amnesty upset many feminists when it suspended Gita Sahgal, its gender unit head, when she criticised its links with the Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg whom she described as “Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban”. It was a move which Salman Rushdie described as a “moral bankruptcy” which had done incalculable damage to Amnesty’s reputation.  Last year Amnesty’s support for Julian Assange angered many of its members.

Yet even those members of staff who agree with the broadening of the Amnesty brief have been incensed by the way they claim research budgets have been slashed to find the money for the North to South decentralisation. “It’s utterly shambolic,” one said. “The transition is being prioritised over getting the human rights work done.”

There is confusion over whether staff in Nairobi will be paid the same salaries as London staff or at local levels. What will British staff who move to Kenya be paid? What will be the impact of any differentials? What should be the redundancy terms for those who cannot move? Amnesty’s existing terms were set in a much more generous era when it seemed appropriate to paying someone’s salary for up to a year until they could find a new job.

“The management also do not seem to have considered security issues properly [in the regional hubs],” one insider complained. “But it’s more than that. They seem to be moving Amnesty into campaigning mode with big stunts and branding exercises designed to boost membership – at the expense of the detailed research on which our credibility depends. We will launch a campaign on Pussy Riot because it’s fashionable, chasing the energy, lurching from one issue to the next.

“The danger is Amnesty may become less interested in helping individuals than in using them as emblems of problems which need to be tackled – and getting them to sign a release form so we can publicise their story to raise funds. At present we are more concerned with setting up an office in India, and raising funds locally there, than in doing the basic human rights work.”

In 2006 an academic, Stephen Hopgood, spent a year inside Amnesty International and produced a book he called Keepers of the Flame. He charted through the years an enduring feature of Amnesty’s inner life – a struggle between those who seek to preserve Amnesty’s accumulated store of moral authority and reformers who hope to change, modernize and use that moral authority in ways that its protectors fear may erode the organization’s uniqueness. It was a world, he said, of impossible choices. Over the past decade the choices appear to have got more impossible still.

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