Friday, December 05, 2003

The Sad State Of Amnesty International 

I'll be honest here: Amnesty International makes me squirm. Not because I'm against advocating human rights. Because I find that Amnesty's priorities always appear in the wrong order, leading to a lot of self-contradictory statements and misplaced positions.

Take, for instance, this column by Kate Allen, head of Amnesty International UK. Now, what caught me first was the title. I don't know if it's the creation of Ms. Allen or the Guardian editorial staff, but I can't think of a much worse title than "Why pick on Robert Mugabe?" It makes criticizing Zimbabwe like schoolyard bullying. Ironic, since Mugabe would make a much better schoolyard bully than any of his critics.

The crux of the column is that Zimbabwe is hardly the only human rights transgressor in the Commonwealth, which makes standing up against Zimbabwe difficult because we do not appear serious in our criticism. And indeed, a quick glance at the Freedom House Map of Freedom 2003 shows a number of Commonwealth countries with less than sparkling human rights records. Countries such as Pakistan, the Maldives, Sierra Leone and Mozambique were all either categorized as "not free" or "partly free".

But who are the first three countries that Allen goes after first? India, Britain, and Australia, three liberal democracies with independent judiciarys, fair elections, and vibrant and vocal presses. So what puts them to prominence? Their counterterrorism legislation enacted post-9/11 to protect themselves in the "war on terror" (scare quotes hers, not mine).

The column then points out the Bahamas and Jamaica for still having capital punishment, matter-of-factly considering the death penalty a human right violation. No word on the independent and transparent legal system of the Bahamas (Jamaica's legal system is admittingly clogged with back cases, so I would not call it a shining example of judicial excellence).

Finally, after seven paragraph, Allen finally moves on to the real bad boys, such as Nigeria and its stoning and flogging, and Uganda and its police torture. Nonetheless, she manages to write three times more on India, Britain and Australia as she did on these real human rights violators.

Finally, Allen closes off with a call for South Africa and Zambia to pressure the Mugabe regime. Zambia? The same country with two straight tainted elections and ranked 86 out of 166 countries in press freedom by Reporters sans frontières? For someone ranting and raving about Britain and Australia, her choice for who to pressure Mugabe comes as something of a surprise.

This column reflects really what I find to be so convoluted about Amnesty's reasoning. First consider the column's thesis, that the Commonwealth cannot make Mugabe listen to its will until it addresses all its members' human rights violations equally, big and small. It totally disregards several truths. The first one is the most obvious: the Commonwealth itself is a politically weak organization that has the ability to order countries to do jack squat. Secondly, Commonwealth members are split over whether to punish Zimbabwe severely or try to bring it back into the fold, illustrating that it is not so much a unified Commonwealth voice is falling on deaf ears as it is a weak, divided Commonwealth voice that is being heard by Mugabe. Finally, and most importantly, the countries that Allen believe should be the ones applying pressure to Zimbabwe, South Africa and Zambia, are the ones that want to give him a free ride, while the ones that she indicts so passionately are the countries that are standing up to Mugabe.

This specific example leads to the more general trend of I must address: the way that people like Allen ends up bashing robust democratic countries more than the real problem states of the Commonwealth. I don't know whether this is some sort of anti-Western bias or a double standard that holds developed democracies to higher standards than emerging democracies or non-democracies, but it's definitely not an impartial assessment of the situation out there. I'm not saying that human rights violations don't exist in developed democracies, but I'm certain that such violations are much more easily revealed, scrutinized, criticized, and eliminated in developed democracies. I also believe that because of this, any actual transgression in a developed democracy will be far less severe than something in a less free country.

Now, I'm sure many people in Amnesty feel that they should and they are spending more time and effort criticizing countries like Burma, Zimbabwe, and Iran than places like Australia and Britain. It's just that when the organization's public face writes a column that does the opposite of this, and indeed contradicts its own position by promoting Zambia as a worthy country to criticize Zimbabwe, it makes me shake my head and wonder how an organization that advocates something so important for all of us can gets its facts so messed up.
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