With the recent release of its annual human rights report, Amnesty International is again proving itself useless and feckless, despite some noble goals and the potential to do good.
It must be remembered that Amnesty claims to be an organization of international scope, “a worldwide movement of people who campaign for internationally recognized human rights to be respected and protected,” according to its website. It is not a domestic human rights organization dedicated to alleged human rights abuses by the American government. Moreover, it claims its mission is to “conduct research and take action to prevent and end grave abuses of all human rights.”
Yet, instead of maintaining a worldwide scope and focusing on the gravest human rights abuses, Amnesty disproportionately targets one country: the United States.
Nothing illustrates this better than the numbers. According to the figures included in its 2007 report, Amnesty says it has released 13 country reports on the United States in 2006. This includes one document entitled “Stonewalled — still demanding respect: Police abuses against lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender people in the USA” and one entitled “Amnesty International’s continuing concerns about taser use.”
While Amnesty was busily writing these reports about taser use in the U.S., Kim Jong-il in North Korea continued his sadistic rule. Despite the systematic human rights abuses which are daily fare in that country, the group wrote precisely zero country reports on North Korea in 2006. South Korea, by contrast, was the subject of two. Perhaps too many people were assigned to the taser issue to take notice.
In fact, Amnesty produced more country reports on the United States than on Cuba, Syria, North Korea, the Palestinian Authority, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia combined. Sudan, which stands accused of perpetrating genocide, was criticized in five fewer reports than the U.S.
The criticism of America begins almost immediately. “Unfettered discretionary executive power is being pursued relentlessly by the US administration,” the group’s Secretary General Irene Kahn writes in the foreword, “which treats the world as one big battlefield for its ‘war on terror: kidnapping, arresting, detaining or torturing suspects….Nothing so aptly portrays the globalization of human rights violations as the US government’s programme of ‘extraordinary renditions.'”
Not only is this venom misdirected, but it is hard to believe that Kahn could be serious. Extraordinary renditions are the best example of globalized human rights violations? How about international terrorism?
In place of hardheaded analysis, the report offers misplaced idealism. “Only a common commitment based on shared values can lead to a sustainable solution,” Kahn continues. “In an inter-dependent world, global challenges, whether poverty or security, migration or marginalization, demand responses based on global values of human rights that bring people together and promote our collective well-being….But protecting the security of states rather than the sustainability of people’s lives and livelihoods appears to be the order of the day.”
The problem is, of course, that there are not shared values among states. Iran and the United States, North Korea and Britain simply have different ideals. Kim Jong-il subjugates his people and diminishes their quality of life. What kind of “shared values” do Western governments have with North Korea?
If all this were not enough, Amnesty even felt the need to throw in a gratuitous shout out to global warming, though it is not clear how it has anything to do with human rights. Kahn writes, “Fear can be a positive imperative for change, as is the case of the environment, where alarm about global warming is forcing politicians belatedly into action.” This is the one instance in Kahn’s forward where fear is portrayed as positive.
Amnesty’s selective indignation is nothing new. In his book Law Without Nations? Why Constitutional Government Requires Sovereign States, the legal scholar Jeremy Rabkin wrote that while Pol Pot committed mass murder in Cambodia, “Amnesty International, the most prominent human rights advocacy organization in the mid-1970s, remained silent.” How come? “The organization did not want to give retroactive sanction to the American war in the region.” It was at this time that Amnesty launched its campaign against capital punishments in the U.S. It did so, Rabkin argues, at least partly out of a misguided commitment to neutrality. In this case, Amnesty demonstrated its neutrality by criticizing the United States.
Little has changed in recent years. In 2005, Kahn outlandishly called U.S terrorist detention facilities in Guantanamo Bay “the gulag of our times.” Yet, when the Soviet Gulag was up and running and political prisoners were being sent — often to their deaths — to labor camps in Siberia, Amnesty “averted its gaze from Soviet repression,” according to Rabkin.
It may, as Amnesty’s supporters would no doubt argue, be easier to get information about government activity in open societies than dictatorships. But what use is a global human rights organization if it spends most of its energy writing reports about countries with the best human rights records?
Amnesty International’s failure to differentiate between free societies and totalitarian regimes is a serious error. Targeting liberal democracies doesn’t make them effective protectors of human rights. It just lets the bad guys off the hook.
Jamie Weinstein is a Collegiate Network Fellow at Roll Call.