Amnesty International has been a handmaiden of the left for as long as I can remember. Founded in 1961 to support prisoners of conscience, it has managed since then to ignore the most brutal regimes and to aim its fire at the West and particularly at the United States. This week, Amnesty has come in for some (much overdue) criticism -- but not nearly so much as it deserves.
During the Cold War, AI joined leftist international groups like the World Council of Churches to denounce America's policy in Central America. Yet human rights in Cuba were described this way in a 1976 report: "the persistence of fear, real or imaginary, was primarily responsible for the early excesses in the treatment of political prisoners." Those priests, human rights advocates, and homosexuals in Castro's prisons were suffering from imaginary evils. And the "excesses" were early -- not a continuing feature of the regime.
In 2005, William Schulz, the head of AI's American division, described the U.S. as a "leading purveyor and practitioner" of torture and recommended that President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and other high-ranking American officials face trial in other countries for their crimes. "The apparent high-level architects of torture," he added, "should think twice before planning their next vacation to places like Acapulco or the French Riviera because they may find themselves under arrest as Augusto Pinochet famously did in London in 1998." Schulz's comments were echoed by AI's Secretary General, Irene Khan, who denounced Guantanamo Bay as "the gulag of our times."
When officials from Amnesty International demonstrated last month in front of Number 10 Downing Street demanding the closure of Guantanamo, Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo detainee who runs a group called Cageprisoners, joined them. Begg is a British citizen who, by his own admission, was trained in at least three al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan, was "armed and prepared to fight alongside the Taliban and al-Qaida against the United States and others," and served as a "communications link" between radical Muslims living in Great Britain and those abroad.As for Cageprisoners, well, let's just say it isn't choosy about those it represents. Supposedly dedicated to helping those unjustly "held as part of the War on Terror," it has lavished unmitigated sympathy on the likes of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, confessed mastermind of 9/11; Abu Hamza, the one-handed cleric convicted of 11 charges including soliciting murder; and Abu Qatada, described as Osama bin Laden's "European ambassador." Another favorite was Anwar Al-Awlaki, the spiritual guide to Nidal Hasan (the mass murderer at Fort Hood) and underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
Anne Fitzgerald, AI's policy director, explained that the human rights group allied with Begg because he was a "compelling speaker" on detention and acknowledged that AI had paid his expenses for joint appearances. Asked by the Times of London if she regarded him as a human rights advocate, she said, "It's something you'd have to speak to him about. I don't have the information to answer that." One might think that would be a pretty basic thing about which to have information.
This level of collaboration didn't go down well with everyone at Amnesty. Gita Sahgal, the head of Amnesty's gender unit, went public with her dismay after internal protests were ignored. "I believe the campaign (with Begg's organization, Cageprisoners) fundamentally damages Amnesty International's integrity and, more importantly, constitutes a threat to human rights," she wrote to her superiors. "To be appearing on platforms with Britain's most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgment. ... Amnesty has created the impression that Begg is not only a victim of human rights violations but a defender of human rights."
There have been a couple of voices raised on her behalf on the left. Christopher Hitchens (if we can still locate him on the left) condemned Amnesty for its "disgraceful" treatment of a whistle-blower and suggested that AI's 2 million subscribers withhold funding until AI severs its ties with Begg and reinstates Sahgal. Salman Rushdie went further: "Amnesty International has done its reputation incalculable damage by allying itself with Moazzam Begg and his group Cageprisoners, and holding them up as human rights advocates. It looks very much as if Amnesty's leadership is suffering from a kind of moral bankruptcy, and has lost the ability to distinguish right from wrong."
Rushdie is right. His only error is in believing that Amnesty's loss of innocence is recent.