TCS Daily


"We Cannot Have the Same Expectations of the Terrorists..."

By Don D'Cruz - June 6, 2005 12:00 AM

Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International, has labelled Guantanamo Bay the "gulag of our times," in her foreword to the most recent Amnesty International Annual Report. This illustrates how the world's most famous human rights non-government organisation (NGO) has become rotten to the core.

This year criticism of the United States was both inevitable and justified, in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal. However, labelling Guantanamo Bay -- home to some of the world's most fearsome terrorists -- a "gulag," has raised more than a few eyebrows, and raised serious questions about Amnesty's political motivations and credibility. For anyone to liken Guantanamo Bay to the Soviet Union's system of forced labour prison camps, where millions perished in the most horrific and brutal of circumstances, is absurd.

But this incident is not the only instance which should give one reason to question Amnesty's trajectory and moral compass. The human rights industry actions were called into question following a widely-read and withering broadside fired against the conduct of human rights NGOs such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch since September 11 entitled "The human rights lobby meets terrorism", originally published in Commentary magazine, which catalogued its flawed approach to dealing with terrorism, this being particularly evident in its politically slanted commentary on Israel.

What made this critique so compelling was that its authors were Arch Puddington and Adrian Karatnycky, from the human rights NGO Freedom House. Khan's recent comments illustrate that the message didn't get through and that there is an accountability deficit within the human rights industry.

While it has often been discussed how September 11 caught democracies around the world unawares, it also caught the human rights NGOs ill-prepared to confront an environment where some of the greatest challenges to human rights would come not in the form of governments but in the form of terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda, which some have called the "the ultimate NGO."

The difference between many governments and the human rights industry is that while governments have moved to address this new strategic reality, human rights NGOs like Amnesty are still in a state denial.

This was made painfully clear during Khan's last visit to Australia when, during an television interview, the interviewer -- after listening Khan's familiar diatribe about how human rights are under siege by democracies like the United States -- observed that "you're not making the same claims about the terrorists." Khan amazingly admitted that "the reason why we are focusing on governments is because we expect the governments to change and to respect the obligations that they have assumed as political actors on the treaties" and adding that "we cannot have the same expectations of the terrorists..."

In other words, because the United States and other democracies have signed human rights treaties, Amnesty will hold them to one standard and not expect the terrorists to do the same.

There are a number of problems with this approach. First, it's an intellectually feeble response to the threat posed by terrorism. Second, by expecting only one side to act like human beings in the war on terror, Amnesty makes a lie of the claim on its website to be an "impartial" organisation. Third, what this approach also reveals is that groups like Amnesty are not strong on human rights but just soft on terrorism. And fourth, given their approach it is little surprise that democratic governments are taking Amnesty less and less seriously.

As Thomas Risse has noted in an essay on human rights in the book The Third Force edited by Ann M. Florini, "the influence of transnational civil society in the human rights area stems from the power of moral authority...."

Amnesty's rather one-sided approach to commenting on human rights in the war against terror will ultimately come at the cost of further diminishing what's left of their reputation and moral authority.

Don D'Cruz is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs in Australia.

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