Amnesty: Why did it go so wrong?


Members of Amnesty International Benin, Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal and Togo. Photo: Amnesty International

Has Amnesty become an organisation that lacks insight into ethics and morality? Why is the organisation so bad at crisis management? In recent days, there has been a storm surrounding Amnesty’s press release on the alleged war crimes committed by Ukraine. Will Amnesty be able to recover from this? David Isaksson explains what has happened.

This text has been translated from Swedish. Read the original article here

Criticism of the publication has been massive. Lawyers, researchers, and writers claim that the organisation has misunderstood both the law and the practice. The law, because it confuses the concepts of jus ad bellum (law on the use of force) and jus in bello (the law that governs the way in which warfare is conducted; it is basically the same as international humanitarian law). The practice because it does not seem to understand how the war in Ukraine works.

According to the “report” – which is not a report but rather a short press release – Ukraine’s military has violated international law and endangered civilians by firing from populated residential areas and using residential areas, including schools and hospitals, as bases. Civilian infrastructure is thus turned into military targets, according to Amnesty.

And above all, Amnesty does not seem to have anticipated the massive criticism the press release would lead to. Members have quit, while journalists, politicians and authors have responded with outrage. On social media, the tone is harsh, to say the least.

Previous controversies
This isn’t the first time there’s been a storm surrounding Amnesty. When Amnesty voted to support the decriminalization of sex work in 2015, the Swedish branch voted against the proposal, however the consequence was that many in Sweden distanced themselves from the organisation.

When Amnesty removed Navalny from the list of prisoners of conscience because of a 15-year-old statement, the outcry was so vociferous the organisation was forced to back down. Apart from these, Amnesty has been involved in several internal controversies around racism and lack of diversity. In June 2021, the leadership of UK Amnesty was forced to resign and a year earlier, Swedish Amnesty apologised for failing to tackle racism. One consequence was that the Swedish secretary general had to resign.

Controversy has also arisen in our neighbouring countries. When a board member of Amnesty Finland recently wrote that there is a civil war in Ukraine and that both sides are a to blame, the well-known author Sofi Oksanen urged Finns to stop donating money to Amnesty.

Should Amnesty stick to what it knows?
Once upon a time, Amnesty was an organisation of small groups working on behalf of prisoners of conscience in faraway lands. They wrote letter after letter and sometimes delivered parcels to prisoners of conscience. An important principle then was that national Amnesty branches should not get involved with political issues or personalities in their own country. This allowed them to maintain their neutrality and continue to operate according to their clearly defined mandate. This principle has long since been abandoned by the organisation and as a result controversies easily arise which undermines work on a national level, for example when Israeli or, most recently, Ukrainian Amnesty feel that they cannot abide by what the head office is propagating.

Another question is whether Amnesty is trying to take on too many issues and thus dropping the ball. Author Torbjörn Elansky writes on Facebook:

”Amnesty is a 60-year-old organisation. It has enjoyed high credibility for as long as I can remember. It has not been a political organisation, but has worked against torture, the death penalty and unreasonable prison sentences, for prisoners of conscience and political dissidents. Certainly, mistakes have been made throughout its history, but it has always been an important organisation whose credibility as a non-political organisation has been the very basis of its ability to work successfully for its causes.

Now I ask: is this still true? Or is Amnesty becoming a politicised activist movement? I’m not claiming for sure that it is, but my impression when I read the organisation’s website is that no, this is not the above-the-politics organisation I thought it was.”

One or more Amnesty?
Amnesty is an international organisation, but it also consists of national branches that are independent. This creates conflicts, as when the Swedish section came out and denounced Amnesty’s decision to promote legalised sex work. But for the most part, the national sections follow the lead of the head office.

This was also the case with the press release on Ukraine that Swedish Amnesty went out and defended, despite probably not knowing anything about the content nor having seen the background material. But when it could not answer the follow-up questions, the Secretary General of the organisation appeared weak and ill-prepared.

One question that is certainly now being discussed within Amnesty is how to organise itself in the future. Perhaps a better solution is to be like Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), where national organisations work largely independently of each other. However, over the years this has led to some MSF national organisations being expelled from a particular country while others have been allowed to operate in the same country.

Fierce competition between organisations
When Amnesty started, it was virtually alone in its niche. Since then, human rights have become big business. In addition to consultancies and individual experts, Civil Rights Defenders and Human Rights Watch have emerged as fierce competitors in the field. And since a major consideration is raising money from the public, the brand becomes important: each misstep can be at the expense of millions in funds raised.

The crux of the matter
But back to the Ukraine war and the criticism of Amnesty’s press release. The core issue is whether Ukraine exposed civilians to excessive risks of violence and thus violated international law.

Lawyer Pål Wrange writes on his blog:

”Firstly, Ukrainian forces may have violated international law by conducting their operations in such a way as to unnecessarily endanger the safety of civilians. I discuss this briefly in my previous post. My very preliminary view – based on the short report published in the press release – is that it cannot be excluded that Amnesty is right in some cases, but that it may well be that insufficient account has been taken of the military circumstances. Humanitarian law is based on a balance between humanitarian and military considerations.”

Is law more important than ethics?
In recent years, law has become an increasingly important instrument in global human rights work, not least through the work of the ICC and the high-profile trials of crimes against humanity against representatives of the oil company Lundin under way in Stockholm, as well as the recently concluded trial in Stockholm of an Iranian citizen responsible for the murder of hundreds of prisoners.

But has civil society’s focus on the law led us to forget ethics altogether? Is this where Amnesty has lost its way? In Svenska Dagbladet, Per Bauhn, Professor of Practical Philosophy at Linnaeus University, takes a hard line against Amnesty. He writes:

”Amnesty’s stance shows how wrong things can go when we choose a formalistic approach to war and conflict. The question of original responsibility disappears and instead a pedantic handbook mentality sets in, looking for wrong ways to defend oneself.”

He goes on to say that Amnesty has fallen into what he calls a kind of rights absolutism where the organisation substitutes law for justice:

”The problem with a juridification of moral rights is that the flexibility built into moral philosophical reasoning disappears. A right that wanders into the statute book becomes absolute and inalienable. A consequence of this absolutism of rights is assessments such as those made by Amnesty of alleged Ukrainian violations of international law.”

This is also noted by lawyer Mark Klamberg in a twitter thread where he writes, among other things:

”There is philosophical/political question behind the debate on the report: do victims of military aggression & grave crimes such as unequal combat have the same obligations – under the laws of war – as the aggressor? The lawyer: yes, some philosophers: no.”

This was probably one of the reasons why the head of Amnesty in Ukraine, Oksana Pokaltyuk, chose to resign in protest:

”Unless you live in a country invaded by occupiers who are tearing it apart, you probably don’t understand what it’s like to condemn an army of defenders,” she wrote on social media after her resignation.

Is the criticism of Amnesty unfair?
Regardless of whether Amnesty’s criticism is factual or not, the organisation seems genuinely surprised that the criticism is being made, nor does it seem to have been particularly prepared for the possibility of the storm it would generate. The Swedish chairman does not seem to be familiar with how Russian propaganda uses information, nor can he answer why the Ukrainian branch of Amnesty was kept out of the press release, which led to its head Oksana Pokaltyuk choosing to leave the organisation in protest.

Amnesty Sweden’s secretary general says in a defence of the press release and its design:

– In the longer term, it would have been more serious if it turned out that we had observed this, but chose not to report it. But in the short term, I understand that it arouses emotions.

Subsequently, Amnesty International has apologised – in classic politician fashion – not for the content, but for the reactions it generated.

”Amnesty International deeply regrets the concern and anger that our press release on the Ukrainian military’s combat tactics has caused,” Amnesty International writes in an email to Reuters.

Report or Press Release?
Amnesty produces plenty of reports, but what it has published on Ukraine is not actually a report, just a press release. Why is that? Where is the report that many are now demanding to see? Here is a big difference from the press release on Burma that Amnesty sent out on 8 August. Yes, there is a report, or briefing.

One question is therefore how much basis Amnesty has for its report. If Amnesty is to repair its credibility – this time – then it will probably have to present the evidence on which this press release masquerading as a report is based.

Why is the reaction so harsh?
Amnesty – both in Sweden and internationally – seems genuinely surprised that the criticism has been so harsh. It also refers to the fact that both the UN and Human Rights Watch have published reports that have not met with the same criticism. Amnesty Sweden writes:

”Amnesty is not the first organisation to point out that civilians have been put in harm’s way as a result of Ukraine’s military strategy and that this may constitute a violation of international law. On 29 June, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) published a report with similar conclusions, as did Human Rights Watch on 21 July.”

But is this comparison valid? The UN body OHCHR has published a very comprehensive report that reviews the war in general and includes Ukraine. HRW’s text, which is also not a report in the technical sense, includes extensive sample interviews and pictures, something missing from Amnesty’s press release. And the headline mentions both Russia and Ukraine.

HRW writes in a response to Global Bar Magazine they do not wish to comment on their own publication, or the difference between it and Amnesty’s.

With the current storm on social media, demonstrations have taken place outside Amnesty offices in the Czech Republic and elsewhere. Members are posting screenshots of them resigning and most likely , threats made against Amnesty staff, something which is sadly not unexpected in these times.

Could there be a risk that in the future people will not dare to get involved in organisations like Amnesty if it risks threats and harassment? If so, what does this mean for Swedish civil society? This is a question that needs to be discussed, regardless of whether Amnesty is in the wrong.

What happens now?
For this article, I of course sought out Amnesty Sweden’s Secretary General Anna Johansson, but she is not giving any new interviews. Amnesty has decided to circle the wagons, not just in Sweden, but globally as well.

It is understandable that the organisation needs to have an internal discussion and that it needs to take care of employees who have been affected. But the rest of the world doesn’t stand still waiting for internal meetings to end.

In the midst of all this anger, there is genuine concern for Amnesty among many people. The vast majority think Amnesty is needed and want the organisation to find its way back to its roots.

The question is – will Amnesty succeed in this?

At present, Amnesty seems unwilling or unable to allay the concerns of those who hold out hope for the organisation.

David Isaksson

Translation: Hussein Badat

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