Amnesty International and the Tragedy of Human Rights Day

This year, on International Human Rights Day (December 10), the failures of this moral framework and the gaps between the rhetoric and the reality are even more painful than in the past. Beyond the extreme brutality of ISIS and the Assad regime (with its allies), the systematic oppression in North Korea, and the less visible cruelty in Iran, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, the abject failure of the world’s human rights institutions stand out.

Amnesty International, which is often considered to be the primary embodiment of human rights principles in the world, provides a distressing case study.  On many counts, this powerful organization, with chapters throughout the world, including Israel, high media visibility, and a budget measured in hundreds of millions of dollars, is broken and discredited.  It is riddled by internal conflict and financial scandals, including a corruption probe of pensions and severance packages following the departure of former Secretary General Irene Khan, which was hushed up. A few years ago, Gita Sahgal, who was in charge of Amnesty’s gender unit, was pushed out after she objected to the organization’s alliance with Islamists.  Sahgal told journalists about the “atmosphere of terror” inside Amnesty which suppressed debate and cowed staffers “into accepting the prevailing line.”

In the past year, Amnesty’s moral bankruptcy was further highlighted by exposure of wider connections to terrorists. In August, The Times (London) published a series of articles revealing that Yasmin Hussein, the NGO’s Director of Faith and Human Rights and formerly Director of International Advocacy, has links to the Muslim Brotherhood and possibly to Hamas. Hussein’s husband, Wael Mussabeh, holds a position in the Human Relief Foundation (HRF), a member of the Union of Good, an organization designated by the US and Israeli governments as involved in funding terror groups. Before working at Amnesty, Hussein was employed at Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW), also banned by Israel in 2014 for its alleged financial connections to Hamas.

In addition, Amnesty’s lack of credibility in accusations and allegations of human rights violations and war crimes is increasingly visible. In 2015, the organization associated itself with a flashy project known as “forensic architecture” based on pseudo-scientific methodologies. In a series of publications, Amnesty officials marketed what they referred to as the Gaza Platform, an “online tool” that purports to “map Israeli attacks” during the 2014 conflict. A promotional video titled “CSI: Gaza” intersperses highly emotive images of dead children with shots of staffers purporting to be remotely “investigating” the Gaza “crime scene”.

However, the Gaza Platform provides no real evidence, relying exclusively on publications by Palestinian NGOs which themselves have no credibility, no independent verification capabilities, and often contradictory allegations. Information that is essential for the establishment of war crimes allegations – such as the location of enemy forces and military targets, nature of combat, and intelligence available to commanders at the time of the fighting – is entirely absent. And the “Gaza Platform” based on “forensic architecture” fails to mention more than 4,000 rocket attacks from Gaza. (This exercise in propaganda was funded by a European Research Council grant.)

In contrast, in many places where real atrocities and human rights violations are committed daily, such as in Syria and Iran, Amnesty is irrelevant. The limited human rights reporting that does take place is provided by local groups with much smaller budgets, and by people with more interest in the substance than in the public relations aspects.

At the same time, Amnesty’s obsession with attacking Israel further demeans the organization’s reputation. In the German city of Bremen, the regional Amnesty spokesperson was among the leaders of a highly intimidating BDS “enforcement action, in which hooligans did “inspection tours” looking for “products from Israel”. Instead of taking action, the German branch of Amnesty told journalists that he was acting “in his personal capacity.”

Similarly, Amnesty-UK absolved employee Kristyan Benedict for his anti-Israel activism and demonization. Benedict sees the Middle East through the prism of broad conspiracy theories, with Israel at the center. And earlier this year, when some Amnesty members introduced a resolution at the annual meeting, calling for a “campaign against antisemitism in the UK,” this was rejected – while all other resolutions were approved.

For all of these reasons, one would expect that this organization’s credibility among political leaders, diplomats, and journalists, would be low and dropping further. But the “halo effect” that has protected this and other groups claiming to promote human rights, and the officials continue to be welcomed into parliaments and foreign offices as if they had something useful to contribute. Amnesty’s moral and financial corruption are ignored, as are the failures and lack of credibility.

All of this contributes to the dismal state of human rights. As a result, instead of celebrating the successes of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, enacted on December 10 1948 in the shadow of the Holocaust, this day is a reminder of dismal failure.

About the Author
Gerald Steinberg is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Bar Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor. His latest book is "Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism", (Indiana University Press)