Amnesty International has released their Annual Report 2002 today.
Unlike some of my esteemed colleagues in the blogosphere, I don’t think Amnesty is wrong about everything. I tend to think of them in the same mental bucket as the ACLU: each group represents an extreme viewpoint which forms a useful and necessary component of the overall cultural and political debate. If they didn’t exist, we’d quite likely have to invent them.
But reading through their report, I’m struck not so much by the specific points they raise — some of which I agree with, some of which I do not — as by the tone of the document, particularly where it comes to criticism of the United States. And I think I’ve put my finger on the problem. Try this experiment, as you read the report: imagine, each time you see a statement critical of the U.S., that it was prefaced with the following:
“Amnesty recognizes that the United States is, bar none, the world’s foremost defender of human rights in the world today. The contributions made by the U.S. to the freedoms and human rights of both its own citizens and those of the world are unparalleled in the history of nations. From the founding documents of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, to its repeated intervention to avert humanitarian catastrophes in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, America has contributed greatly to the cause of human rights throughout its history; leading the way in enshrining such rights in law, and defending them, where necessary, with force of arms. However, the U.S., like any state of fallible human beings, is not perfect, and therefore, in the spirit of improving an already-great civilization, we offer the following criticisms of recent U.S. policy…”
Amnesty, I think, does themselves a severe disservice simply in the way they present their criticisms. I suspect people often react negatively to their complaints on items such as civilian casualties during our bombing of Afghanistan not because they think bombing civilians is a good thing, but because Amnesty takes such a combative and accusatory approach, with seemingly no recognition at all of the contributions the U.S. (or other Western democracies that they place in their sights) have made to the cause of human rights worldwide.
I guess what I’m saying is, it’s not the fact that they criticize U.S. policy that bothers me; it’s the fact that they’re just, well, such jerks about it.
Foreward, Page 1:As the “war against terrorism” dominated world news, governments increasingly portrayed human rights as an obstacle to security, and human rights activists as romantic idealists at best,”defenders of terrorists” at worst.
Ignore the actual thrust of the statement for now: just focus on that first phrase. Why is “war on terrorism” in quotes? Which part of that phrase is being questioned? War? Terrorism? Er, “On”? With two little punctuation marks, Amnesty manages to make themselves sound skeptical that there is an actual war going on, thereby alienating that large segment of the world that has not been in a coma for the last nine months. Not bad for the very first page !
Introduction, Page 1: On 7 October the USA, in collaboration with its coalition allies, began a sustained bombing campaign in Afghanistan as part of President Bush’s declared “war on terrorism”. By the end of the year, an as yet unknown number of Afghan civilians had been killed or injured or had their homes or property destroyed, in circumstances that led AI to call for investigations by competent authorities to determine whether violations of international humanitarian law had been committed.
Wouldn’t this be a nice spot to recognize, even in passing, that regardless of the acknowledged negative of civilian casualties (the existence of which is not debated; the magnitude of which is) , there was equally inarguably a massive positive achievement for human rights here — i.e., the removal from power of one of the most repressive regimes on the planet? I don’t even ask that Amnesty agree with my view that the positive outweighed the negative — all I ask is that they at least acknowledge that the positive exists.
And we haven’t even gotten to the, shall we say, slanted presentation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The headline for that section of the Introduction is “The intifada“, so I guess we can’t accuse Amnesty of not getting their bias out on the table right up front. This section is a great example of how to slant a story by the selective use of space and detail: following an introductory paragraph which matter-of-factly states statistics about deaths on each side, the report devotes a bit over two full paragraphs to Israeli offenses, with a grand total of one — count it, one — sentence devoted to Palestinian terrorism (not a word you’ll see Amnesty use).
Despite these problems, there are some things to agree with in Amnesty’s report. Such as:
Foreward, Page 2: We must turn the debate about security and human rights on its head – human rights are not an obstacle to security and prosperity, they are the key to achieving these goals. Human security comes only with human rights and the rule of law. Human rights are the basis for creating strong and accountable states, without which there can be no political stability or economic and social progress. Yup. Though I expect we might disagree on the methods to achieve this particular goal.
Foreward, Page 3: The same governments that denounced the human rights abuse of women by the Taleban government of Afghanistan remained silent about the plight of women in Saudi Arabia. Another big Yup.
And that’s the frustrating part. Amnesty’s mission is a vital one, and one that I support from the bottom of my heart. Torture is bad. Human rights abuses are bad. There is no argument between us here. But Amnesty continues to miss the story by focusing disproportionately on the abuses perpetrated by the civilized democracies of the planet. It has been argued that this is deliberate: that Amnesty knows that they are more likely to be able to affect change in these nations, simply because they do care about human rights.
But that is a coward’s way out, and it is a betrayal of the noble mission which Amnesty has taken upon itself. The mission is clear, and it is a just one. I only wish they’d do a better job at it.