Michael Weiss’ WSJ Comment on Amnesty International

We’ve had several posts at VC on Amnesty International and the controversy over its alliance with a former Guantanamo detainee and  his organization, Cageprisoners.  As a follow-up, see today’s WSJ comment by Michael Weiss, “Amnesty International and the Taliban.” I agree with its general disapproval of how Amnesty has behaved – Weiss is mild-mannered but clear where he stands – and thought it a useful read.

Moazzam Begg … is a British citizen who was captured in Pakistan in 2001 as an enemy combatant and sent to Guantanamo. He was released without charge in 2005. Mr. Begg claims he was tortured and threatened with execution. He has since become a minor celebrity in the Western human-rights community.

He is currently the director of Cageprisoners, a group that bills itself as an organization that exists “solely to raise awareness of the plight of prisoners . . . held as part of the War On Terror.” Amnesty describes Cageprisoners as a “leading human rights organization.” Yet one of its senior members, Asim Qureshi, spoke at a 2006 London rally sponsored by extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which promotes the idea of a renascent Islamic caliphate. Mr. Qureshi took the occasion to glorify terrorism in Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Mr. Begg does not hide his own Islamist convictions. In his memoir, “Enemy Combatant,” he recalls his interrogation at Guantanamo, in which he credits his emigration to Afghanistan to his desire “to live in an Islamic state—one that was free from the corruption and despotism of the rest of the Muslim world.” The Taliban, Mr. Begg insists in his book, were “better than anything Afghanistan has had in the past twenty-five years.” Elsewhere he has cited and sold the works of the “charismatic scholar” Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, erstwhile mentor to Osama bin Laden.

Despite all of this, Amnesty has provided Mr. Begg with numerous speaking platforms. He has toured Europe with Amnesty officials as part of a campaign to urge Western governments to offer safe haven to Gitmo detainees. A recent stop was 10 Downing Street, where they petitioned Prime Minister Gordon Brown to push for the release of Britons still held at the prison. Amnesty says it associates with Mr. Begg because he experienced first-hand the human-rights violations at Guantanamo.

Enter Ms. Sahgal, a longtime Amnesty employee who believed that her organization’s support for Mr. Begg betrayed its core principles. She went public with her concerns in a Feb. 7 interview with London’s Sunday Times in which she called the collaboration “a gross error of judgment” that posed a serious threat to human rights and to Amnesty’s reputation. Amnesty suspended Ms. Sahgal from her job, claiming it didn’t want her opinion of Mr. Begg to be confused with its own.

As I said in an earlier post, I believe AI has long since reached the point where it does more harm than good.  But AI also charts the ideological course of human rights as a moral and political discourse.  From the liberal internationalism (problematic in its own right) of the 1990s and the high water mark of the New World Order dreams of the 1990s, human rights as the “apex” moral discourse of the international community in pursuit of the progressive dream on all fronts.  To today’s embrace of what best be called “multicultural internationalism” – the embrace of globalized identity politics and, functionally today, global religious communalism.  Hence AI’s (and HRW’s and many other NGOs’) ardent desires to come to a little mutually-legitimizing arrangement with elements of the Muslim world and not excluding, in the case of AI, parts that on any conventionally rights-liberal or even secular progressive account would be considered unacceptable.  In that world of globalized religious communalism re-expressed in the language of human rights, NGOs such as AI turn out to have a featured role (somehow unsurprisingly) in elite management of global “identity” populations.  They are said to “represent” them and their presumed interests, values, and desires on everything from climate change to dam-building in the presumably de-sovereignated world.

As an aside, I had thought, frankly, that even in the academic world, the 1990s-era momentum for NGOs “representing” the peoples of the world in the international community had dissipated under what, I thought, had been a double whammy.  Waves of stinging criticism, including from within the progressive community, of the presumption of self-appointed NGOs purporting to “represent” anyone other than themselves, on the one hand. Re-emergence, on the other, of sovereignty as a category of importance far beyond the supposedly retrograde American assertions of democratic sovereignty – instead, far cruder, harder, naked and quite undemocratically-linked invocations of sovereignty from rising China and others.  As I’ve said many times on this blog, the fluffy global civil society and human rights stuff turned out, in retrospect, to shelter under the big and forgiving tent of American hegemony.

Turns out I was quite wrong about the direction of the academic discourse.  Consistent, I believe [Steve might not! – ed.], with my own special thesis about the fragmentation of “international law” into self-reproducing communities of authority and interpretation that don’t much address one another any more, Steve Charnovitz points out, in a very interesting recent review essay in the American Journal of International Law, that the NGO=global civil society=legitimacy=representativeness meme continues to churn away in book after successive book.  I will have to go now and address that literature, I suppose, after having thought that it had disappeared – thinking incorrectly that the debate over global governance had moved on, apart from a few die-hard global civil society theorists, to the question of the possibilities and limitations of the political legitimacy of global technocrats whose sole claim is to make the global internet move on time or (um …) manage the global financial system.

But I wanted to add, as well, that numerous skeptical commenters on this blog, and others, including the Very Great Glenn Reynolds, remarked on my last AI post that, really, one should pay closer attention to the money in order to understand NGO motivations.  I agree entirely – more than entirely – with the proposition that far greater attention needs to be paid to the flows of NGO money.  If political and social scientists, legal academics, and others studying NGOs were to pay one percent of the attention that they would apply to the material conditions underlying NGOs in the way that without question would be applied to corporations or government sectors, we would have a vastly more accurate understanding of the international NGO sector.  (But then, I am someone who thinks that no one should allowed to be a lawyer, political scientist, sociologist, or anthropologist, who cannot read basic financial statements.  Let No One Enter Here Who Cannot Read a Balance Sheet, &tc.)

That said, however, I also don’t think one can understand NGOs solely on the basis of material conditions.  (For the legal academics among us – it’s a little like super-crude versions of early Legal Realism and trying to explain judicial behavior through purely material markers.)  That’s what makes them so interesting, of course – they are ideological creatures, driven by ideas and ideals, and (often) not just by money.  So their internal ideologies matter.

So, the famous, and now largely abandoned, AI “mandate” provided it, over many decades, with two important things – moral authority, but moral authority arising in large part because people believed that it had internalized limitations on its own claims to authority.  Groups like AI and HRW still claim endless amounts of moral authority – the Categorical Imperative as open checkbook for human rights organizations, as it were – but Absolute Moral Authority for many, many propositions that change on a regular basis.  The idea of limitations on the agenda that can be espoused in the language of human rights has become entirely notional.  Elsewhere, I’ve called it “serial absolutism.”  Moreover, they are also – as AI demonstrates so dismayingly – quite creatures of the ‘outer’ cultural zeitgeist; tossed to and fro, and carried about, as it were, with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.

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