Friday, February 26, 2010

Christopher Hitchens v. Amnesty International

Writing in The Australian, Christopher Hitchens comes to the defense of Gita Sahgal:
This organisation is precious to me and to millions of other people, including many thousands of men and women who were and are incarcerated and maltreated because of their courage as dissidents, and who regained their liberty as a consequence of Amnesty International's unsleeping work.

So to learn of its degeneration and politicisation is to be reading about a moral crisis that has global implications.

Amnesty International has just suspended one of its senior officers, a woman named Gita Sahgal who, until recently, headed the organisation's gender unit. It's fairly easy to summarise her concern in her own words. "To be appearing on platforms with Britain's most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgment," she wrote. One may think that to be an uncontentious statement, but it led to her immediate suspension.

The background is also distressingly easy to summarise. Moazzam Begg, a British citizen, was arrested in Pakistan after fleeing Afghanistan in the aftermath of the intervention in 2001. He was imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, then released.

He has since become the moving spirit in a separate organisation calling itself Cageprisoners.

Begg does not deny his past as an Islamist activist, which took him to Afghanistan in the first place. He does not withdraw from his statement that the Taliban was the best government available to Afghanistan.

Cageprisoners has another senior member, Asim Qureshi, who speaks in defence of jihad at rallies sponsored by extremist group Hizb-ut Tahrir (banned in many Muslim countries). Cageprisoners also defends men such as Abu Hamza, leader of the mosque that sheltered Richard "Shoe Bomber" Reid among many other violent and criminal characters who have been convicted in open court of heinous offences that have nothing at all to do with freedom of expression.

Yet Amnesty International includes Begg in delegations that petition the British government about human rights. For Sahgal to say that Cageprisoners has a program that goes "way beyond being a prisoners' rights organisation" is to say the very least of it.

But that's all she had to say to be suspended from her job.

As I write this, she is experiencing some difficulty in getting a lawyer to represent her. Such is -- so far -- the prestige of Amnesty International.

"Although it is said that we must defend everybody no matter what they've done," she comments, "it appears that if you're a secular, atheist, Asian British woman, you don't deserve a defence from our civil rights firms."

That may well change and I hope it does. But Sahgal has it slightly wrong. Amnesty International was not set up to defend everybody, no matter what they did. No organisation in the world could hope to do that.

IRA bombers and Khmer Rouge killers and generals Augusto Pinochet and Jorge Rafael Videla were not Amnesty prisoners when they eventually faced the bar of the court.