> > Financial Times
> > Free thinkers
> > By Hugh Williamson
> > Published: May 21 2005 03:00 | Last updated: May 21 2005 03:00
> > It must have seemed at least mildly eccentric to propose, as Peter
> > Benenson did 45 years ago, that political prisoners might be released if
> > lots of people wrote letters of protest to their jailers. But, as anyone
> > familiar with Amnesty International knows, in thousands of cases it
> > worked. It was an idea that the Eton- educated lawyer came up with as he
> > meditated in St Martin-in-the- Fields church in London's Trafalgar
> > Square one morning in 1960 after reading in a newspaper about some
> > faraway injustice. If perhaps it was an idea that did not actually
> > change the world - as many of the practitioners of the art of Amnesty
> > letter writing might have hoped or imagined - it certainly changed the
> > lives of many a "prisoner of conscience".
> > Over the years, Amnesty members have worked for the release of an
> > estimated 47,000 prisoners, among them Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi,
> > Vaclav Havel and Kim Dae-Jung. Ugandan dictator Idi Amin said famously
> > in 1975 that the organisation had "blackmailed over 100 nations". In
> > 1977 the organisation won the Nobel Peace Prize and more recently it
> > helped to establish the International Criminal Court. Benenson had much
> > to look back on with satisfaction before he died three months ago.
> > The organisation, which has 1.8 million supporters, publishes its annual
> > report next week. Pretty well everyone who picks it up will recognise
> > the logo showing a candle in barbed wire. But some of what the report
> > focuses on will be less familiar, and not all of it will be greeted with
> > the single sense of purpose that once characterised the Amnesty
> > community.
> > "If Peter Benenson had been reading [a newspaper] this week and found
> > something that outraged him and thought he was going to start an
> > organisation, he wouldn't start a letter-writing campaign on
> > individuals, would he?" says Marjory Byler, an official responsible for
> > rethinking Amnesty.
> > Benenson's achievement was to give human rights work a clear goal,
> > almost a brand. It is a concept that still shapes what is understood
> > today - at least in western countries - by human rights, namely
> > political and civil rights, including not being tortured or imprisoned
> > for your political views, or sentenced to death. But now Amnesty's
> > leadership argues that human rights is also about the poor having rights
> > to basic commodities such as food, water and housing.
> > This shift is captured remarkably by someone who hails from one of
> > Amnesty's most famous causes, a prisoner of conscience in the 1970s
> > under the reviled regime of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Carlos Reyes, a
> > photographer who now lives in London, says Amnesty should not just focus
> > on people such as him. "We are a minority." People whose economic rights
> > are infringed are the majority. "More children die of lack of food or
> > water than people killed by torture or the death penalty."
> > While many Amnesty supporters, 98 per cent of whom are in the North (or
> > rich countries), recognise the need to redefine the movement's goals in
> > the post-cold war world, some are uneasy about the changes. "I see a
> > danger of Amnesty losing its heart and soul," is how one seasoned human
> > rights activist put it to me.
> > As some view it, this danger was set in motion in August 2003, when a
> > radical blueprint for reforming Amnesty's mission and ways of working
> > was agreed by the organisation. At a meeting in a former prison
> > converted into a luxury holiday resort in Morelos, Mexico, an
> > "integrated strategic plan" for the period 2004-10, titled "Globalising
> > Justice!", was adopted by Amnesty's International Council. The Council,
> > a parliament of 600 delegates from sections worldwide, is Amnesty's
> > highest decision-making body.
> > The plan confirms an expansion of Amnesty's agenda to cover areas
> > largely ignored in the past, such as protecting rights to food and
> > water. It calls for more global campaigning, and less focus on prisoners
> > of conscience and similar individual cases. It insists that Amnesty must
> > become a less western, white, middle-class organisation by opening new
> > branches in developing countries and boosting membership "diversity" in
> > Europe and the US. Amnesty's claim to care about human rights abuses
> > everywhere is to be dropped in favour of strategic choices of the most
> > important countries and topics. Amnesty will also be more business-like:
> > branches have targets to "grow" the organisation, to draw in 30 per cent
> > more supporters worldwide by 2010. Revenues are to be doubled to £200m
> > by the same year. "Benchmarking", "brand management" and "quality
> > controls" feature prominently in the business plan.
> > The plan was drafted by a group of volunteers with support from Benenson
> > House, Amnesty's headquarters in Islington, north London, circulated for
> > consultation and then endorsed in advance by its International Executive
> > Committee (IEC), the volunteer body that meets between two-yearly
> > Council meetings. It was agreed in Morelos by consensus, without
> > divisive votes but with much emotion. One German delegate told me
> > afterwards of late-night sessions when she almost cried with frustration
> > after losing a particularly heated argument.
> > What Amnesty was doing was adjusting to a changed world ushered in by
> > the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its response in the early 1990s was to
> > expand its mandate to cover torture, hostage-taking and gay rights, plus
> > abuses by armed opposition groups. By 2001, delegates to its
> > International Council meeting in Dakar, Senegal, agreed that it should
> > work on all forms of abuses, including of economic rights.
> > The "human rights industry", as insiders call it, was also changing.
> > Activists in eastern Europe and in many developing countries could
> > organise more freely. Political parties, the media and the UN were
> > paying more attention to human rights (the proposal in March this year
> > by UN secretary general Kofi Annan to set up a powerful Human Rights
> > Council within the UN is more evidence of this). Competition was growing
> > from other advocacy groups too. Quick-footed campaigns and
> > anti-globalisation movements have been catching the spirit of the times
> > more effectively than Amnesty. New York-based Human Rights Watch,
> > unburdened by the baggage of internal democracy and bureaucracy, had
> > grabbed "market share". In a recent example, in January this year, HRW
> > made world headlines by exposing the torture of prisoners by Iraqi
> > security forces. It could do so because it had staff there for much of
> > 2004. Amnesty has been largely absent from the country since mid-2003.
> > Another consideration was that the organisation was coming up for the
> > appointment of a new secretary general. Pierre Sane, Amnesty's
> > Senegalese-born leader since 1993, had been the organisation's first
> > non-western chief. As such he had already started breaking down
> > Amnesty's western human rights focus. But he was not an organisation
> > man. Someone was needed who knew how to make all these new ideas work.
> > That person, the executive believed, was a 48-year-old Bangladeshi-
> > born, Harvard-educated international lawyer, Irene Khan. She took over
> > from Sane at Amnesty's Dakar meeting in 2001 and became the driving
> > force behind "Globalising Justice!"
> > Khan's background explains much about the direction she is taking. "I
> > have a Southern perspective that has been shaped by Northern
> > experience," she told me. Her father was a doctor and her grandfather a
> > lawyer. "We were privileged compared with others. I was the middle girl
> > of a middle-class family."
> > When she was 16 she went to school in Northern Ireland. "It was after
> > the liberation war in Bangladesh and the education system there had
> > collapsed. I went from one civil war situation to another - it was
> > pretty violent at that time in Northern Ireland."
> > Khan later studied law at Manchester University and Harvard Law School,
> > and after a series of jobs with human rights organisations joined the UN
> > High Commissioner for Refugees, where she stayed until going to Amnesty.
> > She told me this period - and experiences such as interviewing
> > Vietnamese "boat people" in Malaysia - shaped her understanding of the
> > breadth of human rights.
> > Unlike many NGO leaders, Khan appears to have no qualms about
> > repackaging herself for different audiences. In a five-page feature on
> > her in the German Vogue magazine in 2003, portrait shots by Lord Snowdon
> > of her in Asian dress appear alongside pictures of her at protests in
> > Mexico, Palestine and in Whitehall. Her appointment in 2001 was greeted
> > as a breakthrough, as she was the first woman, the first Asian and the
> > first Muslim to head Amnesty.
> > Colm O'Cuanachain, who chaired the IEC's search committee that appointed
> > Khan, says she easily beat top diplomats and other senior international
> > officials to the job. "We were looking for someone to give Amnesty a
> > truly global face and she was by far the best candidate." O'Cuanachain,
> > who now heads Amnesty Ireland, says she also has the skills to tackle
> > what journalist Jonathan Power, in his book Like Water on Stone: The
> > Story of Amnesty International, calls the "institutional labyrinth" that
> > is Amnesty.
> > The organisation is a cross between a multinational and the UN. It has
> > 450 staff and volunteers of 50 nationalities in its London headquarters,
> > plus 15 regional offices, and chapters in more than 70 countries. Mixed
> > in are Amnesty's ordinary members, who have a strong democratic say.
> > Democratic trappings - voting rights, motions and amendments - take hold
> > among the organisation's 7,800 local groups and reach up to the
> > International Council.
> > Immediately after her appointment, Khan focused on developing a reform
> > strategy to be presented to the 2003 Council meeting. She sought help
> > from Marjory Byler, a gritty American who, during 11 years with
> > Amnesty's US section, had drawn up a similar strategy for that group.
> > Byler was clear on what was needed.
> > "We [at Amnesty] have been part of creating this little magic territory
> > of human rights that's just civil and political," she says. "But wake up
> > and look at the world, and before [people] get to [political rights]
> > they want to know what to do about Aids and about food. The world now
> > needs us to be in a different place and we have to go there."
> > To draw up a plan that would get Amnesty there she used techniques more
> > common in business. Staff, activists and outside experts identified
> > external PESTs (political, economic, social and technological trends),
> > assessed Amnesty's SWOTs (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and
> > threats), and then set key SMARTs (specific, measurable, achievable,
> > relevant, time-bound objectives).
> > The 34-page blueprint that Khan tabled in Morelos called for a
> > "needs-based human rights strategy that reflects our assessment of what
> > the world needs from Amnesty International". This would work like a
> > cascade, starting at the top with seven core "goals", and then tumbling
> > down through the organisational, growth and fundraising implications.
> > The goals include non-discrimination, tracking down perpetrators of
> > human rights abuses, boosting migrants' and women's rights and tackling
> > abuses caused by poverty. The traditional policy of maintaining "minimum
> > coverage" of abuses in all countries was abandoned in favour of
> > "strategic coverage" focused intensely on a few dozen important states,
> > although most countries still get assessed in the annual report.
> > "Change can be frightening," Khan admitted in Morelos, but promised
> > that, "As we shift the paradigm, we will stay true to the essence of
> > Amnesty International." Those who fear that this might be a difficult
> > promise to keep point, among other things, to a campaign in Stuttgart
> > for the release of Mu'awwadh Mohammad Youssef Gawda, an Egyptian lawyer,
> > that embarrassingly continued a year after his release in 2003.
> > Amnesty's North Africa team did not inform Stuttgart members because it
> > was focusing on another country seen as more important: Libya. The team
> > later said it "regretted" the unusual mistake, according to Karin Bauer
> > of the Stuttgart group. However, she stresses that if Amnesty loses
> > interest in its "core competence" of helping prisoners of conscience,
> > then even enthusiastic members will start slipping away.
> > Michael Ignatieff, head of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at
> > Harvard University, says that the future course of Amnesty is "the most
> > intellectually exciting thing in human rights today, and for the next
> > generation". This is, he says, because what Amnesty is trying to do fits
> > with the history of our time. "We're no longer just fighting the human
> > rights challenge of the cold war, that was tyranny. Now the human rights
> > challenges are about chaos - the disintegration of authority all
> > together in the 10 to 15 failed or failing states. And they are about
> > development, and rights are at the centre of any development strategy.
> > The only way to get development is by empowering the poor. As a part of
> > empowerment, rights talk is a huge part of development. That means that
> > Amnesty is right to go there."
> > But while correct in theory, he says, it is problematic in practice.
> > "Economic and social rights have a legitimacy problem, to do with the
> > way in which they were used to excuse the denial of civil and political
> > freedom during the cold war. Example: [Cuba's] Fidel Castro - 'You can't
> > vote, you can't challenge my leadership but we'll get infant mortality
> > numbers down.' That was the trade- off. For a lot of human rights people
> > raised in that [cold war] generation such examples only solidified their
> > passionate belief that economic and social rights were not a substitute
> > for civil and political rights."
> > Then there is the question of what exactly economic and social rights
> > are, because such rights are intimately linked to political freedoms.
> > "Until the poor have [for example] property rights to shacks, food
> > stands, little plots of land, they can't collateralise, accumulate, and
> > are not safe from abuse and repression by the rich."
> > He believes Amnesty is right to be adopting a new strategy. "It means
> > the line between a human rights organisation and a development
> > organisation has to be renegotiated, they have to have different
> > partners. And it sets up strains, [between] condemning a government for
> > having political prisoners [while also] working with that government to
> > reform its judicial system so it gives [for example] property rights to
> > the landless." He concludes: "Amnesty has two challenges - one, it has
> > to do the analysis, to figure out what piece of this it wants to bite
> > off, and then it has to create an organisation to do this, and it's not
> > well positioned to do this, as most chapters are in the North and the
> > action is in the South."
> > No one visiting Amnesty's international headquarters in Islington is
> > likely to think money is being wasted on glamorous premises. The
> > furniture is simple, sometimes threadbare. The open-plan offices and
> > warren-like corridors are under renovation. Young staff members on a
> > smoking break outside the building cast an eye over the draft of a
> > report they are working on.
> > I join a meeting Irene Khan is chairing on the Darfur crisis in Sudan.
> > She is friendly, but nudges colleagues to get to the point. When the
> > meeting is over, I suggest that the "Globalising Justice!" blueprint has
> > fuelled a culture clash between Amnesty sections in the North and newer,
> > smaller chapters in the developing world.
> > She agrees, but gives it a positive interpretation. "What is happening
> > in Amnesty is a redefinition of the concept of international solidarity.
> > Amnesty has grown enormously in Europe and North America by working on
> > human rights issues in [the South]. It's time now to recognise that
> > change comes from within as well as based on support from outside. We
> > need to grow Amnesty members in these countries as well. Would there be
> > a clash between the South and North? I would say yes, in a very healthy
> > way."
> > Khan is not the sort of person who often goes off message. She appears
> > relaxed but is concentrating, apparently weighing her words. Those words
> > lead me to recall a discussion with Julian Jayaseela, director of
> > Amnesty Malaysia. He told me the country's 600 Amnesty supporters are
> > indeed forging a different path to branches in the North, by focusing
> > mostly on themes such as corruption, poverty and women's rights: "Almost
> > every one of us has experienced abuses of this sort." He insists these
> > are not "soft issues" compared with political rights and the death
> > penalty.
> > I suggest to Khan that there still remains a danger for Amnesty, when
> > activists in the North start worrying that the essence of their work is
> > crumbling. I read her comments by Anja Mihr, head of the German
> > executive committee. Mihr supports "Globalising Justice!", but fears
> > that "effectiveness" (not justice or compassion) "is becoming the
> > criterion that determines where Amnesty is active". Khan genuinely seems
> > to have no problem with dissent, seeing it as part of the process of
> > change. "Change is always about communications. It's very important that
> > the membership remains engaged." And she says supporters can vote with
> > their feet. "[Members] can just leave if they don't like what they see."
> > She also defends the management changes, being "business-like".
> > Amnesty now focuses on fewer countries in order to "identify more
> > strategically the countries where we can make a difference". It is why,
> > to keep up with the competition, Khan has insisted on quicker response
> > rates to crises. In October 2001, when US bombs started falling in
> > Afghanistan "it took us about 10 weeks to put people on the ground, but
> > we were the first organisation [in April 2002] to visit the Jenin
> > refugee camp [in the Occupied Territories] when the Israelis left. I was
> > there within 10 days myself."
> > Amnesty must also take seriously the priorities of the South in order to
> > take on a representative role there. "If you look globally today and
> > want to talk about human rights, for the vast majority of the world's
> > population they don't mean very much. To talk about freedom of
> > expression to a man who can't read the newspaper, to talk about the
> > right to work to someone who has no job; 'human rights' means nothing to
> > them unless it brings some change on these particular issues."
> > This means, surely, that the process of rebranding what human rights
> > means, and its consequences for Amnesty are only in their early stages?
> > Her answer is remarkably frank, as if she is finally dropping her guard.
> > "Amnesty has a middle-class, western, complacent, white image in many
> > parts of the world, including the west itself. But that is changing,"
> > she says confidently.
> > The next International Council meeting, in August, is to debate further
> > changes to Amnesty's mission, such as endorsing in the last resort the
> > use of force in international military interventions. If it does so, it
> > will have travelled even further from Peter Benenson's simple vision of
> > 45 years ago.
> > hugh.williamson@...
> > Hugh Williamson is an FT correspondent in Berlin.
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