Kenney vs. Amnesty: The case against Amnesty International


My latest column points out that a lot of people are just generally fed up with Amnesty International and that a lot of them are political conservatives. Here’s what that’s about, since it will be news to many readers.

Christopher Hitchens, hard to pin down on any left-right spectrum and widely admired for that, is the earliest Amnesty critic I found in a quick search. In 2005 Amnesty called Guantanamo Bay “the gulag of our times.” I think Guantanamo Bay is pretty bad today, was far worse when Dick Cheney was running it, and has never been as bad as the gulag was. Hitchens’ line is pretty close to that, but his overriding argument was that these qualitative judgments should never have been Amnesty’s business:

The founding statutes were quite clear: An Amnesty local was to adopt three “prisoners of conscience,” one from either side of the Cold War and one from a “neutral” state. Letters were to be written to the relevant governments and to newspapers in free countries. Though physical torture and capital punishment were opposed in all cases, no overt political position was to be taken.

Hitchens expanded on this argument in a 2010 column.

In time, the organization also evolved policies that opposed the use of capital punishment or torture in all cases, but the definition of “prisoner of conscience” remained central. And it included a requirement that the prisoner in question be exactly that: a person jailed for the expression of an opinion. Amnesty did not adopt people who either used or advocated violence.

So the Hitchens critique of Amnesty amounts to a finding of mission creep. Amnesty, in this reading, no longer restricts itself to what it was founded to do, and therefore debases what it was founded to do.

A similar argument was made in a widely-noted editorial in The Economist in 2007. Again: the organization was founded to shine global attention on the plight of people who were in jail because they had said what they thought. And now it was doing all sorts of things that had nothing to do with that.

Another of Amnesty’s 12 campaigns is on “Poverty and Human Rights” which asserts: “Everyone, everywhere has the right to live with dignity. That means that no one should be denied their rights to adequate housing, food, water and sanitation, and to education and health care.” A similar theme is struck by the “Economic Globalisation and Human Rights” campaign—reflecting Amnesty’s enthusiastic support for the World Social Forum, a movement which holds annual anti-capitalism shindigs. Sometimes there seems to be a desire to be even-handed between pariahs and paragons: Amnesty recently surprised observers of the ex-communist world by producing a critique of the language law in Estonia—a country usually seen as the best example of good government in the region.

The big question in all this is priorities. Cases do exist where violations of political rights and of economic ones are hard to separate; one such case is Zimbabwe, whose government has engaged in politicised food distribution and slum clearance at the same time as judicial repression.

But the new Amnesty is surely open to the charges both that it is campaigning on too many fronts, and that the latest focus comes at the cost of the old one.

Within the past few years, the case against Amnesty has progressed to the point where, for some observers, the organization has simply discredited itself. As an example, take this 2010 column by Mona Charen, a former speechwriter for Nancy Reagan and Jack Kemp. To her, Amnesty has simply never been a serious organization, and she’s surprised the world has taken so long to figure it out.

I’m just passing Charen’s column along. The Economist leader and the Hitchens columns make more compelling arguments, to me. Amnesty may argue (and is welcome to; I’ll post here any response Amnesty wants to send me) that it’s perfectly fair for an organization to evolve over the decades. It is indeed; but Amnesty’s evolution has upset some former supporters. And that’s the climate of opinion within which Kenney is operating.


Kenney vs. Amnesty: The case against Amnesty International

  1. Sure is a lot of whining and pilpul going on about a simple and long-standing principle of law.

    If you think someone has committed a crime, here or elsewhere, then you arrest them and try them in a public court of law.

    You don’t play Pontius Pilate with it by just deporting them elsewhere.

    • I don’t know how Harper squares being on the side of Law and Order and yet is willing  to risk letting supposed war criminals walk.  It doesn’t mean we have to prosecute them but shouldn’t we be at least in touch with their home country and/or the UN and ICC. 

      • Harper’s views on law and order seem to depend on what time of day it is, or if he’s in a bad mood….or whichever way the wind blows.

        • Yeah, but it is still a system that is funded by money. So, the millions you would spend investigating and trying these people can be better spent elsewhere within our legal system. – Pragmatic

          • Everything costs money…fact of life.

            Including legal obligations…which we have.

          • Legal obligations fulfilled by our immigration laws

            Also, if we were to promise to prosecute war criminals no matter what the cost/effort, we might even become a prime destination for these individuals. If I was a war criminal under threat of prosecution in a country that had stricter punishment, I might come to Canada and take my chances here.

          • @TSYM:disqus 

            If you’re talking about war criminals, it’s criminal law.

  2. I would be shocked if Mona Charen approved of AI. 

  3. Now who said this……..

    “Human rights commissions, as they are evolving, are an attack on our fundamental freedoms and the basic existence of a democratic society… It is in fact totalitarianism.  I find this is very scary stuff.”

  4. Just so we’re clear, this entire piece boils down to: “So the Hitchens critique of Amnesty amounts to a finding of mission creep. Amnesty, in this reading, no longer restricts itself to what it was founded to do, and therefore debases what it was founded to do.”

    I don’t get it. This stupid kerfuffle aside, how has AI “debased” themselves by bursting the limits of their original mission? This seems to sidestep the discussion at hand in favour of an attack on AI itself.

    Has anyone, Jason “Bad Girls” Kenney or otherwise, fully addressed the issues raised in AI’s letter?

    • how has AI “debased” themselves by bursting the limits of their original mission?

      Did you read the Hitchens piece?  The Gita Sahgal story is a perfect example of how this once-noble organization has debased and politicized itself. Here’s what Salman Rushdie had to say about the Sahgal affair:

      Amnesty has done its reputation incalculable damage by allying itself with Moazzam Begg and his group Cageprisoners, and holding them up as human rights advocates. It looks very much as if Amnesty’s leadership is suffering from a kind of moral bankruptcy, and has lost the ability to distinguish right from wrong. It has greatly compounded its error by suspending the redoubtable Gita Sahgal for the crime of going public with her concerns. Gita Sahgal is a woman of immense integrity and distinction…. It is people like Gita Sahgal who are the true voices of the human rights movement; Amnesty and Begg have revealed, by their statements and actions, that they deserve our contempt.

      • Just watched Fair Game.  The movie about covert CIA agent Valerie Plame and the White House leaking of her name.  Awesome movie. 

        Near the end, her husband is speaking to a college class.  He asks, “How many people know the sixteen words in the President’s State of the Union address that sent us to war?”  Nobody raised their hands.  He asked, “How many people know my wife’s name?”  Everybody raised their hands.

        The issue isn’t Amnesty International and its mission and divulging from same.  Nor was it about Richard Colvin and his strengths as a civilian military oversight diplomat.

        The issue is the criticism these people levelled at our government.  We are responsible for what our government does–we are a democracy!  Maybe these people have it all wrong, but if that was the case, why isn’t the argument about what they said instead of who they are?

        • Hi Jenn!

          I haven’t watched Fair Game, but I hope to soon, based on your recommendation!

          In my view, the government is doing the right thing by finding these fugitives and deporting them.  In fact, this is something the government should have been doing many years ago.  It’s shameful that Canada has been known as a safe haven for international human rights abusers, because we’ve been so lax in the past about enforcing our own laws and our deportation orders.

          The Canadian branch of Amnesty International tried to criticize the government for enforcing our deportation orders.  In response, the minister wrote an excellent letter that completely demolished Amnesty’s criticisms, by pointing out that we are, in fact, doing exactly the right thing.  

          To date, nobody has been able to refute the points Kenney made in his letter. As Paul Wells and many others have acknowledged, Kenney won the debate.  Amnesty’s criticisms were unreasonable, perhaps even irresponsible, and I’m glad that the minister wrote such an intelligent and forceful letter to explain why.

          • Perhaps I haven’t been following closely enough, or have a bad memory (that is very true).  Could you please quote me the part in Amnesty’s letter where it says we should not find illegal immigrants and deport them?  Because I don’t remember that, and moreover I don’t think anyone is arguing that illegal immigrants shouldn’t be deported.  I rather agree with you here that this is right and we should have been doing many years ago.

            But if you find it shameful that Canada has become known as a safe haven for international human rights abusers, your shame must have increased tenfold when you discovered that we are not just doing it (shameful in itself but sometimes, sadly, principle must be weighed against food on table and roof over head) but also crowing about how we are not punishing war criminals.

          • So you would prefer the government to secretly deport people from our country, not to announce why/what they are doing?

             I like Mr Kenney’s approach. He is putting all the evidence on the table – explaining exactly why these individuals are being deported, opening this evidence for debate, and, of course vigorously defending his decision in this debate. Also, he asks citizens to actively assist in finding these individuals so that they can be removed.

            His decision to respond to AI has nothing to do with Richard Colvin or Valerie Plame (huge huge stretch) – that is mish-mash poppycock!

      • An attack on the messenger, no matter how well-founded, is still an attack on the messenger. It doesn’t address the message.

        You’ll recall that I agree with Kenny’s assertion that it’s impractical to prosecute these alleged “war criminals” here. But the message of AI’s letter is: if these people have committed crimes against humanity, Canada has an obligation to see that they are handled appropriately by somebody, not just set free to repeat their crimes.

        I have yet to see that message properly addressed, much less “demolished”.

        • How about AI? They are the ones attacking the messenger.

          Why didn’t AI say “Hey we don’t want war criminals living within Canada either; however, we want them punished, so we will start a campaign to raise cash/awareness to ensure that we can bring these individuals to justice in their home countries. We will work with our partners in these countries to ensure justice is served.”

          • You’re kidding, right? You do realize that AI is pointing out Canada’s obligations under national and international law.


          • From Mr. Kenney’s letter:

            ….” where an individual is the subject of a warrant from a
            foreign court or tribunal, we will consider turning him over to the
            appropriate authorities”

  5. This is a classic HarperCon tactic: attack the credibility of critics without ever addressing the issue at hand. 

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