Saturday, April 03, 2010

Amnesty International and the intellectual dishonesty of the Right

Amnesty International is a terrorist organization! A fascist organization! AI endorses jihad!

Given where these cries are erupting, we need to keep our wits about us. "Fascism" seems to be a relative concept for the Flea, who has endorsed both state and street violence against his opponents, while Kate prefers death or deportation for hers--in the name of anti-terrorism, of course. In any case, it took quite a few clicks before I found what AI's Claudio Cordone had actually said, rather than had been reported as saying, on the matter of Moazzam Begg. (Some backstory here.)

I think it might be as well to quote Cordone at length, and in fact I encourage readers to follow the link in my last paragraph and read his letter in its entirety. One can quickly see how the Right
have wilfully distorted what Cordone had to say. And I am referring to those who have actually read his words, not the others who have dutifully parroted what their political coreligionists have told them.

There are victims with whom we would not associate, while unreservedly campaigning against any abuses of their rights. For example, we denounced the waterboarding of Khaled Sheikh Muhammad, the Guantánamo detainee credited with the 9/11 and other atrocities. But we would never share a platformwith someone like him who openly espouses an ideology predicated on hatred and the killing of civilians – in short, views that are clearly antithetical to human rights. The answer in this case is easy.

But in other cases the answer is not easy. For example, should we not work against the death penalty withan influential actor like the Catholic Church because we disagree with their stand on women’s reproductive right [sic] and homosexuality? There are valid arguments for and against. We chose to work with the Catholic Church against the death penalty.

Let’s look now at our joint advocacy for the Guantánamo detainees with Moazzam Begg and his group, Cageprisoners, which has earned us accusations of being pro-Taleban and promoting violence and discrimination against women. Most recently we spoke together with him in a coalition of NGOs to persuade European states to receive Guantánamo detainees who were cleared for release but risk further human rights abuses if returned to their home countries. The tour has ended and we have received initial positive feedback.

Moazzam Begg is one of the first detainees to have been released from Guantánamo and to disclose information when much of what was going on in the camp was shrouded in secrecy. He speaks powerfully from personal experience about the abuses there. He advocates effectively detainees’ rights to due process, and does so within the same framework of universal human rights standards that we are promoting. All good reasons, we think, to be on the same platform when speaking about Guantánamo.

Now, Moazzam Begg and others in his group Cageprisoners also hold other views which they have clearly stated, for example on whether one should talk to the Taleban or on the role of jihad in self-defence. Are
such views antithetical to human rights? Our answer is no, even if we may disagree with them – and indeed those of us working to close Guantánamo have a range of beliefs about religion, secularism, armed
struggle, peace and negotiations. I am afraid that the rest of what we have heard against Moazzam Begg include many distortions, innuendos, and “guilt by association” to which he has responded for himself.

I wish to stress to you as I have done repeatedly in public that if any evidence emerges that Moazzam Begg or Cageprisoners have promoted views antithetical to human rights, or have been involved in even more sinister activities, Amnesty International would disown its joint advocacy. However, also at play is the old principle that anyone is innocent until proven guilty – not only in a judicial sense. To disown our work with Moazzam Begg on the basis of what we have been presented so far would betray basic principles of fairness which are also at the heart of what we stand for. [emphases added]

This letter, dated February 28, was in response to a petition on the Begg issue. The petitioners replied to Cordone on March 29. Other issues were raised, but here is the nub of their concern about "defensive jihad":

Clarification of Amnesty International’s position on the concept of ‘defensive jihad’ is extremely urgent. In particular, the following questions must be addressed:

1. On what grounds did you decide that ‘defensive jihad’ and its aims are not antithetical to human rights?

2.Can you elaborate your examination of both the ideology of ‘defensive jihad’ and acts committed in its name for compliance with international humanitarian law, human rights law and international criminal law?

3.On what opinions did you rely? Which experts were consulted?

All good questions. We know that the notion of "defence" is a tricksy one, used throughout history to justify all sorts of offensive actions that no civilized person would countenance. On the other hand, sometimes "defence" simply means "defence." In context, it seems apparent that Cordone was speaking of the latter, having just provided an unequivocal rejection of Islamist violence and those who promote it. This conversation, however, clearly taking place between people of good faith on both sides, must continue.

But in the meantime, two quick points. First, why are the Usual Suspects so loath to link to Cordone's actual letter? Are they afraid that its full contents might blunt the force of their denunciations?

And secondly--what about working with the Catholic Church, anyway? True, the latter doesn't promote "jihad in self-defence"--it has a well-developed doctrine of the "just war" instead--but its antics of late might seem to put alliances with it beyond the pale for many decent folks. Does AI's continued partnership to abolish capital punishment mean that Amnesty somehow endorses the Church's institutional sexism and homophobia, or countenances pedophilia and its enablers?

From where I sit, comfortably out of this particular fray, I see a reasonable discussion of boundaries, and an honest attempt to negotiate the gray areas--defending human rights even when the people being defended are less than saintly, and navigating in a climate of moral ambiguity that is part of the human condition. Meanwhile, the Right's hypocrisy is showing once again: perhaps they should look to some of the truly dubious alliances they themselves have engaged in over the past few years.

Those of us who applaud what Amnesty International has achieved since it was founded nearly half a century ago will prefer to watch and wait. I look forward to Cordone's public response to the petitioners' questions. In the meantime, comments on the proper limits of collaboration are welcome: when, and under what conditions, do we bring the long spoon?

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