I discovered something today that I think will nag at me for quite a while in the future, because I don’t have an inkling of an idea of what to do about it. Scanning through my news of the day, I discovered a piece by Christopher Hitchens about a recent scandal regarding Amnesty International.
I have an ambivalent relationship with Hitchens. He was an advocate of the Iraq war in 2003, and a strong advocate of torture. He has since dropped his support of the war and more extreme torture techniques in the USA repetoire such as waterboarding, the latter after recording a very graphic video of Hitchens himself being waterboarded. And as I read his regular columns for Slate magazine, I find that his harsh evaluations of global politics to be remarkably sensible. I don’t always feel good about it, but I can’t help but agree with most everything he has written over the last twelve or so months, at least on some level.
Now he’s publicizing an affair that is incredibly disturbing to me. Amnesty International is one of the few charities I support financially, just above the minimum monthly donation, but it’s taken an important place in my thinking. They became involved over the Guantanamo era with a group called Cageprisoners, run by former Guantanamo prisoner and UK citizen Moazzem Begg. Amnesty advocated for Begg’s release, because they considered prisoners of the USA in Guantanamo to be political prisoners, and it was certainly clear that the prisoners were being treated inhumanely and violently.
But Begg himself and Cageprisoners are advocates for the return of the Taliban to the leadership of Afghanistan. In their support for Guantanamo prisoners, Amnesty has allied itself with figures who would deny millions of people the rights for which that Amnesty itself is an advocate. Amnesty opposed the USA’s treatment of its prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, an act in accordance with their ethical stance. But many of the prisoners themselves were stringent opponents of democracy, free thought and expression, and women’s rights. These men were unjustly treated in prison, because a democracy for one should be a democracy for all, even giving its enemies humane treatment. This is the core principle of democracy that Cheney’s policies ignored. To deny democracy in even one case is to deny your own democratic values.
Amnesty seems to have fallen into the trap of dualistic thinking. They opposed the USA’s human rights abuses, but in the fire of their opposition forgot that the targets of American violence were themselves enemies of human rights. Opposition to USA policy on prisoners meant alliance with Amnesty. But the most shameful aspect of this is that when an Amnesty executive, Gita Sahgal, spoke out against thier association with radical Islamists, she was suspended. Sahgal and her allies have established a website to advocate for her. These advocates of freedom of thought are trying to cover up their mistake by acting like authoritarians, like thought police.
But I find myself in a tight spot. Do I withdraw my funding and support of Amnesty because of this incident? Or do I hope that a resolution can be found, and its leaders come to their senses. I’ve seen many admirable figures and friends on the left become embarrassing hypocrites and apologists for violence because of the dualistic thinking that brought Amnesty and Moazzem Begg together. An opponent of the Iraq invasion becomes an opponent of NATO; support for ending the occupation of Palestine becomes support for Hamas; opposing George W and Western imperialism becomes apologising for al Qaeda. And I continue to feel like a lone voice in the wilderness.