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Amnesty’S Absurdity
The United States needs to reclaim the language of international human rights.


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Anne Bayefsky

Amnesty International’s deliberate use of the word “gulag” to describe U.S. actions at Guantanamo should not have been a surprise. As has been widely reported, Irene Khan, the secretary general of Amnesty, used the description in the foreword to the organization’s 2005 annual report. According to Khan, “The detention facility at Guantánamo Bay has become the gulag of our times….” It is only the latest in a multi-year slide by the organization away from universal human-rights standards toward a politicized and anti-American agenda.

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The change became abundantly clear at the U.N. World Conference Against Racism that took place in August and early September 2001. The final declaration of the forum of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) said Zionism, or the self-determination of the Jewish people, equals racism and went downhill from there. On the final day prior to the adoption of this declaration, international NGOs, including Amnesty, deliberated about their position as one caucus. As a representative of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists I was about to enter our meeting place along with the president of Amnesty, Irene Khan, when the chief representative of Human Rights Watch, Reed Brody, turned to me in the presence of the others and told me I was not welcome and had to go. Said Brody, to the objection of no one (although I had worked professionally with many of them for years), I represented Jews and therefore could not be trusted to be objective.

At Durban, Amnesty led the international NGO assault on universal standards. According to Khan, what mattered were “the voices of the victims.” In her words, “The victims of racism and related intolerance have described their own realities of racism and related intolerance as they experience it…This Declaration and Programme of Action is an inclusive text which enables our various perspectives to be presented at the World Conference.”

However, despite the rhetoric of “inclusiveness,” the Amnesty International chief sat on her hands when a motion to delete the voices of Jewish victims of racism was put to the vote and adopted. Every Jewish NGO from around the world walked out. Amnesty and company stayed.

Durban ended three days before 9/11. It is no surprise that the cowards and hate-mongers of Durban should be on the wrong side of history in the war against the violence that racism and intolerance breed. International human-rights organizations, with Amnesty at the helm, have cast the war on terror on one side and protection of human rights on the other. The preferred phraseology in U.N. lingo is “the protection of human rights while countering terrorism.” Mere lip service is paid to the rights violated by terrorism: There are no detailed global reports emanating from Amnesty International on the abominations of terrorists. Searching Amnesty’s website for “terrorism” elicits 25 reports–all on violations by those combating terrorism.

Amnesty International’s spokesman, William Schulz, responded this past week to criticism of the Soviet “gulag” comparison by saying, “The administration never thinks Amnesty International is absurd when we criticize Cuba, China, North Korea…” In other words, the fact that Amnesty is quoted sometimes means the group should be above criticism always. This is the arrogance of an international human-rights organization–and they are not alone–that for years has operated without serious accountability. How sad that the strengths of a major civil-society organization have been progressively diminished by overreaching, ever-increasing claims of expertise, and an irresponsible belief in their infallibility.

Amnesty is, however, correct in one important respect. For far too long Americans have ceded the language of international human rights to just about everyone else on the planet. The failure to make the case for key elements of American foreign policy in human-rights terms has left the field wide open to the haters of America and of democracy, allowing them to appropriate and subvert the political currency of human rights. Every American kid on campus knows that the local human-rights club is an America-bashing hangout. If they are caring, compassionate, and full of energy to assist their brothers and sisters in all corners of the globe, they have nowhere to go–at least until they take the pledge of non-allegiance. Maybe Amnesty’s absurdity will help sound a long overdue alarm bell.

Anne Bayefsky is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute..



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