by Jideofor Adibe
A group of protesters recently barricaded the Abuja office of Amnesty International (AI) and asked the international organisation to quit Nigeria within 24 hours. One Melvin Ejeh, said to be the Executive Director of Global Peace and Rescue Initiative, (GOPRI) and who spoke on behalf of the protesters reportedly warned that the group would lead other Nigerians on a five-day Occupy Amnesty International protest if the organisation failed to quit Nigeria “within 24 hours”. He was quoted as saying: “Let us warn at this point that there will be no interval of respite if AI failed to leave Nigeria at the end of the five days as we will activate other more profound options to make the organisation leave Nigeria.”
The protest was against a recent report of the global human rights watchdog for Nigeria in which it accused the Nigerian Army of being directly responsible for the death of 240 people, including infants, in a dreaded military detention centre in Borno in 2016 and the extra-judicial killing of 177 pro-Biafran agitators and protestors same year. It was not the first time AI would accuse the Nigerian Army of human rights violations. The online newsgroup Sahara Reporters, however, claimed in a tweet that the protesters were rented by the federal government.
Formed in 1961 by the British lawyer Peter Benenson following an article he published in The Observer newspaper on May 28, 1961, Amnesty International draws attention to human rights abuses around the world and campaigns for governments to comply with international laws. Today AI actively campaigns on several fronts – against torture, for prisoners of conscience to raise awareness about their plight, against racism, for the protection of the rights of immigrants and refugees – among others.
While there appears to be a consensus that the task of being a watchdog for global human rights abuses, especially by states, is a noble one, the organisation faces two key challenges which informs many of the criticisms it regularly receives whenever it releases its reports: the first one is the relativity of human rights terms. Take for instance its notion of “prisoners of conscience”. Someone regarded by AI as a prisoner of conscience may not necessarily be regarded as so by the state or other groups within the state: for instance while Nelson Mandela was regarded as a freedom fighter by the African National Congress in South Africa during the Apartheid days in the country, he was regarded as a terrorist by the Apartheid government and some Western countries such as Britain. How does AI choose who qualifies to be called ‘prisoner of conscience’? Are Nnamdi Kanu, Sambo Dasuki and El-Zakzaky ‘prisoners of conscience’ or felons as insisted by the state? A clearer example of how the human rights group gets caught in the web of the relativity of concepts it uses was when it released its 2005 Report for USA in which it referred to the Guantánamo Bay prison as “the gulag of our times”, which entrenches “the practice of arbitrary and indefinite detention in violation of international law. Trials by military commissions have made a mockery of justice and due process.” Leading US politicians, including former U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and President Bush were outraged apparently because the human rights group failed to accept their notions that the detainees were terrorists who were not qualified for the sort of ‘luxuries’ the organisation was apparently canvassing on their behalf. And given the mood of the time after the terrorist attack in the country in September 2001, many Americans actually differed with AI on this. As The Washington Post editorial of May 26, 2005, put it, “lately the organisation [Amnesty International] has tended to save its most vitriolic condemnations not for the world’s dictators but for the United States.” In the same vein when AI criticised Israel’s Operation Pillar Defence against Hamas in its report in 2012, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticised the report as being “one-sided” and “not particularly serious” and “that it seemed little more than a public relations gimmick” for Hamas. Americans sympathetic to the Jewish state were even more critical. For instance, Elliott Abrams, a former American diplomat who served in foreign policy positions for presidents Ronald Reagan and George W Bush accused AI of treating “Hamas and other terrorist groups […] with an ‘even-handedness’ that bespeaks deep biases.” Israel’s Operation Pillar Defence was an eight-day Israel Defence Forces (IDF) operation in the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip, which began on 14 November 2012 with the killing of Ahmed Jabari, chief of the Gaza military wing of Hamas
Other countries that have variously accused the human rights group of bias include China, Vietnam, Russia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Even the Catholic Church had also accused AI of bias for its pro-abortion campaigns, particularly in Catholic-centric countries.
The point here is that the whole notion of human rights is not as straightforward as it seems: A person’s or group’s human rights compete against other people’s rights, including others’ right to be protected by the state.
We relate to reports from Amnesty International precisely the way we relate to reports from such global institutions as the IMF and the World Bank or such countries as the United States, Britain, France and Germany. When their reports validate our opinion or the positions of groups we are sympathetic to, we flaunt such reports as gold standards. When they negate our views or critical of groups or institutions we are sympathetic to, then they are biased. This is not to suggest that there are no issues with the human rights group’s methodologies.
The other challenge faced by AI is the tension between the doctrines of non-interference and the need to protect. Some see Amnesty International’s country reports as a sort of interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. I have no sympathy with such criticisms because the doctrine of non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state has evolved. In fact, since the 1990s, there has been a normative shift away from the traditional understanding of state sovereignty to an acceptance of sovereignty as responsibility. This is the underlying premise of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, a commitment which was endorsed by all the member states of the United Nations in 2005 to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Part of the arguments of R2P, which was based on the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, is that in a globalized world, where what affects one country often has repercussion on several others, the doctrine of ‘non-interference’ should have the doctrines of ‘non-indifference’ and R2P as its checks. The argument here is that AI’s reports that are critical of a country’s human rights records should be seen as a sort of humanitarian intervention on behalf of the weak to call attention to ‘unacceptable’ state human rights practices and put pressure on the state concerned to make amends.
Does it then mean that the protesters were wrong to protest against the Amnesty International’s report? Provided the protest is peaceful and that no staff of the human rights organisation is harmed or physically threatened, the protests, even if sponsored by the government as some people alleged, could be one way of ensuring that the AI’s narrative is not allowed to dominate the political space. As the biggest human-rights organisation in the world, with 70 national chapters and 1.8m-plus members, AI’s reports are very influential. If any government is criticised, it behoves on such a government to defend itself. Citizens, whether on their own or as a rented crowd, showing civilised outrage at such a report are, in such a situation, merely exercising political speech provided the government in question has privately taken note of relevant parts of the report where it needs to make amends. Threatening to occupy the offices of the human rights organisation by a group of protesters (whether genuine or rented crowd) or giving AI ultimatum to leave the country is barbaric and, plays into the hands of such an organisation. Such an uncivilised approach simply shows the country in question is intolerant of criticisms (and therefore most likely guilty as charged) or incapable of meeting argument for argument. In fact by the mere fact of publishing its report and forcing a country concerned to go on the defensive, Amnesty International achieves its objective of calling attention to its notion of human rights abuses. Given the polarisation in several societies and the relativity of the terms the organisation uses in human rights monitoring and its metrics for measuring them, we will not always agree with them, especially when their reports do not validate our opinions or the groups we are sympathetic to. And when we disagree with them it is our right to show outrage or even use strong language to rebut their report. But we must always do so using civilised standards – as other countries do.
Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija
The author tweets @JideoforAdibe