When the charity decided to campaign for abortion it dramatically abandoned its Catholic founder’s vision

Amnesty International hit the headlines this summer when its policy to decriminalise all aspects of prostitution – pimps and brothels along with the prostitutes themselves – brought the human rights organisation into conflict with Hollywood stars Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet over issues of human trafficking, exploitation and women’s dignity. A few weeks later, The Times ran a story focusing on alleged links between one of Amnesty’s directors and what the newspaper described as “key players in a secretive network of global Islamists”. (Amnesty said it “found no evidence to suggest any inappropriate links”.)

Neither of these areas of controversy – the extension of its campaigning into quirky areas unrelated to its traditional core purpose supporting political prisoners, and the perception that the organisation might be inclined far too readily to fraternise with Islamic extremists – are at all new. Over the past decade similar headlines have led many long-standing members and supporters to cancel their direct debits and give up on Amnesty International in disgust. Now, as it lays out its strategic direction for the years ahead, we can expect renewed contention as Amnesty sets itself on a course that will take it ever further from its original purposes and principles and cause unbearable annoyance to many who would otherwise wish it well.

Most of the best stories turn out not to be literally true in every particular, and so it is with Amnesty International’s creation myth. According to the standard version, Amnesty’s history began on the London Underground one morning towards the end of 1960.

A barrister, Peter Benenson, was on his way to chambers when he read an article in his newspaper about how two Portuguese students had drunk a toast to freedom in a Lisbon restaurant. Unfortunately, they were overheard by agents of the Salazar dictatorship’s secret police, arrested, convicted and sentenced to long periods of imprisonment.

“Perhaps because I am particularly attached to liberty, perhaps because I am fond of wine, this news item produced a righteous indignation in me that transcended normal bounds,” Benenson would recollect more than 20 years later. “Walking up the Strand towards the Temple my mind dwelt on World Refugee Year, the first of these years dedicated to international action. What a success it had been! The displaced persons camps in Europe had been finally emptied… So what about a World Year against political imprisonment?”

Benenson discussed his scheme with David Astor, the editor/proprietor of The Observer. Eventually, on May 28, 1961 the paper ran a news feature under the headline “The Forgotten Prisoners”; Benenson launched his appeal for amnesty highlighting a gallery of diverse prisoners including Agostino Neto, the Angolan poet who had been flogged in front of his family and locked up in the Cape Verde islands without trial; Constantin Noica, a Romanian philosopher sentenced to 25 years in prison; Ashton Jones, a 65-year-old pastor imprisoned in Louisiana because of his civil rights work; and Archbishop Beran of Prague, held by the Czechs.

“The technique of publicising the personal stories of a number of prisoners of contrasting politics is a new one,” Berenson wrote. “It has been adopted to avoid the fate of previous amnesty campaigns, which so often have become more concerned with publicising the political views of the imprisoned than with humanitarian purposes.” Within weeks, volunteers from all around the world were offering their services and Amnesty, which would eventually become the largest human rights organisation in the world, was born.

Subsequently, as significant anniversaries arrived or obituaries came to be drafted, journalists and historians have tried to identify the two Portuguese students in the Lisbon restaurant or even to find the newspaper article that set Amnesty’s founder on his way – but without success. According to the barrister and Amnesty veteran Bill Shipsey, who has made a study of this aspect of the organisation’s history, there were reports in the British press in December 1960 about two Portuguese imprisoned for subversive activities, but they were somewhat colourless, featuring neither students nor wine.

The vivid “toast to freedom” meme appears to have been something that either slowly fermented in Peter Benenson’s imagination over many years or was rapidly improvised for a media interview in the early 1980s. Whichever, it does perfectly embody what Amnesty was set up to do. The students were imprisoned for their views, not for blowing up electricity pylons or plotting an assassination. Such innocents – “prisoners of conscience” as they came to be styled – were to be the kind of people Amnesty would work to release.

Although in its early years the organisation was careful to adopt prisoners from both sides of the Iron Curtain and remained for a long time scrupulous about political impartiality, figures such as the Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky became associated with Amnesty in the public mind – something that hugely boosted the organisation’s moral authority.

In a radio programme marking Amnesty’s 50th anniversary, the BBC’s Sir John Tusa encapsulated the nature of its work thus: “An ordinary citizen sits in an ordinary home, writing an extraordinary letter on behalf of somebody they don’t know, to a dictator who doesn’t care. The letter says: ‘We know you have imprisoned X… Be warned. We will go on writing until you have freed them.’ ”

There is something essentially Christian in believing in the transformative potential of such a simple, powerless act of witness and Amnesty International’s founding fathers were indeed two Catholics and a Quaker.

Peter Benenson came from a well-off Jewish family. Instead of being packed off to the usual prep school, he was tutored privately at home; not by any old tutor, but by WH Auden. Later he went on to Eton and thence to Balliol, but his time at Oxford was interrupted by World War II, during which Benenson worked on secret ciphers at Bletchley Park. He converted to Catholicism in the late 1950s.

The Quaker was Eric Baker, a founding figure of both Amnesty and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. It was Baker who coined the phrase “prisoner of conscience”. The second Catholic was Seán MacBride, the son of Maud Gonne, the muse and sometime lover of the poet WB Yeats. His father, John MacBride, was executed by the British for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising. Seán MacBride himself became the IRA’s intelligence chief and briefly its interim chief of staff, before switching to constitutional politics and serving as a minister in the Irish government and holding a number of senior posts at the United Nations, where he eventually became Assistant Secretary General.

Whether in terms of culture, urbanity, colourfulness, gravitas or values, these men and their backstories contrast sharply with the dour NGO apparatchiks and bejeaned bearded activists who represent Amnesty today. The founders were also all men of firm principle who would not compromise whenever it might be politically expedient to do so. In their day Amnesty did not adopt anyone as a prisoner of conscience who advocated violence for political ends. In 1964 Amnesty held an internal debate whether to make an exception for Nelson Mandela. They decided not to. And despite Seán MacBride’s Irish Republican background, the IRA’s hunger strikers were not adopted either.

Nowadays, Amnesty’s campaigning on behalf of Guantanamo inmates seems hard to reconcile with its original principles. Some – the al-Qaeda hardcore, for instance – have clearly advocated violence and few if any could claim to be imprisoned for their views alone.

The Guantanamo association has thrown up other problems too. In 2010, a senior Amnesty insider, Gita Sahgal, sent a memo to colleagues arguing that it was wrong for the organisation to campaign alongside the former Guantanamo prisoner, Moazzem Begg: “To be appearing on platforms with Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgment,” she wrote. (Begg vigorously rejected her description of him.) When her colleagues would not listen, Sahgal made similar remarks to The Sunday Times. Amnesty promptly suspended her, oblivious to any irony attendant upon an organisation pledged to champion free speech punishing someone for talking to a journalist. Shortly afterwards Sahgal left Amnesty for good.

The following year Amnesty produced a 1,000-page legal brief aimed at persuading the authorities in Canada to arrest the former US president George W Bush, who happened to be on a short visit, for alleged war crimes in Iraq. Once again they had turned full circle. The organisation founded to get people out of jail was now trying to get someone locked up.

And releasing prisoners seems no longer such a big priority anyway. Take a quick peek at Amnesty’s websites today and you will find that prisoners of conscience are sidelined by big campaigns not just on issues you might expect such as torture or the death penalty but on arms control; the Middle East; LGBT rights; gender issues; migrant rights; surveillance; policing in Ferguson, Missouri; and access to emergency contraception and abortion services.

The Catholic Church had seen this latter one coming as early as 2006, and the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales tried to head it off at the pass. But Amnesty refused to back down and in 2007 the late Michael Evans, Bishop of East Anglia, who had been an Amnesty member for 31 years, led a long procession of Catholics out the door. In the following months Amnesty branches in Catholic parishes were closed down after a nudge from the hierarchy.

Only the most flimsy remnant of political impartiality remains in an organisation that is now decidedly secular and keen to strike attitudes in keeping with the Occupy movement and radical environmentalism. In Amnesty’s world view there are three major global human rights oppressors to blame for almost everything: Israel, the United States and the Patriarchy. It is odd that they should have abandoned the focus on prisoners for full-spectrum Leftist activism. It isn’t, after all, as if the prisoners of conscience issue had been solved.

Worse is to come. Amnesty is currently refocusing its resources and energy in pursuit of what it calls the economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) agenda. Economic rights are particularly sinister. As one Amnesty insider explains: “Amnesty could assess whether a country has adequately mobilised resources for public services … For example, it could assess how much of a country’s GDP is taxed, and how the per capita expenditure on public services compares to peer states.” Coming soon: “austerity” as a human rights violation?

Two things stand out for me when reading Amnesty’s working papers on social justice questions. One is the sophomoric standard of political and economic analysis. One of the giveaways is the railing against “neoliberalism”. You will never find anyone who calls themselves a neoliberal. It is a sneering pejorative used only by Trotskyists, third-rate academics and NGO workers – categories that all too frequently overlap.

The other thing that leaps out at me is a sense that Amnesty no longer really believes in human rights for their own sake – or, indeed, believes in their reality at all. It increasingly seems to see them merely instrumentally – as a tool to secure a particular political outcome. That outcome could be called socialism, but Amnesty settle for calling it “justice”.

It is this denial of the substantive nature of rights that is the most disturbing repudiation of Amnesty’s founding values. If this persists, Amnesty will not have just cut its moorings or lost its way; it will have lost its soul.

Dennis Sewell is a contributing editor of The Spectator

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (16/10/15)

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