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Amnesty International’s Orwellian Turn
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Amnesty International’s Orwellian Turn

Its new report on Ukraine exposes how the group has subordinated human rights to its leaders’ leftist politics.

In 1961, Amnesty International formed to defend non-violent “prisoners of conscience,” a term co-founder Eric Baker coined. Over subsequent decades, the group was crucial to shaming dictatorships and raising the profile of Soviet dissidents such as Natan Sharansky and Andrei Sakharov, Chinese dissidents like Wang Dan and Chen Guangcheng, and Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh

No more. On August 4, 2022, Amnesty International released a report critical of Ukraine, handing a propaganda coup to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The report criticized Ukrainian fighters for resisting Russian invaders and implied that Kyiv, not Moscow, was responsible for subsequent deaths. “The ensuing Russian strikes in populated areas have killed civilians and destroyed civilian infrastructure,” Amnesty concluded. The finding may be morally inverse—the equivalent of blaming Jews during the Holocaust for an Auschwitz guard falling to his death from a guard tower—but, anyone who has traced Amnesty’s trajectory in recent years should not be surprised.     

The report is bizarre from start to finish. It blames Ukraine’s defense rather than Russia’s onslaught for civilian deaths, never mind that Russia’s strikes on civilian targets are 60 times more frequent than its targeting of military sites. That Russian forces violated agreements of safe passage, murdered fleeing civilians, and trapped the others inside besieged cities was irrelevant to Amnesty’s experts. U.N. War Crimes investigator Marc Garlasco noted Amnesty International simply got the law wrong. Nevertheless, even as Russian troops kidnap, rape, and summarily execute Ukrainian civilians, Amnesty suggests that Ukrainian efforts to defend civilians from the onslaught was no different from Russian aggression, and that Ukraine is guilty of war crimes because too many of its civilians remained in harm’s way. In one case, Amnesty blamed Ukrainian soldiers for a Russian missile strike on a village in which some Ukrainian soldiers lived—Ukrainian soldiers have to live somewhere, and the village was far outside of denser urban areas. As retired Col. John Sweet further pointed out, there is hardly a military base in America without civilians living just outside its gates as families and businesses move nearby to educate children, provides services, and conduct business. Here, Amnesty experts expose themselves as both ignorant of the military and the laws upon which they comment. It is illegal for groups like Hamas to fire rockets from the courtyards of U.N.-run schools or the rooftop of an office building housing press (something Amnesty ignores), but there is no law against operating in civilian areas to defend civilian infrastructure against an invading force. 

That the report read as if plagiarized from a Kremlin propaganda factory should not surprise, though. Amnesty International has long since dispensed with its original mission and subordinated objective human rights to its leaders’ subjective leftist, anti-American, and antisemitic politics. It pushes its research through the lens of politics and, when the facts do not fit, it simply dispenses with them. 

Consider prisoners of conscience. Russia’s most famous dissident today is Alexander Navalny. Two years ago, Kremlin agents poisoned Navalny with a nerve agent as he flew from Tomsk to Moscow. He ultimately went to Germany for medical treatment, but in January 2021, five months after surviving the Kremlin’s assassination attempt, Russian security agents imprisoned him upon his return to Moscow. Amnesty International designated him a prisoner of conscience but then rescinded the status after Russian propagandists said he had incited hatred 15 years ago by comparing Chechen terrorists to cockroaches. After the ensuing uproar, Amnesty reversed course once again, and explained, “We recognize that an individual’s opinions and behavior may evolve over time. … It is part of Amnesty’s mission to encourage people to positively embrace a human rights vision and to not suggest that they are forever trapped by their past conduct.” 

That Amnesty’s objection to Navalny was his supposed incitement is risible by its own standards, though. In the Middle East, the group has labeled Bassem Tamimi as a prisoner of conscience even as he repeatedly called for armed uprising and peddled the antisemitic calumny that Israel profited from the sale of murdered Palestinians’ organs. 

As Alex Rychin argues in The Anti-Israel Agenda: Inside the Political War on the Jewish State, Amnesty has become deeply unhinged, if not outright antisemitic, when it comes to Israel. In 2010, Frank Johansson, the director of its Finland chapter, called Israel a “scum state.” When challenged, he doubled down on his characterization. Its United Kingdom campaign manager likened Israel to the Islamic State, and in 2018, Amnesty’s then-secretary-general Salil Shetty called Israel, the Middle East’s only democracy, a “rogue” state. More recently, an Amnesty official used pictures of Islamic terrorists as his profile picture. Amnesty doubled down and defended non-governmental organizations affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a group responsible for numerous airplane hijackings and suicide bombings directed at children and civilians. Both the European Union’s auditing mechanism and USAID confirmed the connections between the groups with which Amnesty partnered and the terrorist group. Amnesty stood firm, not because of its own research or elucidation of fact, but rather because it prioritized the politics of its researchers over its stated principles. 

I have experienced Amnesty’s tendency toward temper tantrums firsthand. In 2014, I reported for Commentary that Amnesty International alongside Human Rights Watch had collaborated with Alkarama, a self-described human rights organization conducting research in the Arab world, sometimes even incorporating its findings into their own reports. Neither appeared cognizant nor concerned that Abdul Rahman Umayr al-Naimi, the founder of Alkarama was a U.S.-designated al-Qaeda financier. Nor did they mind that Naimi had decried “the Zionist power and the American administration [of President Barack Obama] …which is working to achieve control over nations and peoples, is stealing their wealth, annihilating their will, and changing their educational curriculums and social orders … through falsifying truths about Islam’s teachings.” Rather than rescind their reporting or address Naimi’s writings, Amnesty analyst Mansoureh Mills libeled me with the false assertion that the United Arab Emirates’ paid me. That Mills never contacted me but based conclusions on her hunch rather than research shows how sloppy, defensive, and politicized Amnesty has become. Ironically, I have received more honoraria from Amnesty—a $50 Amazon gift card for answering a survey—than I have from the UAE ($0), as I do not take honorarium from foreign governments. I am not alone. When confronted with errors, Amnesty researchers go silent. There appears to be no internal research process or quality control; the organization has simply become a platform for its analysts’ animus and agendas.

Good leadership could rectify this, but instead it appears to amplify the problem with a self-dealing circle of agenda-driven hiring. Consider the case of Agnès Callamard, a French human rights expert who bounced between Amnesty International and U.N. postings. In January 2013, she tweeted falsely both that Israel had murdered PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and that Shimon Peres, a former Israeli president, prime minister, and Nobel Laureate had admitted it. The source she cites, however, says the opposite: Peres talks about protecting Arafat. Such falsehoods, however, show that she grounded her expertise less in careful research and more on polemical politics. To date, Callamard has not retracted her tweet. 

Rather than be embarrassed by such political dishonesty, it appears today that it is the chief credential for Amnesty. On February 1, 2022, Lazar Berman, a diplomatic correspondent for the Times of Israel, interviewed Callamard and Philip Luther, her Middle East and North Africa research and advocacy director, to discuss Amnesty’s report concluding Israel was guilty of apartheid. The entire interview is worth reading, as Callamard and Luther stumble over basic facts and acknowledge the subjectivity that leads them to prioritize criticism of Israel over China’s genocide against its Uyghur population. 

Amnesty is not alone. There is a long tendency among human rights organizations to drift leftward and compromise their core mission over time. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the Quaker organization that won the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of its work to ensure the safety and security of prisoners of war, subsequently disgraced itself by advocating on behalf of the Khmer Rouge, a group guilty of murdering 1 million Cambodians in an orgy of racist and political violence. The AFSC’s justification? John McAuliff, its Indo-China division chief, suggested reports of Khmer Rouge mass murder were an American attempt to discredit “the example of an alternative model of development.” The group’s New England regional sirector meanwhile dismissed “bloodbath stories” as anti-communist propaganda and an American effort to punish countries who resisted “exploitation by multinational corporations seeking raw materials, markets for surplus, and cheap labor.” To date, neither the AFSC nor the Quakers in whose name they act have apologized for this lapse of judgment. And, absent any internal mechanism to identify and rectify mistakes, they repeat. Today, not only does the AFSC work fist-in-glove with the North Korean regime (while ignoring South Korea), but it is at the forefront of Uyghur genocide denial.

Human Rights Watch, too, has allowed politics to corrupt its work. While the United Arab Emirates’ respect for the human rights of migrant workers is often wanting, Human Rights Watch used its animus toward Abu Dhabi to excuse support for groups who violently seek to overthrow the monarchy. Sarah Leah Whitson, the group’s former Middle East director, sought to attract Saudi funders by promising a pay-to-play scheme in which Saudi donations would enable stringent anti-Israel coverage. To her credit, Whitson wore her politics on one sleeve, and her anti-Israel animus on her other sleeve.  The problem in the group grew so great that, in 2009, Robert L. Bernstein, the founding chair of Human Rights Watch, took to the New York Times opinion page to castigate the group for his politicization and failure to uphold its mission. 

Back to Amnesty International: Politics reign supreme, but when there is no overt agenda, then moral equivalence takes hold. In 2020, as Azerbaijani forces attacked Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, Amnesty International—which was doing no research of its own in the area—issued a statement blaming both sides equally. Halo Trust, an international demining group actively working in Nagorno-Karabakh, however, found only cluster munitions used by Azerbaijanis, often replete with pink ribbons to attract children. Amnesty International never explained the root of its blame on Armenia; it appears the group simply fabricated it to appear even-handed. 

Perhaps that is what happened with the Ukraine report. Its motivation, however, does not change the fact that Amnesty International now operates upon a tapestry of lies, unencumbered by fact-checking or context. Ukraine has now been under assault for eight years. In 2014, Russian forces annexed Crimea and portions of eastern Ukraine. As European and American resolve faltered and Russia again turned a profit, Putin concluded he would face no consequence to resuming the attack. This time he sought to attack cities like Kyiv, Mariupol, and Kherson. For Amnesty to accuse Ukraine of violating the rules of law by defending those cities rather than marching out to slaughter at best shows tremendous moral equivalence that verges on the Orwellian. It was too much for Oksana Pokalchuk, Amnesty’s local Ukraine director, who knew the situation better than Amnesty executives in London and New York. “I and the leadership of Amnesty International have split over values,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “I believe that any work done for the good of society should take into account the local context, and think through consequences.”

Today, Amnesty International is no longer a human rights organization. Rather, it has become a fundraising juggernaut, operating on a budget of $300 million annually. With such resources at its disposal, and naïve donors constantly adding more, its officers pursue their own political agendas while cloaking themselves in a reputation built from the group’s past. Under such circumstances, its Ukraine trainwreck should surprise less than the fact that any government, journalist, or human rights researcher any more takes Amnesty International seriously. Unfortunately, their decline and that of Human Rights Watch leaves a massive vacuum for human rights advocacy rooted in moral clarity that has yet to be filled.

Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.