Amnesty International Worker Suspended after Publicly Criticising Links to Islamist Group

As is being widely reported, Gita Sahgal, the head of the Gender Unit at Amnesty International UK, has been suspended from work after an article was published in today’s Sunday Times describing her warnings of possible damage to Amnesty’s reputation due to links with a former Guantanamo inmate named Moazzam Begg and his Cageprisoners organisation:

Sahgal, who has researched religious fundamentalism for 20 years, has decided to go public because she feels Amnesty has ignored her warnings for the past two years about the involvement of Begg in the charity’s Counter Terror With Justice campaign.

“I believe the campaign fundamentally damages Amnesty International’s integrity and, more importantly, constitutes a threat to human rights,” Sahgal wrote in an email to the organisation’s leaders on January 30. “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.”

 …”As a former Guantanamo detainee it was legitimate to hear his experiences, but as a supporter of the Taliban it was absolutely wrong to legitimise him as a partner,” Sahgal told The Sunday Times.

The article includes a lame response from Amnesty:

Asked if she thought Begg was a human rights advocate, [Anne] Fitzgerald [policy director of Amnesty’s international secretariat] said: “It’s something you’d have to speak to him about. I don’t have the information to answer that.”

This seems negligent to me: surely Amnesty should have looked into Begg’s views and the nature of his activist activities before deciding how much involvement to have with him? Fitzgerald is not being asked how Begg regards himself – she’s being asked how Amnesty regards him. A statement on the Amnesty website is similarly evasive:

…Today, Amnesty International is being criticised for speaking alongside [Begg] and for being “soft” on the Taleban, when our record is one of unreserved opposition to their abuses over the years. 

Interestingly, the US and other governments that have violated human rights standards in the name of countering terrorism justify those violations by saying that our security can only be protected by violating the rights of others.  Mr Begg is one of the people that the US government defined as “other.”

But there is no place for the “other” in human rights because to argue that some people are more ‘deserving’ than others of having their rights protected is to argue that some beings are less than human.

To make the obvious point: just because Begg had his rights violated by the USA, it does not therefore follow it is a good idea to work with him. The wretched David Irving had his rights violated in Austria, but I can’t imagine him going on tour as part of an Amnesty freedom of speech campaign.

Cageprisoners has been under critical scrutiny for a while; Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens has written several pieces for Standpoint on the subject, noting, for example, Begg’s unconvincing efforts to play down his links to Anwar al-Awlaki, and the site’s reproduction of a letter from Abdul Muhid, who was jailed in the UK for incitement following protests over the Danish Muhammad cartoons. In his letter, Muhid thanks Cageprisoners for arranging for Muslims to write to him, including children. From looking around the Cageprisoners website, it seems to me that it goes beyond calling for due process and humane conditions for prisoners, to misrepresenting some dangerous characters as prisoners of conscience.

Sahgal’s suspension does not bode well – and disciplining an employee as a response to what might regarded as “whistle-blowing” is a likely to bring not just bad publicity, but also a costly employment tribunal.

5 Responses

  1. […] Posted by acorcoran on February 7, 2010 Update:  Gita Sahgal, the whistleblower, has been suspended from her job, here. […]

  2. Yes, I agree with most of this. But it seems to be a matter of Sahgal disagreeing with Amnesty’s policy approach, rather than that she uncovered some kind of corruption or criminality or something similar. According to my understanding, therefore, she is not a whistleblower, just an opponent of her emplyer’s policies. And nor is it as if she is disgreeing with her employer over terms and conditions of employment such as pay rates – this is not an industrial/labour relations dispute, just a disagreement with non-industrial policies that she is hired to advocate.

    I’m open to learning more. But in those circumstances, as I understand them, she should have publicly resigned. That’s the honourable thing to do. I don’t think employees in these sorts of policy-related positions, once they decide they disagree with the policies of their employers and get to the point where they want to argue it out in public rather than within the organisation, can have it both ways. They can’t conscionably act like that and also continue to draw a salary from the very same employer whose policies they are publicly opposing.

    Accordingly, I don’t feel any sympathy for her for being suspended, even though it sounds as if Amnesty is full of bullshit on the substantive issues.

    • I suppose the crux will be whether Amnesty’s policy is so far from the organisation’s proper aims that it constitutes a threat of bringing the organisation into disrepute in some formal sense. Fitzgerald has basically admitted that no checks were made on Begg, and that Amnesty has no interest in his wider activism or views. Could that be negligence? I’m sure lawyers will be able to argue about it at length…

      • Amnesty or any other organization does not have to agree with every opinion every one of its partners happens to have. It is unfair to hold it to that standard.

        There is an obvious assumption of freedom of speech here that Amnesty respects but others here seem to ignore. Begg may have non-shady reasons for supporting the Taliban such as supporting the right of Afghanis to choose their own leadership and lifestyle. That is a view. If he has committed a nefarious act, or a violent act, or if he promotes nefarious or violent acts that’s a different story. But simply holding an unpopular view that is politically incorrect should not cause you, Bartholomew, and others to be so McCarthyist and judge Begg and Amnesty in the absolutist manner that you seem to judge them in. Should Amnesty not work with any Israelis who do not condemn Sharon who is widely accused of causing the Sabra and Shatilla massacres? This game can be played any which way and is never ending.

        Don’t take my constructive criticism the wrong way, I am a fan of your blog.

  3. […] Notes on Religion on Four Protest Groups in London on Saturday 31 OctoberRussell Blackford on Amnesty International Worker Suspended after Publicly Criticising Links to Islamist GroupAmnesty International accused of supporting Jihadists « Refugee Resettlement Watch on Amnesty […]

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