Like most people with even a passing interest in human rights, I’ve signed a fair number of Amnesty International petitions. And the latest Amnesty petition features a particularly impressive list of names — Salman Rushdie, Nawal El Saadawi, Amitav Ghosh, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Walzer, Gayatri Spivak — and on and on and on, a long list of writers, politicians, activists, lawyers, academics and journalists from around the globe, all reiterating their commitment to human rights.
However, these signatories are not endorsing a petition from Amnesty International. Rather, the "Global Petition to Amnesty International" calls upon the world’s most high-profile human rights organisation to "Restore the Integrity of Human Rights" within its own ranks. The petition is an impressive show of support for Gita Sahgal, a long-time human rights campaigner and until recently the head of Amnesty’s gender unit. Sahgal broke ranks over Amnesty’s work with British former Guantanamo inmate Moazzam Begg and his organisation, Cageprisoners.
Saghal was suspended from her position in February after an email in which she expressed her concerns to the Amnesty leadership was leaked to the media. Her supporters rallied to her defence, but earlier this month Amnesty announced that she was leaving the organisation due to "irreconcilable differences". For her part, Saghal wrote that Amnesty’s refusal to distance itself from Begg had "laid waste every achievement on women’s rights and made a mockery of the universality of human rights".
As an alleged al-Qaeda member, Begg was imprisoned without trial for three years, first in Afghanistan at the Bagram detention facility, and then in Guantanamo. Sahgal and her supporters do not dispute that Begg and other Guantanamo detainees were (and remain) entitled to Amnesty’s advocacy for victims of human rights abuse. Nor does she suggest that the testimony of former inmates should be overlooked by human rights organisations. However, she is deeply sceptical of Begg’s post-Guantanamo incarnation as a human rights campaigner and angered that Amnesty has provided him with a platform for this role.
The Amnesty brand-name can be a useful tool for those attempting to bolster their human rights credentials. In 2000, the organisation asked then immigration minister Philip Ruddock to stop brandishing his Amnesty badge while performing ministerial duties that included the mandatory detention of asylum seekers. Saghal and the signatories to the Global Petition allege that Begg and Cageprisoners are similarly unworthy associates because of their links to movements such as the Taliban, and that their commitment to human rights is highly selective — defending the victims of abuse by the US and its allies, while providing tacit endorsement of abuses committed by Islamist organisations. In particular, they point to such organisations’ hostility to women’s rights.
Amnesty claims that it could find no evidence to substantiate Saghal’s allegations against Begg beyond innuendo and "guilt by association". For his part, Begg denies that he lacks respect for women, pointing out that he and his wife had opened a girls’ school under the Taliban in Afghanistan, and deflecting the conversation back to his own experience of abuses committed by the United States, describing the trauma of hearing the screams of a female detainee who his captors falsely told him was his wife.
The split between Amnesty International and Gita Sahgal highlights yet again the fraught situation for anti-racist feminists in the post 9/11 years, as they attempt to combat abuses against Muslim communities as well as within them. We were faced with this dual struggle in Australia after Sheik Hilali’s now notorious likening of immodestly dressed women to "uncovered meat" was used by the likes of John Howard and Alan Jones to characterise all Muslims as untrustworthy aliens to the Australian way of life. If Begg makes an unlikely champion of women’s rights, so did Howard. But in this war, apparently everyone’s a feminist.
In the face of abuses ranging from illegal detention to racialised media vilification, anti-racist feminists must stand up for the rights of men like Moazzam Begg and Sheik Hilali, while continuing to combat their influence within the communities that they seek to represent. It can be difficult to identify at what point someone stops being a victim and becomes a perpetrator.
But while a person must be considered guilty of a crime beyond reasonable doubt before being subjected to imprisonment, the credentials for a supposed champion of human rights must be equally well established. Begg’s association with Islamist hardliners is a long way short of adequate reason to deprive him of his liberty but it is enough to make him a questionable ally for a leading human rights organisation.
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