Bill Shipsey: Amnesty has not lost its way

Rights body’s mistake was to designate Alexei Navalny a ‘prisoner of conscience’

 Alexei Navalny: “The dogs in the street knew” of his past extreme, ultra-nationalist views.  Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov

Alexei Navalny: “The dogs in the street knew” of his past extreme, ultra-nationalist views. Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov

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Like most, if not all, Amnesty members and supporters, I was appalled and shocked by the brazen attempted murder by poisoning of Alexei Navalny by agents of the Russian government with a novichok nerve agent on August 20th last. I applauded his resilience and courage in fighting to recover from that poisoning attack. Even more so his courage in returning to his country once he had recovered.

I also applauded when Amnesty pledged to fight for his release when arrested on his return but was surprised when the international secretariat of Amnesty decided and decreed on January 17th that he was a “prisoner of conscience”.

The term “prisoner of conscience” is an Amnesty-created term which dates from the very inception of the organisation in the early 1960s. It was reserved for those who were imprisoned for the non-violent expression of their beliefs provided, and this was an important proviso, that they had not used or advocated the use of violence.

The status of prisoner of conscience should be reserved for those imprisoned for their beliefs on condition they had not used and did not advocate the use of violence

The proviso was applied in the mid 1960s to decide that Nelson Mandela could no longer be considered a “prisoner of conscience” since he had openly advocated the armed struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. This decision almost caused a split in Amnesty at the time and resulted in a poll of the membership of the then fledgling organisation which approved by majority the decision to deny “prisoner of conscience” status to (even) Nelson Mandela because of his advocacy of the violent overthrow of the apartheid regime.

Over 40 years later, in November 2006, and 16 years after his release from prison, I had the honour and privilege of organising the award ceremony for the presentation of the 2006 Amnesty International “Ambassador of Conscience Award” to Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg which he had graciously agreed to accept at the hand of Nobel Laureate in Literature Nadine Gordimer.

The award, first presented to Vaclav Havel in Dublin in November 2003, was inspired by a poem – From the Republic of Conscience – written by Seamus Heaney for Amnesty in 1985.

As I went to take my seat in the front row at the award ceremony in the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s auditorium, an elderly, South African Indian, female member of the African National Congress (who had taken my seat) reminded me that in her view “Madiba”, as she affectionately called him, should not have accepted the Amnesty award over Amnesty’s failure to accord him prisoner of conscience status in the 1960s.

Use of violence

I disagreed with her and I believe that the status of prisoner of conscience should be reserved for those imprisoned for their beliefs on condition they had not used and did not advocate the use of violence.

Similarly with Alexei Navalny. While I support Amnesty’s campaign to seek his unconditional release from prison and have joined and taken part in protests on his behalf in Paris where I now live, I was surprised when I read that Amnesty had decided he was to be considered a prisoner of conscience.

To use an expression familiar in Ireland but unknown in France, “the dogs in the street knew” of his past extreme, ultra-nationalist views. The much publicised and still not repudiated video in which Muslims are referred to as “cockroaches” was all too reminiscent to me of the statements of the Hutu Interahamwe in Rwanda before the genocide of Tutsis in that country.

Amnesty should own its mistake. Apologise for making it. Learn some lessons for the future

I did not understand how the research department at Amnesty’s international secretariat in London had squared those past and – as yet to my knowledge – unrepudiated statements with his designation as a prisoner of conscience. Accordingly, in my opinion, Amnesty made a mistake in January.

Had Amnesty not made the mistake of according the special and rather Amnesty-technical badge of prisoner of conscience and had instead just campaigned for his release as a person unjustly imprisoned for political reasons, this controversy or story would not have arisen. The mistake of Amnesty, and it was a serious mistake, lay in its original designation of him as a prisoner of conscience.

Trite suggestion

It is trite, with respect, to suggest that Amnesty has somehow “lost its way” or that it has allowed a form of “mission creep” to dilute its impact. The truth is that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of Communism in the late 1980s meant there were far fewer prisoners of conscience for Amnesty to campaign on behalf of. New patterns of human rights abuses emerged, such as the widespread use of “disappearances” as a means of eliminating political opposition, which called for new approaches and tactics by Amnesty.

This, coupled with the growth of the global Amnesty movement and organisation, allowed it to extend its reach to (at least) aspire to campaign on behalf of people whose rights were infringed under all of the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

When Amnesty was a small pressure group in the 1960s, 1970s and even 1980s (its memberships in Ireland when I was chair in the mid 1980s was no more than about 1,500), it was reasonable and responsible to concentrate its efforts and resources on the rights infringed under the civil and political articles of the UDHR – torture, the death penalty, unjust arrest, unfair trials etc.

But a global movement with members and supporters in most countries around the world whose numbers now exceed 10 million can surely aspire to embrace and engage in the fight for all of the UDHR’s rights including the economic, social and cultural as well as the civil and political.

The lesson here for Amnesty is not, in my opinion, that it should revert to what it concentrated on in its formative years. Rather it should exercise greater care in designating those who it wishes to designate as prisoners of conscience as opposed to those, like Alexei Navalny, whom it supports and wishes to have released whether or not they can claim the “badge” of an Amnesty prisoner of conscience. I for one will not be deterred from continuing to march and protest for his release, regardless of what his precise Amnesty status is.

Amnesty should own its mistake. Apologise for making it. Learn some lessons for the future. Demonstrate accountability. And then move on. As Bill Clinton’s strategist George Carvill might have advised in this situation, “It’s the human rights, stupid.”

Bill Shipsey is former chair of Amnesty International’s Irish section and former member of the international board of Amnesty International

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