Supriya Ghosh (Editor)

Criticism of Amnesty International

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Criticism of Amnesty International

Criticism of Amnesty International (AI) includes claims of selection bias, as well as ideology/foreign policy bias against either non-Western countries or Western-supported countries. Governments that have criticised AI include those of Israel, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, China, Vietnam, Russia, and the United States, which have reprimanded Amnesty International for what they assert is one-sided reporting, or a failure to treat threats to security as a mitigating factor. The actions of these governments—and of other governments critical of Amnesty International—have been the subject of human rights concerns voiced by Amnesty. The Catholic Church has also criticized Amnesty for its stance on abortion, particularly in Catholic-centric countries.


Selection bias

In 2007, Amnesty stated that it reports disproportionately on relatively more democratic and open countries. Amnesty's intention is not to produce a range of reports such that the number of reports on a country correlates precisely with the number and severity of its human rights abuses. Instead, its aim is to document what it can, and to pressure for improvement. These two factors skew the number of reports towards more open and democratic countries. Because information is more easily obtainable, these countries have usually made strong claims and commitments to uphold human rights, and their governments are more susceptible to public pressure. Amnesty also focuses more heavily on states than on other groups. This is due in part to the responsibility states have to the citizens they claim to represent, a result often suggested to be enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Amnesty's criticism of non-Western countries

Amnesty International has been accused of ideological bias by many non-Western governments including those of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the People's Republic of China, Vietnam, and Russia which have attacked Amnesty International for what they assert is one-sided reporting, or a failure to treat threats to security as a mitigating factor. The actions of these governments—and of other governments critical of Amnesty International—have been the subject of human rights concerns voiced by Amnesty.

Cricket ball campaign against Sri Lanka at the Cricket World Cup 2007

Amnesty launched its "Sri Lanka, Play by the Rules" campaign, timed to coincide with the 2007 cricket World Cup held in the Caribbean islands, to focus on Sri Lanka's alleged human rights violations. The Sri Lankan government protested to the International Cricket Council (ICC) and Amnesty, saying the timing might undermine the morale of the Sri Lanka cricket team, which was playing in round Super 8 of the tournament. The Sri Lankan government also accused Amnesty of indirectly supporting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Foreign Ministry of Sri Lanka said they were assured by the ICC that all steps would be taken to prevent Amnesty from carrying out any campaign within the grounds targeting Sri Lanka or its players; however, the ICC later said it was determined to focus on the World Cup and nothing else.

Amnesty stressed that the campaign was not aimed at the Sri Lanka cricket team. According to an Amnesty spokesman, "The campaign called on both parties as well as other militant groups in Sri Lanka to take steps to prevent civilians caught between as violence intensifies." "The signed balls will be delivered to the government of Sri Lanka as well as the LTTE", Amnesty said in a statement. The Sunday Island, a prominent national newspaper in Sri Lanka, criticised Amnesty's response:

...when the campaign is directed at 'Sri Lanka', the focus is clearly on the country and its legitimate government rather than on the terrorists. When such a campaign is conducted during a sporting event in which the targeted country is also participating, it constitutes a form of punishment, whereby the spectators are told that the participant country is doing something bad. When that happens, they may adopt a wholly different attitude towards the Sri Lankan cricket team even though it is not the cricket team that is [accused of] carrying out abductions and causing disappearances or waging war.

The Sri Lankan government criticized Amnesty for selectively targeting Sri Lanka while not targeting other nations accused of human rights violations at the same sporting event, or in similar major sporting events. "One would like to ask Amnesty International whether it plans to take up the issue of human rights violations by the US government in Iraq or in Guantanamo Bay at the Super Bowl match or the National Basketball League championship," the director of the Sri Lankan president's Media Division said.

Amnesty's criticism of Western countries

Amnesty International has been accused of ideological bias by governments and citizens of Western or Western-supported countries, including Israel and the United States.


Elliott Abrams, writing about the November 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense, says that Amnesty treats "Hamas and other terrorist groups […] with an 'evenhandedness' that bespeaks deep biases," citing NGO Monitor's detailed research.

The Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticised the May 2012 report on administrative detention saying it was "one sided," and "not particularly serious," and "that it seemed little more than a public relations gimmick." Gerald Steinberg, of NGO Monitor, said that the report was tied to the recent Palestinian hunger strikes and that Amnesty "jumped on the bandwagon to help their Palestinian allies." Steinberg also said that one of the researchers, Deborah Hyams, was not a neutral party, saying that "Hyams has volunteered as a 'human shield' in Beit Jala (near Bethlehem) to deter Israeli military responses to gunfire and mortars targeting Jewish civilians in Jerusalem," and that in 2008 she signed a letter claiming Israel is "a state founded on terrorism, massacres and the dispossession of another people from their land."

The Israeli embassy in London called Amnesty "ridiculous". Amnesty said that this report "is not intended to address violations of detainees' rights by the Palestinian Authority, or the Hamas de facto administration. These violations have been and will continue to be addressed separately by the organisation."

In May 2012, NGO Monitor criticized Amnesty's 2012 World Report in a few areas:

Amnesty criticized Israel's blockade on Gaza without mentioning that the blockade was in place "to stop the smuggling of weapons and rockets used to target Israeli citizens." NGO Monitor continued and said that "UN Secretary General’s Palmer Committee declared in September 2011 that the blockade is legal under international law." Amnesty "failed to mention the thousands of tons of goods provided by Israel to Gaza each week." NGO Monitor also pointed out that Amnesty's report "mentions Israel 137 times, while making only 74 mentions of the Syrian regime," during a year in which thousands of people have been killed by the Syrian government.

Amnesty allowed a speaking event to take place in London in May 2011, organized by the magazine Middle East Monitor Online (MEMO) and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Much controversy surrounded this event since one of the speakers included Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper. In the past, Atwan has said that "he would 'dance with delight' in Trafalgar Square if Iran attacked Israel, and that the terrorist attack on the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva, in which eight students were killed, "was justified" as it was responsible for "hatching Israeli extremists and fundamentalists." Amnesty responded by saying that "while we did have concerns about the way the event had originally been organized, these have been resolved."

Amnesty also allowed a speaking event to take place in January 2012, which included a speaker who is viewed as anti-Israel. The UK's Zionist Federation said that the speaker "goes beyond the bounds of acceptable behavior" and asked that the event either not take place or that a pro-Israel speaker be allowed to attend as well. In addition, NGO Monitor's Gerald Steinberg said that the speaker's "intense hatred directed at Israel, which is the embodiment of Jewish sovereign equality in the world, is entirely inconsistent with the universal values that Amnesty claims to promote. If Amnesty seeks to restore its tarnished moral credentials, it must end this cooperation, and join in denouncing White’s anti-Israel campaigns."

Some people have criticized Amnesty for promoting an unbalanced and excessive focus on Israel. The American Jewish Congress asserts that Amnesty's criticism of Israel distorts the law of war by "read[ing] the law of war as if it was a law banning war", and misinterprets the Geneva Conventions with regard to the issue of proportionality in war. Yael Beck and Merav Fima of NGO Monitor, a Pro-Israel NGO, claim the Amnesty has an "obsession with Israel" and "persistently condemns Israel while ignoring suffering elsewhere."

Alan Dershowitz, professor of law at Harvard University, in his book The Case for Israel, is very critical of Amnesty and their comparison of Israel to nations such as Sudan and other human rights offenders. Amnesty International has consistently called on Israel to bring any officer suspected of human rights violations to justice and to remove its settlements in the West Bank. It has also opposed "discrimination" against Arab citizens of Israel, and says that the Law of Return and Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law are discriminatory, as they grant automatic citizenship to Jews worldwide, while denying Palestinian refugees the right of return. It has also opposed the blockade of the Gaza Strip, calling it "collective punishment".

In 2010 Frank Johansson, the chairman of Amnesty International-Finland called Israel a nilkkimaa, a derogatory term variously translated as "scum state", "creep state" or "punk state." Johansson stood by his statement, saying that it was based on Israel's "repeated flouting of international law", and his own personal experiences with Israelis. When asked by a journalist if any other country on earth that could be described in these terms, he said that he could not think of any, although some individual "Russian officials" could be so described. According to Israeli professor Gerald M. Steinberg of NGO Monitor: "Amnesty International has promoted an intense anti-Israel ideology, resulting in statements like these."

In November 2012, Amnesty UK began a disciplinary process against staffer Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty UK campaigns manager, because of a posting on his Twitter account, said to be anti-semitic, regarding three Jewish members of parliament and Operation Pillar of Defense where he wrote: "Louise Ellman, Robert Halfon and Luciana Berger walk into a bar…each orders a round of B52s … #Gaza”. Amnesty International UK said "the matter has been referred to our internal and confidential processes." Amnesty’s campaigns director Tim Hancock said, "We do not believe that humour is appropriate in the current circumstances, particularly from our own members of staff." An Amnesty International UK spokesperson later said the charity had decided that "the tweet in question was ill-advised and had the potential to be offensive and inflammatory but was not racist or antisemitic."

Guantánamo Bay comments

In the foreword to Amnesty International’s Report 2005, the Secretary General, Irene Khan, referred to the Guantánamo Bay prison as "the gulag of our times, entrenching the practice of arbitrary and indefinite detention in violation of international law. Trials by military commissions have made a mockery of justice and due process." In the subsequent press conference, she added

"If Guantanamo evokes images of Soviet repression, 'ghost detainees' – or the incommunicado detention of unregistered detainees — bring back the practice of 'disappearances' so popular with Latin American dictators in the past. According to US official sources there could be over 100 ghost detainees held by the US. In 2004, thousands of people were held by the US in Iraq, hundreds in Afghanistan, and undisclosed numbers in undisclosed locations. AI is calling on the US Administration to close Guantanamo and disclose the rest".

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld believed the comments were "reprehensible", Vice President Dick Cheney said he was "offended", and President Bush said he believed the report was "absurd". The Washington Post editorialized that "lately the organization has tended to save its most vitriolic condemnations not for the world’s dictators but for the United States." The human rights organization Human Rights Watch also criticized the Bush administration over the camp in its 2003 world report, stating: "Washington has ignored human rights standards in its own treatment of terrorism suspects."

Edmund McWilliams, a retired senior US Foreign Service Officer who monitored Soviet and Vietnamese abuse of prisoners in their "gulags", defended Amnesty International’s comparison. "I note that abuses that I reported on in those inhumane systems parallel abuses reported in Guantanamo, at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan and at the Abu Ghraib prison: prisoners suspended from the ceiling and beaten to death; widespread 'waterboarding'; prisoners 'disappeared' to preclude monitoring by the International Committee of the Red Cross — and all with almost no senior-level accountability."

Pavel Litvinov, human rights activist and former Soviet-era "gulag" prisoner, criticized the analogy saying, "By any standard, Guantanamo and similar American-run prisons elsewhere do not resemble, in their conditions of detention or their scale, the concentration camp system that was at the core of a totalitarian communist system."

John Podhoretz writing in the New York Post on the difference between Guantanamo and a Soviet gulag said, "Maybe the people who work at Amnesty International really do think that the imprisonment of 600 certain or suspected terrorists is tantamount to the imprisonment of 25 million slaves. The case of Amnesty International proves that well-meaning people can make morality their life's work and still be little more than moral idiots."

William F. Schulz, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, defended the statement, saying, "What is 'absurd' is President Bush's attempt to deny the deliberate policies of his administration." and "What is 'absurd' and indeed outrageous is the Bush administration's failure to undertake a full independent investigation." Secretary General Irene Khan also responded saying, "The administration's response has been that our report is absurd, that our allegations have no basis, and our answer is very simple: if that is so, open up these detention centres, allow us and others to visit them."

Since the U.S. administration originally claimed that these prisoners were not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against this interpretation (on 29 June 2006). Following this, on 7 July 2006, the Department of Defense issued an internal memo stating that prisoners will in the future be entitled to protection under the Geneva Conventions.

In 2010, Gita Sahgal, an Amnesty senior official, publicly condemned the organization for its collaboration with former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg of Cageprisoners. In a letter to Amnesty's leadership, she wrote: "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 warned that it "constitutes a threat to human rights." Begg has toured Europe with Amnesty officials. In 2010, Claudio Cordone asserted that Begg's views on holding talks with the Taliban or the role of jihad in self-defence were not antithetical to human rights, even though he may disagree with them. Cordone's assertion was criticized Amrita Chhachhi, Sara Hossain, and Sunila Abeysekera who said that "defensive jihad" or "defence of religion" is often used as an excuse to violate human rights by Muslim, Christian and Hindu extremists.


Human Rights Watch criticizes President Rodrigo Duterte's Philippine Drug War and the rising casualties among it. Duterte and his speakers retorts the accusation that he masterminded the killings of drug suspects. Senator TG Guingona later released on his column that the HRW and Amnesty International was funded by a member of a US-based anti-communist group that similarly demonizes Vladimir Putin, the Chinese President, among others named as George Soros.


After Amnesty International released a report accusing Hamas of "carrying out a series of unlawful killings and other grave abuses" during 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict, Hamas said the report was unfair and accused Amnesty International of having "Israeli employees" in its administration.

Amnesty International's abortion policies since 2007 and the Catholic Church

In April 2007, Amnesty International changed its neutral stance on abortion to supporting access to abortion in cases of rape and incest, and when the life or the health of the mother might be threatened. Amnesty's official policy is that they "do not promote abortion as a universal right" but "support the decriminalisation of abortion." According to deputy secretary general Kate Gilmore, the debate over the change was difficult, but eventually the overwhelming majority of national Amnesty chapters supported the change. The change was opposed by several organizations, notably by senior figures in the Catholic Church, traditionally a strong supporter of Amnesty International, and a group of US legislators. She admitted a small number of members had quit over the issue.

The Catholic Church's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in June 2007 issued a statement urging Catholics not to donate to Amnesty because of its abortion stance. Cardinal Renato Martino said that abortion was murder, as was "to justify it selectively, in the event of rape, that is to define an innocent child in the belly of its mother as an enemy, as 'something one can destroy'." In an interview with the National Catholic Register, the Cardinal said he believed that "if in fact Amnesty International persists in this course of action, individuals and Catholic organizations must withdraw their support, because, in deciding to promote abortion rights, AI has betrayed its mission." The Church withdrew funding globally for Amnesty, and churches in various locations took other steps to sever their ties with the group.

Prostitution Decriminalisation

A summary of an Amnesty International UK meeting held in 2013 revealed the intention to support the decriminalisation of prostitution before any consultation with Amnesty members or stakeholders. When a draft copy of the policy was leaked in early 2014, many feminists and prostitution survivors condemned the proposal, and Amnesty were met with considerable resistance. Members were consequently offered three weeks — from 2 - 21 April 2014 to provide feedback on the document, although most members did not even receive notification that this process was available to them. On 7 July 7 2015 an updated draft was released to Amnesty International members, which was again criticised by feminist organisations, including The Coalition Against Trafficking of Women (CATW), who published an open letter signed by over 400 advocates and organisations, condemning "Amnesty’s proposal to adopt a policy that calls for the decriminalization of pimps, brothel owners and buyers of sex — the pillars of a $99 billion global sex industry." Contrary to claims that decriminalisation would make prostituted people safer, critics pointed to research from numerous countries in which deregulation of the sex industry had produced catastrophic results: "the German government, for example, which deregulated the industry of prostitution in 2002, has found that the sex industry was not made safer for women after the enactment of its law. Instead, the explosive growth of legal brothels in Germany has triggered an increase in sex trafficking." These campaigners instead asked Amnesty to support the so-called Nordic model, in which sex buyers and pimps are criminalised, while prostituted people are decriminalised. In early August, a large number of NGOs published an open letter in support of the decriminalisation proposal. The organizations supporting Amnesty International's position included the Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE), Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia (SWAN), Human Rights Watch, and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women.

On 11 August 2015, the International Council Meeting (ICM) adopted a resolution which authorized the International Board to develop and adopt the decriminalisation policy.

Sednaya Prison allegations

In February 2017, Amnesty International reported that between 5,000 and 13,000 prisoners had been tortured to death by the Syrian government at the Sednaya Prison between 2011 and 2016, describing it as a "Human Slaughterhouse", a claim that has been strenuously denied by the Syrian Government, who described the allegations as "false" and part of a wider smear campaign against the Government, while accusing Amnesty of lacking any credible evidence to make such a serious claim, and pointing out that 81 of the 84 witnesses that Amnesty used for the report came from anonymous sources. Amnesty were also accused severe bias in its reportage and of trying the Syrian Government in a kangaroo court.


Criticism of Amnesty International Wikipedia