Finding the perfect organizational partner can be tricky. Human rights groups are no exception to this. To be effective, they often must work with other groups, including NGOs, for-profit companies, and even autocratic governments. Some partnerships work beautifully, while others flounder. What makes for the perfect partnership?
This question comes up time and again in the human rights world. Recently, many human rights organizations in the Middle East, including Human Rights Watch, were debating their ideal strategy going forward.
Though never stated explicitly, many organizations may have, in their debates, been recollecting the enormous public outcry generated last year by Amnesty’s decision to partner with Cageprisoners. Depending on whom you ask, Cageprisoners is either a Guantanamo-focused human rights organization or a front for an Islamist terrorist group.
The Cageprisoners incident began in 2005, when Amnesty International decided to partner with former Guantanamo Bay inmate Moazzam Begg as part of its “Counter Terror with Justice” campaign. Following his release, he founded and became the Director of Cageprisoners, a group that describes itself as “a human rights organization that exists solely to raise awareness of the plight of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other detainees held as part of the War on Terror.”
Amnesty initially engaged Begg to speak of the abuses he suffered while at Guantanamo. Over time, however, he gained a more prominent role with Amnesty. The NGO took him on an official visit to 10 Downing Street, they promoted him on a European tour, and they began working with him to advocate that countries accept former Guantanamo prisoners.
The burgeoning partnership between Amnesty and Begg did not sit well with many Amnesty employees. Gita Sahgal, who at the time was the head of the gender unit, was particularly vocal in critiquing Amnesty’s decision. In a leaked email to Amnesty’s leadership, Sahgal claimed that Moazzam Begg was “Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban.” Treating him as a human rights defender, in her opinion, constituted a “gross error” in Amnesty’s judgment.
Sahgal presented evidence suggesting that Cageprisoners championed rights of jailed Al Qaeda members and that they aligned itself with preachers like Anwar al-Awlaki, the alleged mentor of the Christmas Day Detroit underwear bomber. In addition, she alleged that Cageprisoners supported the concept of “defensive jihad,” which permits violence against civilians if Muslims have been attacked.
Sahgal accused Amnesty of not investigating Cageprisoners properly before forming its alliance. Amnesty, she said in an interview, should always hold itself to the highest of ethical standards—which did not, in her words, consist of partnering with terrorist organizations.
In addition to engaging in fierce debates within the organization, Sahgal decided to made her contentions public. On February 7, 2010, the Sunday Times published an article in which she was quoted as saying—among other things—that the Begg collaboration “fundamentally damaged” Amnesty’s reputation.
Several hours later, Amnesty leadership suspended Sahgal’s employment. According to Amnesty Director Claudio Cordone, the leadership took this decision “to make clear that she was no longer speaking on behalf on Amnesty International.”
Sahgal issued a statement that same evening, saying, “I have now been suspended for trying to do my job and staying faithful to Amnesty’s mission to protect and defend human rights universally and impartially.”
Amnesty said that Begg deserved to have his rights protected as much as anyone. The organization also claimed that neither Begg nor Cageprisoners was guilty of human rights abuses. Director Cordone acknowledged that Amnesty did not agree with all of Cageprisoner’s views—in particular, with their willingness to engage directly with the Taliban and with their support of defensive jihad—but specified that these positions were not, in his opinion, antithetical to human rights.
Sahgal argued otherwise. On several occasions, she mentioned how, “as a former Guantanamo detainee, it was legitimate to hear his experiences.” However, she emphasized, “As a supporter of the Taliban it was absolutely wrong to legitimize him as a partner.” She was supportive of him speaking as a victim, but not of Amnesty forming a partnership with him.
Meanwhile, some Amnesty supporters accused Sahgal of playing into stereotypical Islamophobic norms and of imprudently turning Amnesty’s internal discussions public.
One year later, Sahgal continues to espouse her beliefs and denounce Amnesty’s actions. In an interview, she said, “Every Amnesty partner should believe in the universality of human rights.” If this standard is breached, Amnesty is not, according to her, fulfilling its duty.
Not everyone in the human rights world holds such steadfast views on partnership. For instance, Zehra Arat, Co-Chair of Columbia University’s Human Rights Seminar, did not find it that unusual for Amnesty to have partnered with Begg in its “Counter Terror with Justice” campaign.
“In the human rights world,” she said, “you often partner with people with common denominators [on specific topics], even if your overall agendas are quite different.” She pointed to several instances in which human rights organizations have partnered with governments, despite the government having committed egregious human rights violations in the past.
Arat does, however, find it troubling that the partnership continued even after people within Amnesty began questioning it. “It seems that after concerns were voiced, they were dismissed by the top administration. That is what I find scary—not that they chose to partner with Cageprisoners in the first place.”
“Gitagate” was not the first time Amnesty was in two minds about a partnership, nor will it be the last. The need for partnership in the human rights world will not change anytime soon—many injustices are simply too big to fight alone.
When choosing partners, however, human rights groups should be mindful of balancing their organization’s goals with their moral imperatives. After all, they—more so than private corporations or governments—have a distinctly noble reputation to uphold.