This is not the first time that Amnesty International’s
policies towards fundamentalists have been confronted from within and this
is not the first time that AI has taken action, drastic action, against
those who dare to voice their dissent, even if internally, about such
policies. But it is the first time that AI has had to face a public debate
on the issue – something that it is still trying to avoid. Human rights
activists must realise that this is a crucial issue and push for a public
debate. Gita Sahgal, the head of the Gender Unit, put her job at risk to
stop AI from burying it. Let her sacrifice not be in vain.
Till Gita Sahgal talked to the media, internal protests
within AI by staff and/or long-standing activists were reduced to silence:
out of consideration for AI’s reputation, wanting to ‘protect’ the
organisation, and discipline within it, staff and activists allowed their
concerns to be dismissed as irrelevant. Till Gita Sahgal went public, our
repeated requests – from outside the organisation – for re-examination of
these policies were simply ignored.
I can testify to the fact that over the past 25 years I
have talked to various senior staff members of Amnesty International. I
have talked to them about the imbalance in their reports on Algeria; about
the way they constructed fundamentalists solely as victims of state
repression and not as perpetrators of violence and violations against
people in general and women in particular; about the way victims of
fundamentalists were ignored and not defended; about the way supporters of
fundamentalists were invited to AI functions as victims of state
repression and then used this platform not just to denounce violations
that were committed against them but to voice their political analysis of
the situation; about the way the defence lawyer of fundamentalists
belonging to the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) in Algeria was repeatedly
invited to AI’s functions and introduced as ‘a human rights lawyer’
without any reference to the fact that he was not defending their victims;
about the fact that AI induced a hierarchy among victims, in which
fundamentalists were privileged as victims of the state while women, the
vast majority of whom were victims of the fundamentalists, disappeared
from the scene; about the fact that AI also induced a hierarchy of rights,
in which minority rights, cultural rights, religious rights (and
fundamentalist interpretations of these rights were accepted) came first
and women’s rights came last…
I urge readers to judge for themselves by looking at AI’s
annual reports on Algeria during the ‘dark decade’ of the 1990s and
comparing the number of pages that are devoted to crimes and violations
committed by the Algerian state and those devoted to crimes and violations
committed by armed fundamentalist groups against the civilian population.
Contrast this with the ‘Shadow Report on Algeria’ submitted to the
Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) by
the International Women’s Human Rights Law Clinic and Women Living Under
Muslim Laws (WLUML) in January 1999 (published by WLUML in 2000).
I was not alone in denouncing AI’s political positions. I
personally know many other people who did. But our words were not recorded
and past experience leads me to believe that most of those whom I spoke to
would today deny that we ever had any such exchanges.
However, there are some instances when AI cannot deny that
it was made aware, either publicly or in writing, of the demands for
accountability regarding its relationship with and political support to
fundamentalists. These instances should be officially recorded in their
own files. I also know of a few instances wherein questioning the
organisation’s policy was punished by internal trial and even exclusion.
One such instance, described below, was fortunately fully documented.
The war against civilians in Algeria is a textbook case:
women and democrats (i.e. those who support democracy as opposed to those
who support theocracy) repeatedly alerted AI to the expansion of
fundamentalist forces in Algeria and their violence against people in
general and women in particular, which grew rapidly after independence in
1962. These alerts went unheeded.
Here is a brief account of the local situation.
As far back as the 1960s armed groups in Algeria were
attacking quarries to procure explosives and army barracks to procure
arms. Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s fundamentalist pressure on people
increased: The first targeted assassination was that of a gay poet.
Violent groups prevented women factory workers from entering their
workplace for three weeks, stoning them on their way to the plant: they
had to be given army protection to enable them to return to work. A
leftist student was beheaded by a fundamentalist self-appointed tribunal
sitting within the premises of Algiers University. Female students were
forced to observe a curfew in students’ hostels as groups of young
fundamentalists closed and manned the gates. Veiling was enforced on
women; the so-called Islamic veil (unknown to us before it was imported
from Iran in the 1970s!) was freely distributed by fundamentalist groups.
Women and girls were beaten up in the streets if they dared talk back to a
man insulting them. Girls had acid thrown on them for ‘un-Islamic’
behaviour or dress. And so on…
In the late 1980s and early 1990s fundamentalist troops
occupied the public space, streets and squares. They claimed that
democracy was kufr (sin of unbelief, infidelism), that if they had
the law of god, they did not need the law of the people – and consequently
that unbelievers (i.e. those who believed in democracy) were to be killed.
Throughout the 1990s the fundamentalists put their beliefs
into practice: it is estimated that there were 2,00,000 victims during
this period. Among them were numerous women who were mutilated, killed,
beheaded, slit, burnt, raped, taken to the fundamentalists’ camps to serve
as domestic and sex slaves.
Armed fundamentalist groups posted on the doors of mosques
the names of targeted individuals against whom combatants were to take
action. They then issued press releases announcing in advance which
specific category of people they would kill (they used the term ‘execute’,
for they claimed to be both judges and executioners): ‘journalists’,
‘artists’, ‘intellectuals’, ‘foreigners’, ‘women’… They did in fact
implement their plans as announced and went on to publicly claim
responsibility for the murders and assassinations they had perpetrated.
And in the last stage they massacred almost the entire
population in targeted villages. Villagers who survived identified the
killers as FIS leaders who had joined the GIA (Armed Islamic Group). For a
graphic account of this period, see: www.sabrang.com/cc/comold/april98/world.htm.
In spite of these startling facts and ignoring direct
testimonies, Amnesty International went on to launch its campaign, ‘Who
kills in Algeria?’, which implicitly implicated the state as perpetrator
of the village massacres and exonerated the armed fundamentalist groups
from their responsibility, which had been well documented locally by
independent journalists and human rights activists.
It would be hard to pretend that those who executed
victims, or those who condoned, those who sponsored and those who
propagated the philosophy that justified this, were human rights
However, despite our repeated warnings, AI’s exclusive
focus on state responsibility and accountability was instrumental in
promoting worldwide the image of Algerian armed fundamentalist groups
mainly as victims of state repression and not – or disproportionately
little, given the magnitude of their crimes – as perpetrators of violence.
By highlighting in its reports the state repression against
fundamentalists, and grossly underestimating the crimes the
fundamentalists had committed against the population in general and
against women in particular, AI as well as other mainstream international
human rights organisations participated in destabilising our corrupt and
repressive but still republican state (in the original sense i.e. standing
for a republic and a democratic system) – at the risk of promoting the
empowerment of a much more repressive, much more anti-human rights and
anti-women’s rights Taliban-like theocracy.
In effect, the European Left and human rights
organisations, including AI, promoted the fundamentalists as democrats
fighting for elections although they had clearly stated that they would
end democracy and there would be no more elections if they came to power.
Thus one repressive regime was being denounced on the one hand while on
the other the politics of those who were their targets were being
Is this any different from what is happening in
Afghanistan at the moment? When Moazzam Begg – a man who by his own
admission believes that the Taliban are the best thing to have happened to
Afghanistan – is supported by AI in a big way, far beyond the defence of
his fundamental rights not to be tortured and illegally detained, what is
being sacrificed on the altar of his freedom of opinion if not women’s
Can the demand that women be secluded, forbidden to learn
or to work under the Taliban, and that democrats, secularists and
religious minorities be physically eliminated, be considered an ‘opinion’
at all? Is it not hate speech? Can a human rights organisation promote –
in any way – anyone who publicly supports political movements holding
Deeply disturbed by this situation, in the late 1990s the
three founding members of AI in Algeria wrote a personal letter to AI’s
general secretary. In this letter, they first remind him that they are
faithful members of the organisation: they introduce themselves as the
“founding member, member of the executive bureau, coordinators and members
of group 1 of the Algerian section of AI”. They also indicate that they
are merely sending “some observations” in their “personal capacity”. The
“observations” are made with respect to the “new Report on Algeria
published by the organisation” as well as the “press release that
announced the publication of the report”.
Their first observation is that: “This press release,
which is aimed at informing large audiences nationally and
internationally, clearly shows an unbalance in presenting the document
The three founding members then go on to spell out the
reason for the unbalance: By “giving more space to some parts (state
responsibility) and keeping silent about other parts (the action of armed
terrorist opposition groups), this press release shows a lack of
objectivity on the part of AI in its appreciation of the wave of violence
that is shaking Algeria”. And they conclude that “this press release only
reinforces the emphasis already existing in the report, of condemning one
of the parties in conflict”. They appeal to AI’s principle that “partisan
interpretations” should be avoided. They too, like Gita Sahgal, point at
“the devastating effect that this press release had on public opinion in
Algeria, including among those who till then were strong supporters of
AI”. They conclude: “We feel compelled to inform you of the damaging
consequences for the movement as well as for the struggle against
violations of human rights that we have been waging till today in our
These are the very words that Gita Sahgal used when she
spoke to The Sunday Times.
One would have expected a letter of this nature to have
initiated a discussion on the burning issue of AI’s support to Algerian
fundamentalists. But this is not what happened. For having written this
private letter to Amnesty International’s general secretary, the three
members of AI in Algeria were simply expelled from the organisation
without a word of comment on the issue their letter had raised. Nor did
they receive a word of thanks for their years of dedicated work for the
Being loyal to the organisation, they remained silent and
did not publicly expose AI’s inappropriate reaction to their freedom of
thought, freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.
Amnesty International now pretends that it only suspended
Gita Sahgal for going public. But the three Algerians had been repressed
merely for voicing internal dissent. And I know of other cases in which
internal dissent has been heavily sanctioned.
What Amnesty International really does not allow one to
see clearly or to expose is that beyond its stated mandate of defending
fundamental human rights for all, including criminals (a mandate fully
supported by Gita Sahgal, by the three founding members of AI in Algeria
and by me), the selection process according to which it decides whom to
defend and whom not to defend and the extension of the mandate to the
point of providing fundamentalists with a political platform – all amounts
to taking a political stand.
Today, with Moazzam Begg being taken around (even to 10
Downing Street) by senior staff of AI London, with chats being organised
so that he can dialogue with AI’s unfortunate human rights activists, with
his being invited to participate in the annual general meeting of Amnesty
International’s USA section, we see again, on an even bigger scale, the
kind of political platform and legitimacy that was given to Algerian
This is definitely not what we understand by the defence
of fundamental human rights.
It is high time that AI accepted a public debate on this
issue. It cannot be avoided any longer.
It is also time for other human rights organisations to
reconsider their positions vis-à-vis fundamentalists, as Amnesty
International is far from being the only one to play this unholy game.
Thanks to Gita Sahgal’s courageous and principled action
women human rights defenders will not be silenced any more.