Amnesty International | On the front lines of rights and rows

Amnesty International | On the front lines of rights and rows

The advocacy group, known for its campaigns and controversies, has exited India accusing the government of a ‘witch hunt’

Just past 10am on September 29, a notice went up on global human rights agency Amnesty International’s India webpage. The notice said that owing to the fact that the government had frozen all its funds through an order earlier in the month, Amnesty was shutting down its India operations, laying off about 150 people and ending its presence in the country, 55 years after it had set up its first office in India.

Amnesty’s closure evoked concern from the U.K., where Amnesty is headquartered, the 27-nation EU and the U.S. Both the EU and the U.K. said their officials had met Indian officials in Delhi and in Brussels and London, and said they hoped that Amnesty could continue its work in the future, but the government has firmly told them not to interfere. Prior to this, other international groups like Ford Foundation, Greenpeace and Compassion International have faced similar restrictions, part of a list of at least 20 foreign NGOs on the government’s scanner.

While Amnesty’s notice said the actions by the government were part of an “incessant witch-hunt” that had failed to produce evidence of wrong-doing, the government said it had a long list of charges pertaining to the funding of the group and its interference in India’s internal affairs, dismissing its claims of conducting humanitarian work as “glossy statements”.

Over the past decade, the Ministry of Home Affairs has conducted an investigation into the workings of the group, and even raided its offices in Bengaluru in 2018, summoning various officials and staff members for questioning, and sending income tax notices to its Indian donors.

It also pointed out that Amnesty International’s India chapter had been given clearance to accept funds as an NGO under the Foreign Contributions Regulatory Act (FCRA) only once, in the year 2000, but had “circumvented” laws to receive foreign funds through commercial means since then. Eventually, the government said, it had had to block foreign funds of about ₹8 crore to Amnesty India due to their “dubious” routing, in “bipartisan” actions taken by the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government and the Narendra Modi-led NDA government, and the Enforcement Directorate served a show-cause notice to the human rights body for alleged violation of the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA), involving a total of ₹51.72 crore.

“Human rights cannot be an excuse for defying the law of the land,” said the government. Amnesty shot back that the government had carried out its crackdown due to its anger over Amnesty’s reports on alleged human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir, and more recently, on what it called “police complicity” in the Delhi riots of February 2020, in which 53 people were killed.

“Amnesty has never been particularly welcome in India even under previous governments,” said former Amnesty International India’s executive director Aakar Patel, who has himself faced many enquiries and interrogations. He said that raising contentious issues like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), Jammu and Kashmir, the 1984 Sikh massacre, land rights in coal mine areas and journalist protections had always made it difficult for the group to engage with the state.

The West factor

Given a self-proclaimed mandate to raise such issues, Amnesty is not particularly welcome in many of the countries it works in, and is often accused of working for western, interventionist powers, and of gathering intelligence and fomenting trouble in the countries it reports on. In Nigeria, it faced massive protests over its report on sexual violence by the military.

In Turkey, its top officials were arrested in 2017 on charges of links to the Fethullah Gulen group accused of attempting a coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Amnesty does not have offices in Pakistan, nor has it been able to set up offices in mainland China (it operates from Hong Kong), but its reports on enforced disappearances, minority rights and the blasphemy law in Pakistan, and the treatment of Uighurs, Tibetans, and democracy activists in China have put it on collision course with those countries. In Russia, in 2016, Amnesty’s offices were sealed and then seized, over a series of reports on human rights violations in the North Caucasus, as well as in Syria and Ukraine, leading to the only other time the group has been forced to close its country operations besides in India.

Amnesty now operates in about 150 countries, and claims a global membership of 7 million, which would make the number of its concerned citizens larger than the populations of Denmark or Lebanon. Its original mandate, when it was set up by British lawyer Peter Benenson in 1961, was to campaign for the freedom of “prisoners of conscience”, or political prisoners around the world. Benenson’s first campaign, for two Portuguese students arrested for raising a toast “to freedom” in a public restaurant during the reign of dictator António Salazar, led to a major newspaper campaign for other political prisoners, many of whom were released as a result of the international spotlight on them.

Once set up, Amnesty broadened its mandate to deal with torture, executions, and other human rights issues, where its volunteers would bombard governments with letters until they were forced to pay attention to the issue. Among its successes, Amnesty counts its efforts towards the setting up of the International Criminal Court to try war criminals, as well as the end of capital punishment in more than 100 countries, among a total of about 24,000 campaigns it lists on its website. In 1977, when Amnesty won the Nobel Peace Prize, its citation called the group a “light in the darkness”, in a reference to its logo of a candle surrounded by barbed wire.

Controversies within

However, there were questions on the group’s own operations and the organisation has also had its share of controversies internally. Benenson himself resigned from the organisation in 1966, claiming it had been infiltrated by the British Foreign Office and MI-6, a charge that lingers to this day, despite repeated denials from the group.

In the 1990s, the group was accused of helping prepare the U.S. case for the war against Iraq, with a report on Kuwaiti hospitals ravaged by Saddam Hussein’s Army that later turned out to be false, and faced a major controversy over its partnership with a British Taliban sympathiser, jailed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan for al-Qaeda links.

Other challenges have come from within the organisation, with accusations of financial mismanagement and overspending on senior staff, inequality and bullying within the workplace, as well as discrimination and ‘selection bias’. The accusation of “western bias” within the organisation has persisted too, despite the fact that since 1992, its Secretaries-General have belonged to Africa and South Asia, including Salil Shetty, a human rights activist from Bangalore, who ran the organisation from 2010 to 2018. But it is the accusation levelled by the government this week, of Amnesty’s “interference in domestic political debates funded by foreign donations”, that remains the biggest challenge the organisation faces globally, 60 years after it was created.

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