By Swapan Dasgupta
A controversy centred on the human rights body Amnesty International is raging in Britain and it could be instructive for India. Earlier this month, Gita Sahgal, the head of the organization’s ‘gender unit’, publicly protested against its close association with Moazzam Beg, a British Islamist and former inmate of Guantanamo Bay.
Beg, who had earlier migrated from Birmingham to Kabul because he was inspired by the Taliban, returned to Britain after his release from US custody in 2005. Exploiting the fierce anti-Bush mood in Europe after the invasion of Iraq, an unrepentant Beg founded Cageprisoners to campaign for the release of the remaining Guantanamo prisoners and other detained jihadis. Among those whose cause Beg has taken up are Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, said to be the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Abu Hamza, the hook-handed mullah facing extradition from Britain to the US, and Abu Qatada, once described as Osama bin Laden’s “European ambassador”.
Gita is a professional activist, having been involved with numerous ‘causes’ over the years. She felt that for Amnesty “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.” Her employer didn’t agree, and promptly suspended her. Gita has received considerable media and public support but Amnesty hasn’t dissociated itself from Beg.
To me, this incident involves more than the misjudgment of one reputable human rights body. It is a classic case study of the derailment of the human rights industry — yes, it is an industry — and its takeover by politically-driven activists.
I recall the days when Amnesty was a noble organization campaigning for those who had been jailed for merely holding and expressing contrarian views. It campaigned untiringly for the release of Nelson Mandela, spoke out for the harassed ‘dissidents’ in the Soviet bloc, publicized the ‘prisoners of conscience’ in lesser-known places and even brought hope to those languishing in Indian jails during the Emergency. Its programme of sending Christmas cards to prisoners in South Africa was particularly touching.
Perhaps these campaigns were implicitly political. But an unequivocal stand in favour of democracy and free speech was worth taking, even if it meant being at loggerheads with those who deluded themselves that there could be no injustice in socialist countries.
Those were innocent days but it was clearly understood that ‘bourgeois’ human rights were relevant for those who didn’t have blood on their hands. The generosity of human rights didn’t extend to guerrillas in the umpteen liberation movements and to those in, say Germany’s Baader Meinhof gang, who were smitten by violent delinquency. There were many in the 1960s and 1970s who marched the streets chanting “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” but it was unusual for these Che Guevara-worshipping romantics to think that the war against loathsome Yankee imperialism was a human rights campaign.
A journey that began with expressing solidarity with Mandela and has stretched to embracing a partnership role with the Taliban has seen many strange diversions. For a start, the highly political ‘peace movements’ which mushroomed globally as extensions of Soviet foreign policy have become the template for a new approach to human rights. Its most significant feature is selective indignation. Just as its early practitioners denied the Gulag, today’s human rights-wallahs gloss over the brutalities of Maoists in India, Hamas in Palestine and LTTE in Sri Lanka or, for the matter, the Taliban. The focus is instead on state repression in counter-insurgency and war. The idea is not to press for common humanity to prevail but to use human rights as a political support system.
Second, the human rights business has evolved from being voluntary concerns to becoming well-funded agencies of governance. This shift has meant their generous expansion to cover nearly all aspects of public life. Groups such as Amnesty no longer focus exclusively on prisoners of conscience and victims of unjust laws. Their activities now involve campaigns against mining in Orissa, land acquisition in Bengal and dams in Gujarat. Human rights are fast turning into levers of blackmail against governments and companies. What are essentially political battles have been given a benign masquerade — one guaranteed to melt the impressionable hearts of those Lenin sneeringly called “useful idiots.”
For fanatics like Beg who don’t give a toss for liberal values, supping with the compassionate is a cynical ploy. Ironically, his motives may be the same as those who helped confer respectability on him. Gita was rightly offended. But she must have known all along that a disaster was waiting to happen.