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Widney Brown on the case of Guantánamo detainee Binyam Mohamed

An article in London’s Sunday Times on 7 February 2010, Amnesty International is ‘damaged’ by Taliban link, has triggered three weeks of public controversy. Broadcast and print media, respected commentators, human rights activists and others have joined in, often on the basis of inaccurate or incomplete information.

At the heart of the controversy is an important issue: how do human rights organisations work with others, and how do they give voice to victims, without promoting all of their views?

It is a familiar debate within Amnesty International. We have been weighing relationships with individuals and organisations for decades. We are regularly accused of mixing with the wrong sort, or of being manipulated, or of having a secret agenda. We do not claim to always have the best answers, and we know from experience that judgment calls in this area are difficult.

There are victims with whom we would not associate, while unreservedly campaigning against any abuses of their rights. For example, we denounced the waterboarding of Khaled Sheikh Muhammad, the Guantánamo detainee accused of the 9/11 attacks and other atrocities. But we would never share a platform with someone like him, who openly espouses an ideology predicated on hatred and the killing of civilians - in short, views that are clearly antithetical to human rights. The answer in this case is easy.

But in other cases the answer is not easy. For example, should we not work against the death penalty with an influential actor like the Catholic Church because we disagree with their stand on women’s reproductive rights and homosexuality? There are valid arguments for and against. We chose to work with the Catholic Church against the death penalty.

Our joint advocacy for the Guantánamo detainees with Moazzam Begg and his group, Cageprisoners, has earned us accusations of being pro-Taliban and promoting violence and discrimination against women. Most recently we spoke together with him in a coalition of NGOs to persuade European states to receive Guantánamo detainees who were cleared for release but risk further human rights abuses if returned to their home countries.

Moazzam Begg is one of the first detainees to have been released from Guantánamo and to disclose information when much of what was going on in the camp was shrouded in secrecy. He speaks powerfully from personal experience about the abuses there. He advocates effectively detainees’ rights to due process, and does so within the same framework of universal human rights standards that we are promoting. All good reasons, we think, to be on the same platform when speaking about Guantánamo.

Moazzam Begg and others in his group Cageprisoners also hold other views on whether one should talk to the Taliban or on the role of jihad in self-defence. Do such views mean we should not work with these people on a particular issue? Our answer to that question is no, even if we may disagree with them - and indeed those of us working to close Guantánamo have a range of beliefs about religion, secularism, armed struggle, peace and negotiations. The rest of what we have heard against Moazzam Begg since 7 February include many distortions, innuendos, and "guilt by association" to which he has responded for himself. If any evidence emerges that Moazzam Begg or Cageprisoners have promoted views antithetical to human rights, or have been involved in even more sinister activities, Amnesty International would disown its joint advocacy. But to disown our work with them on the basis of what we have been presented so far would betray basic principles of fairness which are also at the core of what we stand for.

The controversy since 7 February has also generated perceptions in parts of the world that Amnesty International is somehow weak on women’s rights and "soft" on armed groups like the Taliban. This is ludicrous. We started a major global campaign to end violence against women at the same time as we were fighting for the closure of Guantánamo. We consistently document and condemn abuses by Taliban or other Islamist armed groups wherever they occur. Only last month, at the time of the London conference on Afghanistan, we warned that human rights, including women’s rights, must not be traded away during any reconciliation talks with the Taliban. Our full record of work on such abuses is available for everyone to judge.

Finally, the choices we make on how best to work with other people and organisations are informed by frank internal debate. We are an organisation of activists with strong and different views on how best to achieve our common goals; dissent is inevitable, indeed welcome. Decisions are reviewed.

Gita Sahgal, the head of our London-based Gender Unit, who went to the Sunday Times with her concerns about Amnesty International’s association with Moazzam Begg, has contributed significantly to Amnesty International’s gender work, but she was not promoted in our organisation with the promise that she could "clean up this Begg situation" as claimed in the Wall Street Journal on 25 February. She wrote her 30 January memo, cited in The Sunday Times, at the request of Amnesty International’s senior management, after she raised her concerns verbally. While her concerns were not new, we nevertheless decided to look again into the issues she raised and informed her of that intention. We regret that she decided to go to The Sunday Times only a few days later.

We suspended Gita Sahgal in order to make clear that she was no longer speaking on behalf of Amnesty International once she made her disagreement public and in a context of misrepresentations in the media. However, she remains employed on full pay pending an investigation according to our negotiated employment policies, which provide her with every opportunity to make her case. In order to protect all those involved in a personnel matter, our policies include a requirement of confidentiality on all parties. This is why we are speaking about this issue only to the extent required to respond to inaccurate information in the public domain.

Amnesty International is committed to working in partnership and giving voice to the victims, while maintaining impartiality and distinguishing between defending people’s rights and promoting their views. Getting those judgments right is important and remains as challenging today as ever, particularly on divisive issues such as terrorism and counter-terrorism. We regularly evaluate our work also in this respect, and in so doing we very much welcome the comments and advice of many in the human rights movement who share our goals and challenges.

Widney Brown
Senior Director of International Law and Policy
Amnesty International