Abuses must be acknowledged or Amnesty International will face crisis of credibility

Abuses must be acknowledged or Amnesty International will face crisis of credibility

Amnesty International states that its prime mission is “to undertake research and action, focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of the rights to physical and mental integrity, freedom of conscience and expression, and freedom from discrimination”. Given such lofty sentiments, it is shocking to learn that the global human rights organisation has itself been found wanting in that regard.

A “toxic culture” of workplace bullying at Amnesty has been exposed in an independent review of the organisation prompted by the suicides of two staff members last year. The review found evidence of bullying, harassment, sexism, and racism — all of them forms of injustice that Amnesty has been combatting for decades.

It was only last week that Amnesty issued a report saying that governments around the world are stepping-up their attacks on human-rights defenders, with secretary general Kumi Naidoo warning that organisations that dare to speak out for human rights are being bullied into silence. He said that “silencing them, and preventing their work, has consequences for everyone”.

So does bullying within the organisation he leads. What began in 1961, as an appeal for amnesty for prisioners of conscience, has grown into the world’s most powerful advocate for social justice, with offices in more than 70 countries, 2,600 staff, and 7m members, volunteers, and supporters. If anyone can protect that legacy, it is Naidoo. He has vast experience as an advocate of human rights and was subject to racism and discrimination, while growing up in South Africa during the the apartheid regime.

Born in Durban in 1965, his first taste of activism came at the age of 15, when he organised an anti-apartheid protest and was expelled from school. He later went on to lead Greenpeace International, championing the use of civil disobedience to highlight environmental concerns.

When he was appointed secretary general, last August, he spoke about his vision for Amnesty, saying it needed to be bigger, bolder, and more inclusive. To do that, he must re-establish its credibility. So far, his response to the revelations has been lacklustre. While he has acknowledged that they “shed light on an alarming trust deficit” in the international secretariat of the organisation, a structure established in 1963, he does not appear to understand his full responsibility as an agent for change. The secretary general is not only the leader and main spokesperson for Amnesty International, but also the chief executive of its international secretariat.

He owes it to the staff and volunteers. He owes it to the organisation’s millions of supporters around the world. Most importantly, he owes it to oppressed people everywhere.

He must urgently fix Amnesty, because it faces a crisis of credibility if he doesn’t. How can any human rights organisation, let alone one so influential, continue to condemn abuses elsewhere, without acknowledging its own failings? That must include a full and frank apology, with restituttion to those affected and measures to ensure such a toxic culture will never take hold again.

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