Big organisations, governments, conglomerates, corporations, institutions, government departments, trade unions, professional bodies, or religious orders — certainly the managerial wings of religions — are usually reluctant to admit error. Acknowledging a mistake, no matter how consequential, is avoided so the organisation’s reputation might be, in the longer term when we’ve forgotten whatever scandal was in play, preserved.
This preference to ride out a short, sharp storm has created to what might be described as the commando wing of public relations — crisis management consultants. Plutocrat after plutocrat, Hollywood moguls, captains of industry, politicians, and, less frequently than might be imagined, superstar sportsmen or women turn to these pilot boats of public opinion to navigate scandal, to deflect opprobrium. Or just to survive. Churchmen defending the indefensible also use spin doctors to try to put a tolerable gloss on awful situations.
Organisations that freely admit error are very much in the minority and because of that, they can reap a reward that enhances their credibility. By stripping Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi of their highest honour, Amnesty International have, even if belatedly, put themselves in that position and deserve credit for doing so. That assertion stands even if the obligations pressing on an NGO are not the same as those facing a religion or a commercial entity.
Amnesty cited Aung San Suu Kyi’s “apparent indifference” to atrocities committed against the Rohingya by Myanmar’s military as the reason for her demotion. A UN report has detailed evidence of genocide and crimes against humanity “perpetrated on a massive scale”, including acts of rape, sexual violence and mass killings.
The Amnesty blackballing is the latest humiliation for Aung San Suu Kyi, as the US Holocaust Museum’s Elie Weisel award has been withdrawn. Freedom of the city awards have been revoked by Edinburgh, Oxford, Glasgow, and Newcastle. Dublin city councillors also voted to withdraw the capital’s freedom of the city award.
Aung San Suu Kyi accelerated her fall from grace when she defended the jailing of two Reuters journalists reporting on the Rohingya genocide — a description endorsed by the UN. The country’s de facto leader, she rejected international criticism of her attack on a free press.
However, she acknowledged that the brutal crackdown on the Muslim minority could have been “handled better”. That it continues undermines her credibility.
Despite international anger and disappointment that the faith invested in her has been betrayed, Norway’s Nobel Institute has said it will not withdraw her peace laureate.
One of the lessons from this episode is that awards and honour systems can sometimes offer hostages to fortune. Virtue can be a fleeting characteristic and unlike a Christmas puppy, may not be for life. Even if it is not attractive to kick a person when they are down, as Aung San Suu Kyi is, it seems far more honourable, far better to acknowledge a mistake than to try to brush under the carpet.