Amnesty International and the UN Human Rights Council

It’s a fact that most associations are created to protect the interests of members and the United Nations (UN), is no exception. A general-purpose Inter-governmental Organisation (IGO) that has 193 members and includes all the recognised countries of the world.

The Vatican’s Holy See is recognised under international law as a National Territory and a country, but not by the United Nations, it holds the title of Permanent Observer, meaning it can attend all meetings but has no voting rights. The State of Palestine and the breakaway, but still disputed, Kosovo also have similar status. Some other disputed regions such as Western Sahara, the Cook Islands which are an independently administered region of New Zealand are not members and, of course, neither is the Republic of China, also known as Taiwan.

So, there’s a problem. When any organisation exists to represent the interests of its members against outside risks or influences but doesn’t have any outsiders it becomes place of factions and infighting amongst the members. The United Nations is no exception, it was formed after the Second World War by 51 Nations which included the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics superseded in 1991 by the Russian Federation as well as the Republic of China, superseded in 1971 by the People’s Republic of China, but excluded Germany.

Remaining relevant as an IGO requires procedures to overcome any internal differences between members and one of the most sensitive areas is in the field of human rights. It is in the field of human rights where we see a real conflict of interest between the aims of the United Nations and the goals to which it aspires. The United Nations, is the meeting ground for all the world’s civilizations and is the preeminent global body for governments. Whilst human rights defenders, usually non-government organisations (NGOs), put the welfare of individuals first. What this creates therefore, is both a challenge and an opportunity for both IGOs and NGOs to work together. The challenge being that the IGO must represent a potentially errant government, while the NGO works to prevent or expose abuses caused by that government.

Perhaps the best known and most prominent NGO is Amnesty International (Amnesty) and since 1964 this NGO has held a special consultative status within the UN. Founded in 1961 by Peter Benson, a British lawyer, who was the first person to pen the phrase, “prisoner of conscience”, Amnesty went on to become the world’s largest and most widely spread NGO. With, according to its own website, more than 10 million participants in the form of donors, volunteers, employees and supporters in 106 countries and regions. In 1977, Amnesty was awarded the Nobel Prize for its work against torture.

Working for human rights is a field in which people and organisations are guaranteed to meet criticism. The old expression, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, stands true for every conflict zone, consequently, fighting against suspected, alleged or even proven human rights abusers is a very difficult balancing act. Most NGOs work in one conflict zone or another, they may work in specialised fields such as medicine, gender or prisoner’s rights and many of them are accused, sometimes fairly but often unfairly, of favouring a large donor or sponsor’s point of view or pursuing a political agenda on behalf of one government or another.

Amnesty is one of the few organisations which operates in many different fields and regions, it was founded on the premise of freeing prisoners unjustly incarcerated, gravitated towards the abolition of the death penalty and has expanded to every aspect of human rights. Its own Vision and Mission now encompasses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and this makes Amnesty quite unique as they support human rights in every arena in which they may be abused.

Amnesty also refuses to take donations from any government, government funded body or political party and carefully scrutinises donations from corporate organisations. By doing so, it can claim not to be influenced by the politics or ideology of that country or any large corporation. Consequently, the organisation draws criticism from almost every sector of what we might define as the “international society”. It is as critical of China as it is of the USA and as critical of what’s going on in Palestine and Israel as it is of what takes place in Iran.

It has been argued that Amnesty plays a complementary role to the UN in that the UN can set standards but is weak in monitoring adherence to those standards whilst Amnesty is an effective “global watchdog” against violations. The UN is able to receive and respond to reports from member states and retain archives for improvement measurement but is assuredly a victim of internal politics. Internal politics, are found in any organisation anywhere but, because of the wide- ranging nature, are compounded by the cultural, political and ideological differences of its membership. How, for example, does the UN manage a conflict of interests between the US and China when it is clear that, aside from human rights allegations, there are trade, economic, political and ideological differences between the two countries.

Amnesty is a potential solution, due to its unique method of funding, it is free from large donor coercion and, because it aligns with no political party or government, it is also free from political influence. it can, without this coercion or influence, critique each side of a problem and, because of almost 40 years-experience within its Special Consultative Status it transcends the UN Human Rights Council and can bring accountability to their member nations.

But, in doing so, it attracts much criticism. Nations such as the USA have long been highly critical of both Amnesty and the UN Human Rights Council[1] because Amnesty is one of the few NGOs highly critical of the USA for its stances on abortion, violence, high incarceration numbers, gun laws, refugees and immigration amongst other things. It is also one of the few organisations in the international arena to declare Israel an apartheid state, one of the only others being Soros funded and influenced Human Rights Watch.

Amnesty is one of the few organisations in the world to have incurred the wrath of both the Russian and Ukrainian governments for its positions. Its Russian language website has been blocked inside of Russia and its Moscow office closed while at the same time receiving a barrage of harsh criticism from, amongst others, Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy over Amnesty’s report stating the Ukrainian military were using civilian bases when suitable military options were readily available in close proximity.

Being western based, Amnesty is often accused of cultural or selection bias. Views of what constitutes justice in a country are based on Western ideals and an understanding of Habeas Corpus as well as a presumption of innocence before establishing guilt whereas an Asian country may not adopt the same standards, Japan for example has almost 100% conviction rate because it has an easily explained and understood system of justice which is different to the West. Furthermore, Amnesty, either ignores or misunderstands cultural issues which have been in place for millennia. What has been acceptable in one society for generations may be deemed an abuse of human rights in Western culture and, whilst outsiders might agree, attempting to enforce immediate changes to an ingrained culture can create as many problems as it aims to change. Afghanistan’s position on gender equality and women’s rights is a good example of this. Whilst clearly it is in breach of Western conventional norms, the Afghan people’s perceptions of what is normal in their culture differs and can’t be changed overnight by international laws or condemnation, they must be changed by societal moves over extended periods of time creating an acceptance of the changes.

Internally, Amnesty has also received criticisms of a toxic workplace in which two separate and unconnected employees after complaining of stress and overwork took their own lives, institutionalized racism and lack of proper due diligence before making claims such as in the case of China where it either mistranslates, or misinterprets government documents and relies on “witnesses” outside of China seeking legal visa status, as reliable witnesses to torture.

Further criticism of the NGO comes from many other sources particularly where a state of war required heightened security measures. Amnesty is alleged to be overly critical of governments, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo fighting to protect human rights of the many by imposing enhanced security requirements on the few.

The overall picture of Amnesty International is one of a large organisation, they talk of 10 million participants and this creates issues with workplace culture, discrimination and biases but this is common throughout all international and multicultural workforces. Amnesty does appear to stand against human rights abuses of all kinds in a non-partisan and independent manner. They have definitely got some problems but they appear to be exactly what they claim to be.

Much of the criticism levelled at Amnesty is genuine. This is especially true of their internal issues but also when they comment on places where they do not have a presence and rely on hearsay to establish their points. Amnesty is highly critical of China and this is one, but not the only, example of this. They have no presence in either Xinjiang, Tibet or anywhere in the Chinese Mainland and rely on evidence from “human rights lawyers and activists”, who are also outside of the country, as well as taking allegations from people who have been allowed to leave those regions, usually on a passport with a visa, and with a grudge against the current leadership, as truth. It is clear an informed decision would be better taken after visits to the region and discussions with people on the ground, something Amnesty has not done.

However, much of the criticism they receive is unjust, spurious or without foundation. Allegations against Amnesty are often made as a defensive tactic to paint them as biased and influenced when the reality is they have done their research and reported with accuracy, clarity and veracity. Their stance on the Ukraine invasion by Russia, where they have offended both sides as well as Israel and the USA are clear examples of this.

Amnesty is quite obviously not a perfect organisation but they are a reasonably good solution to the problems faced by a globally focused IGO, the United Nations, in exposing, highlighting, investigating and even dealing with problems within their membership base by errant members.

[1] USA famously withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council during the Trump Era after criticism of its border policy and, as Nikki Haley, the then Ambassador to the UN stated: an agenda item that “singles out Israel for automatic criticism”. It returned under Biden and was elected onto the Council for a further 3 years in 2021

I’m British born Australian living in Guangdong and have an MA in Cross Cultural Change Management. I write mostly positively about my China experiences

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Jerry Grey

I’m British born Australian living in Guangdong and have an MA in Cross Cultural Change Management. I write mostly positively about my China experiences