In an online discussion I asked Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International, a fairly straightforward question:
“Will Amnesty International recognize the UN Charter and the Kellogg Briand Pact and oppose war and militarism and military spending? Admirable as it is to go after many of the symptoms of militarism, your avoidance of addressing the central problem seems bizarre. The idea that you can more credibly offer opinions on the legality of constituent elements of a crime if you avoid acknowledging the criminality of the whole seems wrong. Your acceptance of drone murders as possibly legal if they are part of wars immorally and, again, bizarrely avoids the blatant illegality of the wars themselves.”
Shetty replied without so much as hinting at whether or not Amnesty International would recognize the UN Charter or the Kellogg Briand Pact. In fairness, probably eight people on earth recognize the Kellogg Briand Pact, but the UN Charter is almost universally considered worthy of at least pretended respect and manipulation. And Shetty’s last job before this one was for the United Nations. He did not address in any way my suggestion that many human rights abuses are symptoms of militarism. He did not explain how Amnesty can have more credibility speaking on the illegality of war’s constituent parts by avoiding speaking to the illegality of war itself (a common contention of his colleagues when I’ve questioned them). I pointed fairly directly, in the limited number of characters permitted for the above question, to Amnesty’s recent report on drones, but rather than answering my question about it, Shetty just pointed out the report’s existence. Here is his full “response” to the question above:
“As a human rights organization, Amnesty International’s main goal will always be to take that course of action which practically does the most to ensure protection for human rights and respect for international law. We strongly condemn opportunities which have been missed to take effective measures to protect human rights and civilians. We treat the fundamental human right to life with utmost importance — hence the importance and status we give to our global death penalty campaign. We also believe that governments must not be allowed to use ‘security’ as an excuse to carry out human rights violations against their citizens. We know, for example, that the humanitarian and human rights catastrophe in Syria did not develop overnight. For the last few years, the states involved and the international community as a whole have manifestly failed to take effective action to stem the crisis, protect civilians, and hold perpetrators of crimes against humanity and war crimes to account. For several years now, Amnesty International’s calls for targeted sanctions, an arms embargo and a referral of the situation in Syria to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court have gone largely unheeded despite the mounting toll on civilians. On drones: we find the use of drone aircraft deeply troubling, and we have published reports on the terrible suffering they have caused, for example in Pakistan, where the title speaks for itself ‘Pakistan: Will I be next? US drone strikes in Pakistan’. amnesty.org/en/documents/…13/en/ The current status quo is absolutely unacceptable, as is the handwashing of the US administration on this theme.”
Needless to say, Amnesty’s proposal to refer “the situation in Syria” to the ICC is not actually anything of the sort. You can’t refer a situation to the ICC. You refer an individual to the ICC. In this case, the individual whom Amnesty wants prosecuted is the individual whom the United States wants overthrown: Bashar al Assad. In other words, in replying to a demand to start opposing war, Shetty offers an example of one of the ways in which his and other human rights groups commonly facilitate wars in places like Syria and Libya, namely by giving war the aura of law enforcement by demanding international accountability for the crimes of one party, the party targeted by the West.
This doesn’t mean Amnesty International is pro-war. This doesn’t mean Amnesty International does more harm than good. An arms embargo is exactly what’s needed. It does mean that Amnesty International falls far short of the role of good global citizen and maintains a radically different relationship to war than many of its supporters imagine.