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Criticism of Amnesty International (AI) includes claims of selection bias, ideological/foreign policy bias against either non-Western countries, or Western-supported countries, AI's policies relating to abortion, and organisational continuity.[1] Governments who have criticised AI include those of Israel, the Democratic Republic of the Congo,[2] the People's Republic of China,[3] Vietnam,[4] Russia[5] and the United States,[6] who have attacked Amnesty International for what they assert is one-sided reporting or a failure to treat threats to security as a mitigating factor. The actions of these governments — and of other governments critical of Amnesty International — have been the subject of human rights concerns voiced by Amnesty. The Catholic Church has also criticized Amnesty for its stance on abortion.[7]


Selection bias

In 2007, AI stated that it reports disproportionately on relatively more democratic and open countries.[8] AI's intention is not to produce a range of reports such that the number of reports on a country correlates precisely with the number and severity of its human rights abuses. Instead, its aim is: (a) to document what it can, to (b) produce pressure for improvement. These two factors skew the number of reports towards more open and democratic countries, because information is more easily obtainable, these countries have usually made strong claims and commitments to uphold human rights, and their governments are more susceptible to public pressure. AI also focuses more heavily on states than to other groups. This is due in part to the responsibility states have to the citizens they claim to represent.

Claims of ideological/national foreign policy bias against non-Western countries

Amnesty International has been accused of ideological bias by many governments of non-Western countries, including those of, the Democratic Republic of the Congo,[2] the People's Republic of China,[3] Vietnam,[4] and Russia[9] have attacked Amnesty International for what they assert is one-sided reporting or a failure to treat threats to security as a mitigating factor. The actions of these governments — and of other governments critical of Amnesty International — have been the subject of human rights concerns voiced by Amnesty.

Claims of alignment with US/UK foreign policy interests and AI funding

Pro-Iranian[10] University of Illinois professor of international law Francis Boyle, who was a member of the board of Amnesty International USA at the end of the 1980s/early 1990s, claims that Amnesty International USA acted in ways closely related to United States and United Kingdom foreign policy interests. He stated that Amnesty, along with other human rights organisations in the US, failed to sufficiently criticise the Sabra and Shatila Massacre in Lebanon.[1] Boyle stated his suspicion that the International Secretariat of Amnesty International, based geographically in London, UK, was also subject to this bias. He attributes the alleged links between Amnesty International and US and UK foreign policy interests to the relatively large financial contribution of Amnesty International USA to AI's international budget, which he estimated at 20%.[1]

1991 Gulf War Press Release

Critics have also pointed out that AI had a role propagating disinformation in a press release before the 1991 Gulf War, in which it claimed that Iraqi soldiers were responsible for the deaths of "scores of civilians, including newborn babies, who died as a direct result of their forced removal from life-support machines."[11] It later transpired that this claim was a propaganda hoax, and AI's press release was used in the opening salvo of this propaganda campaign – U.S. President George H. W. Bush showed AI's press release on a prime time interview. Prof. Francis Boyle, an AI USA director at the time, gives a detailed insider account of the way the AI press release was handled.[12] The normal process of double-checking and consultation was short-circuited in a rush to issue the press release. In an April 1991 statement, AI said that although its team was shown alleged mass graves of babies, it was not established how they had died and the team found no reliable evidence that Iraqi forces had caused the deaths of babies by removing them or ordering their removal from incubators.[13]


  • Diana Johnstone, in her book Fool's Crusade, alleged that AI played an uncritical role during the various Balkan wars, and discusses the case of a woman who was taken on a 25 US-city tour with a film about her ordeal as an alleged rape camp victim. According to Johnstone, the alleged rape camp victim, Jadranka Cigelj, was actually a senior propagandist in the Croatian government, and a close confidante of President Franjo Tudjman.[14]
  • Michael Mandel, a professor of international law at York University, criticizes AI's stance pertaining to the wars in the Balkans and Iraq.[15]

Cricket ball campaign against Sri Lanka at the Cricket World Cup 2007

AI launched its "Sri Lanka, Play by the Rules" campaign, timed to coincide with the Cricket World Cup 2007 held in the Caribbean islands, to focus on Sri Lanka's alleged human rights violations. The Sri Lankan government protested to the International Cricket Council (ICC) and AI, saying the timing might undermine the morale of the Sri Lanka cricket team, which was playing in round Super 8 of the tournament. The Sri Lankan government also accused AI of indirectly supporting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Foreign Ministry of Sri Lanka said they got an assurance from the ICC that all steps would be taken to prevent AI from carrying out any campaign within the grounds targeting Sri Lanka or its players;[16] however, the ICC later said it is determined to focus on the World Cup and nothing else.

AI stressed that the campaign was not aimed at the Sri Lanka cricket team. According to an AI spokesman, "The campaign called on both parties as well as other militant groups in Sri Lanka to take steps to prevent civilians caught between as violence intensifies." "The signed balls will be delivered to the government of Sri Lanka as well as the LTTE", AI said in a statement.[17] The Sunday Island, a prominent national newspaper in Sri Lanka, criticised AI's response: "..when the campaign is directed at ‘Sri Lanka,’ the focus is clearly on the country and its legitimate government rather than on the terrorists. When such a campaign is conducted during a sporting event in which the targeted country is also participating, it constitutes a form of punishment, whereby the spectators are told that the participant country is doing something bad. When that happens, they may adopt a wholly different attitude towards the Sri Lankan cricket team even though its not the cricket team that is [accused of] carrying out abductions and causing disappearances or waging war.[18]"

Sri Lankan government criticized AI for selectively targeting Sri Lanka while not targeting other nations accused of human rights violations in the same sporting event or in similar major sporting events. "One would like to ask Amnesty International whether it plans to take up the issue of human rights violations by the US government in Iraq or in Guantanamo Bay at the Super Bowl match or the National Basketball League championship," the director of the Sri Lankan president's Media Division said. [19] AI did not target English and Australian cricket teams at the same event whose governments have been accused of human rights violations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Claims of ideological/national foreign policy bias against Western-supported countries

Amnesty International has been accused of ideological bias by governments and citizens of Western or Western-supported countries, including Israel[2] and the United States.[20]


Some have criticized AI for its allegedly unbalanced and excessive criticism of Israel. The American Jewish Congress asserts that AI's criticism of Israel distorts the law of war by "read[ing] the law of war as if it was a law banning war", and misinterprets the Geneva Conventions with regard to the issue of proportionality in war. [21] Yael Beck and Merav Fima of NGO Monitor claim the AI has an "obsession with Israel" and "persistently condemns Israel while ignoring suffering elsewhere". [22]. Dan Kosky of NGO Monitor claims that AI's recent call for an international arms embargo against Israel is "tantamount to placing Israel on trial in a kangaroo court" by accusing Israel of war crimes without a serious investigation to determine whether its actions were legal or not. [23] Alan Dershowitz, professor of law at Harvard University, in his book The Case for Israel, is very critical of AI and their comparison of Israel to nations such as Sudan and other offenders of human rights. Amnesty International has consistently called on Israel to bring any officer suspected of human rights violations to justice and to remove its settlements in the West Bank.

Guantánamo Bay comments

Protest against human rights violation at Guantànamo Bay prison (June 2006)

In the foreword[24] to AI’s Report 2005[25], the Secretary General, Irene Khan, referred to the Guantánamo Bay prison as "the gulag of our times, entrenching the practice of arbitrary and indefinite detention in violation of international law. Trials by military commissions have made a mockery of justice and due process." In the subsequent press conference, she added, "If Guantanamo evokes images of Soviet repression, "ghost detainees" – or the incommunicado detention of unregistered detainees — bring back the practice of "disappearances" so popular with Latin American dictators in the past. According to US official sources there could be over 100 ghost detainees held by the US. In 2004, thousands of people were held by the US in Iraq, hundreds in Afghanistan and undisclosed numbers in undisclosed locations. AI is calling on the US Administration to "close Guantanamo and disclose the rest".[26]

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld believed the comments were "reprehensible", Vice President Dick Cheney said he was "offended", and President Bush said he believed the report was "absurd". The Washington Post editorialized that "lately the organization has tended to save its most vitriolic condemnations not for the world’s dictators but for the United States."[27] The human rights organization Human Rights Watch also criticized the Bush administration over the camp in its 2003 world report, stating: "Washington, D.C. has ignored human rights standards in its own treatment of terrorism suspects".[28]

Edmund McWilliams, a retired senior US Foreign Service Officer who monitored Soviet and Vietnamese abuse of prisoners in their "gulags", defended Amnesty International’s comparison. "I note that abuses that I reported on in those inhumane systems parallel abuses reported in Guantanamo, at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan and at the Abu Ghraib prison: prisoners suspended from the ceiling and beaten to death; widespread "waterboarding"; prisoners "disappeared" to preclude monitoring by the International Committee of the Red Cross — and all with almost no senior-level accountability."[29]

William F. Schulz, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, defended the statement, saying, "What is 'absurd' is President Bush's attempt to deny the deliberate policies of his administration." and "What is 'absurd' and indeed outrageous is the Bush administration's failure to undertake a full independent investigation". Secretary General Irene Khan also responded saying, "The administration's response has been that our report is absurd, that our allegations have no basis, and our answer is very simple: if that is so, open up these detention centres, allow us and others to visit them."

Since the U.S. administration originally claimed that these prisoners were not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against this interpretation (on June 29, 2006).[30] Following this, on July 7, 2006, the Department of Defense issued an internal memo stating that prisoners will in the future be entitled to protection under the Geneva Conventions.[31][32][33]

In 2010, Gita Sahgal, an Amnesty senior official, publicly condemned the organization for its collaboration with former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg of Cageprisoners. In a letter to Amnesty's leadership, she wrote: "To be appearing on platforms with Britain's most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgment." She warned that it "constitutes a threat to human rights."[34] Begg has toured Europe with Amnesty officials.[35]

AI's new abortion policies and the Roman Catholic Church

In April 2007, Amnesty International changed its neutral stance on abortion to supporting access to abortion in cases of rape and incest, and when the life or the health of the mother might be threatened.[36] Amnesty's official policy is that they "do not promote abortion as a universal right" but "support the decriminalisation of abortion".[37] According to deputy secretary general Kate Gilmore, the debate over the change was difficult, but eventually the overwhelming majority of national Amnesty chapters supported the change.The change was opposed by several organizations, notably by senior figures in the Catholic Church, traditionally a strong supporter of Amnesty International,[38] and a group of US legislators. She admitted a small number of members had quit over the issue.[7]

The Roman Catholic Church's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in June 2007 issued a statement urging Catholics not to donate to Amnesty because of their abortion stance.[39] Cardinal Renato Martino said that abortion was "murder" and "to justify it selectively, in the event of rape, that is to define an innocent child in the belly of its mother as an enemy, as 'something one can destroy'". In an interview to the National Catholic Register, the Cardinal outlined that it was his belief that "if in fact Amnesty International persists in this course of action, individuals and Catholic organizations must withdraw their support, because, in deciding to promote abortion rights, AI has betrayed its mission".[40]

At a meeting in Mexico 11-17 August 2007, the International Council decided to retain the stance laid down in April. Within days, this was decried by prominent leaders of the Catholic Church, including the highest-ranking Vatican cardinal Secretaty of State Tarcisio Bertone and the U.S. Bishops' Conference USCCB president Bishop William S. Skylstad. Cardinal Bertone said to Vatican Radio that "we cannot ever destroy life. We must always save life even if it is the fruit of violence"[41], and underlined that "all forms of violence against women must be opposed and that the inhuman violence of rape be stopped and society be mobilized to defend the dignity of women". The USCCB statement of 23 August called the change in the organization’s longstanding position divisive and an affront to "people in many nations, cultures and religions who share a consistent commitment to all human rights"[42]. An English Roman Catholic Bishop, Michael Evans of East Anglia, who had been an officer in AI in the 1980s, cancelled his membership after 31 years, saying that the "decision makes it very difficult for Catholics to remain members of Amnesty or to give it any financial support" while reiterating that he remained "deeply committed to Amnesty’s original mandate: to work for freedom for prisoners of conscience, an end to torture and the death penalty, and fair trials for all."[43] In Australia, several Catholic schools and institutions withdrew from Amnesty International[44][45], and in its place set up the Benenson Society, which pursues a similar human rights advocacy agenda to Amnesty's, but without being pro-choice on abortion[46]. The Australian Catholic bishops urged Catholics 'to seek other avenues of defending human rights', adopting a position that 'membership of Amnesty International is no longer compatible with Catholic teaching and belief' [47]. There were also strong reactions from the Catholic church in Denmark[48], Northern Ireland[49] and Scotland[50] and several other countries.

As of 10 December 2007, International Human Rights Day, an Amnesty-member led pressure group called 'Roll Back Amnesty' was established to co-ordinate membership opposition to the abortion policy initiative. As of 20 December 2007, the Roll Back Amnesty Group was advised by the International Secretariat, via the Group's website provider, that the Group could not use the Amnesty logo on its website, nor use the word 'amnesty' in its domain name, and that the website provider should take all necessary steps to resolve the situation. Amnesty International went further, asserting that they would take legal action if both issues were not addressed within 14 days.

Organisational continuity

University of Illinois professor of international law Francis Boyle, who spent several years as an Amnesty International USA Board member, claimed that aspects of organisational continuity and survival came ahead of human rights aims. He stated "Amnesty International is primarily motivated not by human rights but by publicity. Second comes money. Third comes getting more members. Fourth, internal turf battles. And then finally, human rights, genuine human rights concerns."[1]The Irish Independent, that country's largest selling newspaper, in November 2009 acknowledged the original worthy aims of the organisation, but sarcastically and acidly commented that now it seemed it "has forceful and declamatory opinions on littering, breast-feeding, double-parking, immigration, global warming, airline taxes and the laws on offside in soccer and lbw in cricket."[51]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Bernstein, Dennis (2002). "Interview: Amnesty on Jenin - Dennis Bernstein and Dr. Francis Boyle Discuss the Politics of Human Rights". Covert Action Quarterly. Archived from the original on 2009-08-05. Retrieved 2009-08-05. 
  2. ^ a b c"DR Congo blasts Amnesty International report on repression", The Namibian, 14 January 2000. Retrieved 15 May 2006.
  3. ^ a b The U.S. and China This Week, U.S.-China Policy Foundation, 16 February 2001. Retrieved 15 May 2006.
  4. ^ a b "The Cream of The Diplomatic Crop from Ha Noi.", THIÊN LÝ BỬU TÒA. Retrieved 15 May 2006.
  5. ^ "Russian official blasts Amnesty International over Chechnya refugees", Human Rights Violations in Chechnya, 22 August 2003. Retrieved 15 May 2006.
  6. ^ Press Briefing By Scott McClellan, The White House, 25 May 2005. Retrieved 30 May 2006.
  7. ^ a b Crary, David (2007-07-26). "Furor Over Amnesty's Abortion Stance". Retrieved 9 February 2009. 
  8. ^ Amnesty International "Amnesty International response to Andrés Ballesteros et al.", AMR 23/006/2007, 2007-02-21. Retrieved on 2009-02-04.
  9. ^ "Russian official blasts Amnesty International over Chechnya refugees", Human Rights Violations in Chechnya, 22 August 2003. Retrieved 15 May 2006.
  10. ^ Press TV. "US lawyer seeks to sue US over Iran threats". Retrieved 2008-08-23. 
  11. ^ Francis Boyle and Dennis Bernstein, Interview with Francis Boyle: Amnesty on Jenin, Covert Action Quarterly, Summer 2002. Kirsten Sellars, op. cit., als has a description of this saga.
  12. ^ Boyle, ibid.
  13. ^ Kuwait: Amnesty International calls on emir to intervene over continuing torture and killings
  14. ^ Diana Johnstone, Fools' Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions, Pluto Press, 2002.
  15. ^ Michael Mandel, How America Gets Away with Murder: Illegal Wars, Collateral Damage and Crimes Against Humanity, Pluto Press, 2004.
  16. ^ Sri Lanka: Amnesty knocked out of World Cup
  17. ^ BBC Sinhala: ICC rejects Sri Lanka claims
  18. ^ The Sunday Island - Politics
  19. ^ Lanka blasts Amnesty campaign at WC
  20. ^ Press Briefing By Scott McClellan, The White House, 25 May 2005. Retrieved 30 May 2006.
  21. ^ American Jewish Congress: Amnesty International’s Criticism of Israeli Action in Gaza Distorts the Law of War
  22. ^ Amnesty’s obsession with Israel
  23. ^ Getting human rights wrong
  24. ^ AI Report 2005 — Foreword Irene Khan, Amnesty International 2005
  25. ^ AI Report 2005 Amnesty International 2005
  26. ^ Amnesty International Report 2005\r\nSpeech by Irene Khan\r\nat Foreign Press Association | Amnesty International
  27. ^ American Gulag Washington Post, May 26, 2005
  28. ^ New Survey Documents Global Repression Human Rights Watch, January 14, 2003
  29. ^ A U.S. Gulag by Any Name Washington Post, June 2, 2005
  30. ^ "Hamdan v. Rumsfeld" (PDF). 29 June 2006. Retrieved 2007-02-10. 
  31. ^ "US detainees to get Geneva rights". BBC. 2006-07-11. 
  32. ^ "White House: Detainees entitled to Geneva Convention protections". CNN. 2006-07-11. 
  33. ^ "White House Changes Gitmo Policy". CBS News. 2006-07-11. 
  34. ^ "Amnesty International is 'damaged' by Taliban link". The Times. 2010-02-07. 
  35. ^ Guantánamo: New call for Europe to take 50 men trapped at camp, Amnesty International, January 11, 2010, (archive)
  36. ^ "To Stop Violence Against Women respect for women's human rights is essential". Amnesty International. Retrieved 2007-07-15. 
  37. ^ "Amnesty International defends access to abortion for women at risk". 2007-06-14. 
  38. ^ "Amnesty, Catholic Church go to war over abortion". The Toronto Star. 2007-07-28. 
  39. ^ "Vatican urges end to Amnesty aid". BBC News. 2007-06-14. 
  40. ^ National Catholic Register 12 June 2007: No Amnesty For the Unborn Website last accessed 19 June 2007
  41. ^ (20 August 2007) - Website last accessed 26 August 2007
  42. ^ website (24 August 2007) - Website last accessed 26 August 2007
  43. ^ East Anglia Diocese website - Bishop's Pages - Website last accessed 26 August 2007
  44. ^ Australian bishop urges Amnesty International to reverse new policy on abortion - Website last accessed 21 September 2007
  45. ^ Melbourne Catholic schools to cut ties with Amnesty- Website last accessed 21 September 2007
  46. ^ St Aloysius' College
  47. ^ Don't boycott pro-choice Amnesty - Eureka Street
  48. ^ Katolikker bør ikke støtte Amnesty - Website last accessed 21 September 2007
  49. ^ Amnesty faces ban in Northern Ireland's Catholic schools - Website last accessed 21 September 2007
  50. ^ Head of Catholic Church in Scotland resigns from Amnesty International - Website last accessed 21 September 2007
  51. ^

Further reading

  • American Gulag at National Review Online (May 27, 2005).[1]
  • Paul de Rooij, AI: A false beacon?, CounterPunch, October 13, 2004. Contains a reading list. Alleges AI has anti-Palestinian bias.
  • Michael Mandel, How America Gets Away With Murder: Illegal Wars, Collateral Damage and Crimes Against Humanity, Pluto Press 2004. Alleges AI is selective in defending "human rights", in particular, regarding the US-Iraq war 2003, and the War in the Balkans.
  • Jonathan V. Last, Calling It Like They See It, FrontPageMagazine, April 3, 2003. Alleges AI has anti-American/Israel bias.
  • Nabeel Abraham, Torture, Anyone?, Lies of Our Times, May 1992, pp. 2 – 4. Claims AI and other groups are reticent in describing alleged torture on the part of Israel.

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