Opinion

Gita Sahgal was right

Gita Sahgal was right

Five years ago Gita Sahgal, head of the gender unit at Amnesty International, told the Amnesty bosses that it was a mistake to collaborate with Moazzem Begg, a mistake that would damage Amnesty’s reputation. The Sunday Times reported at the time:

 Sahgal describes Begg as ‘Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban’. He has championed the rights of jailed Al-Qaeda members and hate preachers, including Anwar al-Awlaki, the alleged spiritual mentor of the Christmas Day Detroit plane bomber.

 Sahgal, who has researched religious fundamentalism for 20 years, has decided to go public because she feels Amnesty has ignored her warnings for the past two years about the involvement of Begg in the charity’s Counter Terror With Justice campaign.

‘I believe the campaign fundamentally damages Amnesty International’s integrity and, more importantly, constitutes a threat to human rights,’ Sahgal wrote in an email to the organisation’s leaders on January 30. ‘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.’

Moazzem Begg

Moazzem Begg

That seemed undeniable to me at the time, and it still does. Amnesty is a human rights organization, perhaps the best known such organization in the world. This is how they describe themselves:

As a global movement of over seven million people, Amnesty International is the world’s largest grassroots human rights organisation. We investigate and expose abuses, educate and mobilise the public, and help transform societies to create a safer, more just world. We received the Nobel Peace Prize for our life-saving work.

That is not the sort of organization that should be working with Taliban-supporters. It should be defending their rights, like anyone else’s, but that’s not at all the same thing as working with them. This is a fundamental distinction. Amnesty would be right to say that alleged fighters for Islamic State should get due process in a court of law, but that doesn’t mean Amnesty should share platforms with them or sign petitions with them. Cage was never a good fit with Amnesty.

But in 2010 Amnesty did not see it that way, and it forced Gita Sahgal out of the organization. Here is some of her statement on that event, via Women Living Under Muslim Laws:

The senior leadership of Amnesty International chose to answer the questions I posed about Amnesty International’s relationship with Moazzam Begg by affirming their links with him. Now they have also confirmed that the views of Begg, his associates and his organisation  Cageprisoners, do not trouble them.

They have stated that the idea of jihad in self defence is not antithetical to human rights; and have explained that they meant only the specific form of violent jihad that Moazzam Begg and others in Cageprisoners assert is the individual obligation of every Muslim …

Unfortunately, their stance has laid waste every achievement on women’s equality and made a mockery of the universality of rights. In fact, the leadership has effectively rejected a belief in universality as an essential basis for partnership.

Five years on, Asim Qureshi, Research Director of Cage, blamed MI5 for the radicalization of Mohammed Emwazi, aka Jihadi John, and was, as the Guardian put it, “reluctant to directly and explicitly condemn his actions”. Amnesty finally cut its ties with Cage.

But did it apologize to Gita Sahgal? Did it admit she was right and it was wrong? Did it apologize to her? No it did not. It did the opposite of that – it said it was right then, and has taken a different stand now only because the situation has changed. Amnesty International UK’s Director Kate Allen said in a statement on March 12:

At the time that Gita Sahgal left Amnesty International, we commissioned an independent external review into our work with Cage and Moazzam Begg which concluded that it was reasonable for Amnesty to campaign with Cage and Moazzam Begg in his capacity as a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay.

Gita’s view was that it was inappropriate for Amnesty International to share a platform with individuals and organisations whose religious or political views were inconsistent with the full range of rights and women’s rights in particular. Amnesty International has never questioned the integrity of this view or the sincerity with which Gita held it. However, it is not uncommon for NGOs to enter into coalitions with other organisations or groups on one specific issue despite their disagreement on others.

Based on an extensive review of comments made by Cage Prisoners (as it was then known) then available to the public, we concluded that limited cooperation with Cage on the narrow issue of accountability for UK complicity in torture abroad was appropriate, given their consistent and credible messaging on this issue.

What a grudging and self-serving response. The issue wasn’t Sahgal’s sincerity or integrity, it was whether she was right about Cage and Moazzem Begg or not, and she clearly was. How ungenerous and unfair of Amnesty not to admit it. Sahgal was forced out of the organization because Amnesty refused to see that she was right five years ago; the least they could do now is admit that she was right all along.

Maajid Nawaz, co-founder and chairman of the Quilliam Foundation and LibDem candidate, has been energetically tweeting at Amnesty UK to apologize at #SorryGita, and others have been joining in. I’m hoping Amnesty will soon do the right thing.

10 responses to “Gita Sahgal was right”

  1. Broga says:

    I cancelled my monthly subscription to Amnesty. I have thought for some time that they have flaky elements.

  2. Stuart H. says:

    I think the key word here is ‘grassroots’. Like any other large campaign organisation which gains a professional leadership there’s a huge gap between local volunteers and ‘management’. Truth is, at both the level of the national committee and the international one they can pass down instructions until they’re blue in the face, but outside of university groups run by 19 year olds if we don’t like them we just ignore them and do other Amnesty work. Campaigns against injustice are not exactly thin on the ground.

    I’ve been an Amnesty member for around 30 years and run several local groups over that time. I also got in touch personally with Gita Sahgal when she left to get the full story. My group never touched Cage even before she left because we could see they stunk, and certainly wouldn’t after. From my conversations with other local groups that’s a general feeling.

    Shame Allen and Co won’t make a more definitive statement, but that’s just indicative of the way all NGOs work – a few high paid career liberals who answer only to themselves propped up by hundreds or thousands of unpaid volunteers who do the real work. Far too much good work done by us ‘amateurs’ to throw away the whole idea for the sake of a few short term chancers who’ll move on as soon as another NGO offers them more dosh.

  3. Patricia Thomas says:

    Apologising to Gita Sahgal, at this time, seems to me a great opportunity for Amnesty to put aside whatever discomfort it may, or may not have privately experienced in relationship to its history with CAGE and Maozzam Begg; not only to restore its international reputation and integrity, but also to prepare for future collaborative human rights work, with organisations such as the Centre for Secular Space.

  4. Rosy says:

    Absolutely agree apologising to Gita Saghal would go a considerable way to repairing any possible damage done and to preventing future errors of judgement.

  5. georgina says:

    Gita Sahgal leaving Amnesty International was also my reason for cancelling my monthly subscription to AI in 2010.

  6. sailor1031 says:

    Seems like AI has forgotten its purpose in favour of a political agenda. It’s not the first NGO where this has occurred – GreenPeace, NRDC, WWF, Sierra Club (I used to contribute to all of these mentioned and was a member of two of them) and others come readily to mind. The apparatchiks who have assumed control of so many of these organizations don’t appear to care that their new agendas invalidate much of the good work done in the past.

  7. John says:

    A similar event occurred with regard to Oxfam’s failure to ditch Scarlett Johansen as their ambassador when she received payment to promote an anti-Palestinian product at the US Super Bowl.
    What connects all these organisations and individuals is money.
    Even Begg is after dosh too because dosh helps to manufacture forms of power and it is power that Begg and other religionists are after.
    They could not care less for the rights of others just as long as they get the money and the power.
    I stopped trusting GOs and NGOs long long ago. Their professional workers are motivated by desire for money and power too. Decent people like Gita Sahgal inevitably and invariably end up being forced out.

  8. John the Drunkard says:

    Women’s rights versus Islam? No contest in the contemporary atmosphere. Not the the post above this one. How can a product be ‘anti-Palestinian?’

    The cringing and rationalizing around ANY group that can threaten ‘Islamophobia’ accusations is absolutely obscene. Our parochial political spite paralyses us against real threats. Remember when it was the RIGHT that supported the Taliban and wanted to throw Salman Rushdie under the bus?

    The ‘right’ side of these issues hasn’t changed. But the ‘supporters’ have traded hats.

  9. gegsieline says:

    Amnesty international long ago lost credibility. In the complex world of accountability amnesty took the black and white option: all official complaints against Governments had to be genuine. They allowed themselves to become a voice for terrorists, blind to the rights of people to defend themselves, open armed to any cynical cutpurse with a tear in his eye. All the idealistic aims cast aside : Moazzem Begg was, is, and always will be a dysfunctional coward, Gita Sahgal showed too much honesty and wisdom, she had to go.

  10. Cali Ron says:

    Ophelia, thanks for following up on this story, which Amnesty International seems to want to sweep under the carpet. When an NGO is trying to influence world politics it is essential to remain true to the mission and not have even a hint of impropriety, inconsistency or association with any group or person who’s beliefs are contrary to theirs. The larger an organization becomes and the more influence it has the more likely that money, power and politics will corrupt it from it’s original objective.

    I have joined and left the Sierra club numerous times because I agree with their mission, but take issue with their leadership and politics. They have become so politicized they waste time and money on internal struggles and policy points while the Sierra Nevada mountain range that is their namesake continues to decline. I’m sure if John Muir could see the state of both the mountains and the club today he would be in tears.