We deserve more from Amnesty

By Alan Aziz, May 17, 2012

Once upon a time, the image of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) was positive. They were seen as groups that wanted to make the world a better place by working to cure disease and end poverty and hunger, or by taking on political battles against tyrannies and dictatorships. In many cases, this was, and still is, true. But what happens when NGOs veer from this and become bodies that attack their targets in a biased, unwarranted manner?

As more countries moved toward democracy, many NGOs felt a loss of power and funding. As a result, they chose to move into new areas that they had little experience of.

Amnesty International was created in 1961 by British lawyer Peter Benenson, after he heard about the case of two Portuguese students imprisoned for raising a toast to freedom. The organisation quickly grew and became a beacon of hope for those fighting against regimes where the rule of law held no sway and innocent civilians had no rights or representation against oppressive governments. Amnesty is proud, as it should be, of the Nobel Peace Prize it was awarded in the 1977. Amnesty's campaigns, on the abolition of the death penalty or on torture, have led to historic and important achievements.

But the Amnesty of today can be accused of growing bias against democratic western countries and of one-sided reporting. In 2007, it admitted to reporting more on more open countries, arguing it focused on what it could achieve rather than on who were the worst offenders. This approach puts Israel directly and wrongly in Amnesty's firing line.

For an example of its bias, look no further than its 2009 report into Operation Cast Lead, the publication of which led the Anti-Defamation League to accuse Amnesty of "wilfully ignoring the tactics and terrorism of Hamas while outrageously accusing the Israeli military of war crimes". Or last year, when there were assaults on Israel's northern borders, Amnesty singled Israel out for firing on protesters without condemning the attempts to illegally breach recognised borders. Amnesty made no mention of the actions of either the Lebanese or Syrian authorities, who openly bussed the protesters to the borders knowing full well what the outcome would be.

It puts Israel directly in the firing line

Closer to home, Amnesty is happy to host speakers who take pride in their anti-Israel position. This year, Ben White held the launch of his book "Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy" at its Human Rights Action Centre. The Zionist Federation wrote to condemn this decision. We never received a reply and some of our members were denied access to the event despite having been registered.

So when Kate Allen, Amnesty's UK director, denied (during an interview with the JC) ever receiving any letter or request for representation from any Jewish communal organisation, it was all the more concerning. Allen, also stated that Amnesty lets out their facilities without having to agree with the views of the speaker. But Amnesty advertised White's event on its website - surely a clear statement of support? And what of its campaign manager, who openly put Israel in the same category as Iran, Burma and North Korea, or the allegations made at an Amnesty event that Israeli soldiers had carved a star of David into the arm of a Palestinian boy?

Amnesty is by no means the only culprit, simply the one I have focused on. I still believe that, in general, NGOs have good intentions. But it is inexcusable for groups to use phrases like "war crimes" with a total disregard to the damage such words can cause. There is an urgent need for NGOs to deal with their blatant anti-Israel bias, a bias that ultimately does damage to their reputations.

Alan Aziz is executive director of the ZF

Last updated: 12:02pm, May 17 2012