Amnesty: it ain’t easy being righteous

The BBC film on Amnesty International’s fiftieth birthday was documentary as corporate hagiography.

David Bowden

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Like Nick Cave’s ‘Nature Boy’, there’s been a lot of ordinary slaughter and routine atrocity on our screens this week. If it hasn’t been the relentless drip-feed news reports of bloodshed coming from Libya, or the torture porn working its way out of Syria, the BBC’s Storyville strand has been feeding us a steady diet of human misery through its Justice: A Citizen’s Guide season of films.

This week – if you were able to withstand the relentless savagery on display in the profile of Pol Pot’s executioner Comrade Duch, in the appropriately titled ‘Welcome To Hell’ – you were given a tragic tale of a UN aid worker who met his fate under Western bombs in a Baghdad hotel in ‘Fight To Save The World’ and a somewhat more optimistic jaunt around the development of international justice in ‘Amnesty! When They Are All Free’.

The latter programme featured a prominent celebration of the contribution of Sting to the cause of international justice – which is an indication that ‘Amnesty! When They Are All Free’ was potentially the grimmest offering of the lot. Commissioned to mark the fiftieth anniversary of human-rights organisation Amnesty International, the film could not have offered a stronger contrast in quality to the second instalment of Adam Curtis’s All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace (read my review of the first episode here). Curtis fizzed with ideas and politics, honing in on overlooked details and fashioning them into provocative arguments. This was much to the confusion of the utopian Twitterati, who were suddenly less indulgent of his flashy style when they, rather than Sinister Evil Corporates, were subject to Curtis’s critical eye. The Amnesty film, by contrast, was documentary as corporate hagiography, evading nuance in favour of quick and easy narrative with a facile message: it ain’t easy being righteous.

It was a shame, because the story it told was potentially a fascinating one. Amnesty was born in the first wave of Sixties radicalism, and faced with the realisation that the apparently progressive politics of universal human rights adopted after the Second World War was being hijacked in the interests of Cold War realpolitik. The organisation began as a documentary news organisation, chronicling the disappearances and abuses under repressive regimes around the world. In the spirit of its famous torch image, Amnesty shone a light on human-rights abuses wherever it found them.

Certainly, as a product of the British postwar liberal intelligentsia, much of the organisation’s self-proclaimed apolitical stance smacked of naivety from the off; founder Peter Benenson was quickly forced to fall on his sword after accepting funding from the British government. Yet this overview of its early days was captivating stuff, offering a reminder of the genuine risks posed to its researchers and witnesses as this small organisation routinely found itself on the wrong side of Western and Soviet-backed juntas alike in its pursuit of accurate reporting of the human costs of the broader superpower struggle.

But Amnesty’s interventions were having distressing and unintended side effects – notably, the new tactic of ‘disappearing’ political prisoners before they became international causes célèbres. In the film, this raised interesting questions of journalistic ethics and apolitical campaigning, particularly pertinent in the context of the more cavalier instincts of the Wikileaks era.

Sadly, however, while willing to touch upon some of the uglier aspects of Amnesty’s growth from small, earnest campaign into the international China-baiting behemoth it is today, When They Are All Free tended to sideline difficult questions in favour of its heartwarming narrative. While there was a degree of soul-searching on offer, the problem with critiquing human rights as a political agenda today is that much of it is done by those on the inside. As Alex de Waal once remarked, ‘it is as though the sociological study of the church were undertaken by committed Christians only; criticism would be solely within the context of advancing the faith itself’.

Such was the faith-healing critique on offer here. In defence of the programme makers, they picked up on the important milestones in Amnesty’s development: significantly, how criticism of its failure to denounce the Rwandan civil war as genocide, despite the apparent evidence flooding from the mass media, led to the abandonment of its rigorous research standards. An irony that the film missed was that Amnesty, an organisation founded to counteract the failures of conventional media to provide accurate research on human-rights abuses, consciously chose to abandon this core ethos in favour of loudly echoing mainstream media reports of bodies in ditches, specifically in the cause of supporting Western military intervention.

The documentary noted, but did not dwell on, the fact that this change of tack came so quickly after Amnesty had let itself fall, hook line and sinker, for the testimony of Nurse Naryirah of Iraqi abuses during the first Gulf War (she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador). The pomposity of its attacks on the Bush administration during the second Gulf invasion – anyone remember how that intervention was partly justified by Saddam’s ‘human shredder’? – and its increasingly shrill use of terms such as ‘genocide’ at least drew some criticism in the film. But these criticisms were glossed over as errors of judgement rather than a failure to recognise that campaigning for human rights loses whatever dubious political neutrality it could claim in an era of liberal intervention and international justice.

For all of its faults, you were left feeling that Amnesty International was an idealistic product of a simpler age, borne from an admirable position that whatever the politics or rationale behind state oppression, its victims were at least entitled to have their say in the court of public opinion. Yet it was striking that just as the world started to become more complex with the end of the Cold War and break-up of the Soviet Union, Amnesty’s campaigns became increasingly celebrity-backed, brand-aware and vague in their goals. Regardless of the merits of its aid work, you couldn’t help but feel there is a considerable difference between handing what one contributor called ‘an ethical megaphone’ to a political prisoner, and attempting to stop rape in Haiti’s refugee camps or challenging homophobia in Uganda.

At 50 and (as the programme acknowledged) possessing the size, status and influence of a multinational conglomerate, it’s time Amnesty lost some of its naive innocence. This film could’ve been a fascinating dissection of the role of NGOs and the changing political role of human-rights campaigning, but ‘When They Are All Free’ was a work of journalism in need of less Sting, and more bite.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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