The 1961 newspaper article by Peter Benenson that led to the founding of Amnesty International is a fascinating historical document. It harkens back to the era when "freedom of speech" was a rallying cry on the left, rather than the right--presumably because at the time, the left considered itself an insurgent political movement rebelling against an established order, not as the established order itself. But Benenson's vision of a worldwide campaign for the release of "prisoners of conscience"--citizens jailed and mistreated merely for voicing political dissent--also appealed to the right wing of his day, as a way to call attention to political repression behind the Iron Curtain. No doubt this bipartisan appeal was one of the chief reasons for AI's remarkably long-lived international prestige. It also helped stave off the "mission creep" that can send altruistic organizations off on foolish tangents, or diffuse their efforts until their purpose loses all coherence.
The end of the Cold War, though, took away the external pressure on Amnesty to maintain its bipartisan discipline. The result can be seen in AI's 2005 Secretary-General's message, where Amnesty's original goal of defending dissidents against political repression barely rates a mention. Instead, we read about "economic and social rights", "HIV/AIDS, illiteracy, poverty, child and maternal mortality, and development aid", and "violence against millions of women….including genital mutilation, rape, beatings by partners, and killings in the name of honour". The two countries that come in for the most criticism are Sudan and the US—Sudan for mass murder in Darfur, and the US for denying due process in some cases to "'suspected terrorists'". And most famously, the Secretary-General asserts that the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay for suspected strategically important Al Qaida and Taliban members "has become the gulag of our times".
Plenty of commentators have given AI grief over this comparison, attacking it as a gross error of scale and a symptom of leftist bias. Meanwhile, AI's defenders on the left have treated the analogy as a minor exaggeration distracting from the real issue of American brutality. But few--the Washington Post's Anne Applebaum and Reason's Cathy Young, both accomplished Sovietologists, being notable exceptions--have called attention to by far the most objectionable aspect of the Secretary-General's odious comparison: that she lumped the Soviet Gulag, whose main function was to punish Soviet citizens suspected of insufficient loyalty to the Soviet regime, together with Guantanamo, whose detainees, whatever else one might think of their treatment, are most certainly not being held in an effort to silence domestic political opponents. And no other commentator that I've seen has recognized this failure to distinguish between these cases as a betrayal of AI's own founding ideals. Indeed, in the world of activist organizations--led, of course by the UN--the entire concept of freedom from political repression has been so completely subsumed under the ridiculously broad rubric of "human rights" as to have completely disappeared from view, just as it disappeared from the AI Secretary-General's message.
Consider, for example, Amnesty's appeals for June 2005. They include a German-born Turk arrested in Pakistan and held at Guantanamo; a Palestinian under "administrative detention" in Israel; and a woman accused of complicity in a series of bombings in Uzbekistan. Let us put aside, for the moment, the odd fact that all three appeals involve Muslims imprisoned by the US or one of its allies on suspicion of participation in terrorist activities. The more striking fact is that two of the three are being held by countries with a democratic government and abundant political freedom. A glance at previous months shows a similar pattern: of the fourteen appeals for the four months prior to June, exactly one involved imprisonment of a political dissident in a dictatorship, and two more involved claims of religious persecution in a dictatorship. (Oddly enough, both involved central Asian former Soviet republics.) Three more involved general brutality by repressive dictatorships; the rest--fully half--involved democratic countries with free speech and an active popular press.
Now, the point here is not to assert that democracies are somehow morally infallible. The point is that governmental misdeeds in a free, democratic country are subject to public discussion, judgment and action--that is, they are political matters. There is no need for a worldwide appeal on behalf of the victims of injustice in such countries--local journalists and "human rights" activists are generally happy to do the job of publicizing such cases themselves. Amnesty International was established in the first place on the premise that only external pressure, such as from an international campaign, can coax a despotic regime to refrain from brutality towards its domestic political opponents. Evidently, the members of AI itself have forgotten the original premise behind their organization's existence.
In a kind of final repudiation of its original mission, the head of AI's American branch recently called on all 190 signatories to the Geneva Conventions--free democracies and repressive tyrannies alike--to arrest and prosecute senior US government officials, such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for their role in alleged incidents of torture in US detention facilities. That is, the AI that was founded to rally the world's democracies against repressive governments that imprison political opponents, now rallies repressive governments to imprison the freely elected political leaders of the world's preeminent democracy. Peter Benenson's vision may live on, but the organization he founded has, for all intents and purposes, destroyed itself.