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Gita Sahgal talks about human wrongs

Sunday, 21 February 2010 - 1:53am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
In an exclusive interview with DNA, Gita Sahgal, Amnesty International's gender unit head, explains the importance of human rights organisations maintaining an objective distance from people who advocate global jihad

Last week, Gita Sahgal, head of Amnesty International’s gender unit, was suspended after objecting to the human rights organisation sharing a platform with Moazzem Begg, former Guantanamo detainee and “Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban”. The questions that arise are: While championing the rights of prisoners accused of terror, can the rights of victims of the Taliban, especially women, be compromised? Are those not threatened by rights groups appearing to give legitimacy and respectability to self-avowed Taliban-backers? In an exclusive interview with DNA, Gita Sahgal explains the importance of human rights organisations maintaining an objective distance from people who advocate global jihad.

Moazzem Begg was released from Guantanamo Bay, without being charged with any terrorist-related offence. So what’s wrong with Amnesty involving him in its campaign against human rights violations in prison?
Amnesty International could have involved him in meetings to describe his experiences at Guantanamo, without whitewashing his views. For instance, it is clear that he was an admirer of the Taliban, had attended jihadi training camps and had sold books and videos promoting global jihad and terrorist attacks, such as Abdullah Azzam’s book. [Azzam, who preached jihad, was a mentor of Osama bin Laden and persuaded him to come to Afghanistan.] These things could have been stated in his introduction to make it clear that he held abhorrent views, but nevertheless his rights should be defended. Instead, he appears as someone simply doing charitable work in Taliban Afghanistan.

Moazzem Begg has said that the Afghan government is itself now trying to engage with the ‘good’ Taliban, something that he had been advocating all along. So why should he be a persona non grata for Amnesty?
Amnesty International’s regional team on Afghanistan and their boss, the Director of the Asia Pacific Programme, Sam Zarifi, are very concerned about any deal with the Taliban; and have been urgently calling for women’s rights not to be negotiated away in such a deal. Indeed they fear that a wide range of human rights would be gravely threatened under the Taliban. They have
detailed knowledge of Afghanistan and also the effects of compromises with the Taliban in Pakistan. In their view, in other words in Amnesty International’s view, these deals have brought neither peace nor security and entailed greatly increased human rights violations in these areas. Sam Zarifi has also been quoted in the Sunday Times [London] saying that he thought the relationship with Moazzem Begg was a mistake, which Amnesty International should admit. This is what the senior leadership of Amnesty International has refused to do; in fact, they have re-affirmed the relationship clearly against the advice of the leading experts on the Taliban and the situation in Afghanistan.

In what way exactly does the association with Begg compromise Amnesty’s integrity and constitute a threat to the human rights of victims of the Taliban, according to you?
According to the UN, over two-thirds of casualties in the conflict are caused by the Taliban. Many of these would be indiscriminate attacks on civilians or targeted attacks on particular groups. These actions breach the Geneva Conventions Common Article 3 prohibiting disproportionate attacks on civilians. They clearly contravene very well established laws of war. Amnesty International should not enhance the reputation of anyone who supports such breaches of the laws of war.

Amnesty has said that Moazzem Begg never used a platform he shared with Amnesty to speak against the rights of others. What’s wrong if they get him to share his experiences as a detainee in a campaign against torture?
It seems that no one in Amnesty International has any idea what Begg’s views are, so they would have no idea whether he was using an Amnesty platform to promote his views or not. Secondly, this is a disingenuous statement for two reasons:

One, either Begg has views that should not be promoted from an Amnesty platform, so Amnesty is acknowledging he keeps his detainee experiences separate from his ‘views’. However, Claudio Cordone [senior director of Amnesty International] has also said there is nothing wrong with his views. So which does Amnesty believe?

Two, Amnesty International is a highly reputable organisation. Anyone receiving such extensive coverage is legitimised as a human rights advocate. This is undoubtedly true of Begg. It is not honest for Amnesty International to pretend that giving someone such huge coverage globally was not exceptionally important for Begg. It also helped to legitimise Cageprisoners as an organisation. [See box]

There’s a view that sometimes the people whose rights you defend may not share your views — but that does not mean you don’t defend their rights or involve them in the fight for rights. How would you see this in the context of Moazzem Begg?
If Begg were a white fascist, Amnesty International would understand the distinction between protecting his right to be free from torture and arbitrary detention, and treating him as a hero and an advocate to close Guantanamo when he came back.

How can organisations like Amnesty ensure that while they continue to champion the rights of terrorism suspects to be free from torture, they are not seen to be implicitly endorsing the views of these suspects?
Many of the most reputable lawyers and activists who work with those arrested in relation to terrorism cases, are appalled by the status given to Cageprisoners. I have received a lot of support from anti-racists and former Islamists who know just how dangerous the ideology of Cageprisoners is. They can see the distinction between supporting people’s human rights and giving them a platform. However, the leadership of Amnesty International cannot see this and appears to have wilfully ignored all evidence to the contrary. They are supported by a large number of largely white, liberal lawyers who apparently have no capacity to analyse Begg or Cageprisoners.

Begg’s organisation Cageprisoners has said that it “never has and never will support the ideology of killing innocent civilians, whether by suicide bombers or B52s”. So what makes you think they support violent jihad?
The key word here is ‘innocent’. Cageprisoners are using an interpretation of the term ‘innocent civilian’ which many of the people whose views they promote, would use to justify individual killings as well as mass killings of particular groups of people. On a BBC World Service programme, Asim Qureshi of Cageprisoners affirmed his support for global jihad, which he claimed was protected under international law, justifying the right to self-determination. Amnesty International has never adopted a policy on self-determination and cannot justify jihad on those grounds.

To the common person, particularly one under attack from jihadis — as people are in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq as well as India — it would seem obvious that this global jihad follows rules that contravene all human rights laws and standards, the Geneva Conventions (laws of war) as well as common decency. The ‘jihad’ which Asim Qureshi supported on a Hizbut Tahrir platform mostly involves massive attacks on non-combatants, as well as violent and discriminatory control over their daily lives. [Hizbut Tahrir, banned in many countries, has a goal to merge all Muslim countries into a ‘caliphate’ with Shariah laws.]
 
Given your experience with Amnesty after you tried to red flag its association with Begg, what are your concerns about the links between human rights groups such as Amnesty and radical groups such as Cageprisoners?
I’m afraid it is beginning to show that some human rights organisations have remained wilfully ignorant of the real agendas of a group like Cageprisoners. The reasons for this are still quite mysterious. One clear reason is that they want to promote an image of a ‘perfect victim’. If they did any research into that person’s ideology, or their institutional links with other jihadis, that would sully the idea of their standard bearer as being perfectly innocent. It might show that they are promoting violence and discrimination. That is why it is necessary to trash research into it as ‘innuendo and baseless allegations’. However, Amnesty International’s extensive PR for Begg still seems quite extraordinary. He is the director of an organisation and well able to defend himself.

Given the long history of co-operation between the Taliban and the US, before the Taliban fell out of favour, is it fair to blacklist Begg merely on the ground that he is associated with the Taliban?
I never suggested blacklisting Begg, merely denying him the respectability that comes with close partnering with Amnesty International.

Secondly, human rights should not depend on a ‘realpolitik’ understanding of the world. If the lives and freedoms of people are under threat, their ability to earn a living curtailed, then we have the duty to make the world understand that the Taliban should not be rehabilitated. It is a very old colonial policy to use the religious fundamentalists to contain and control a population that is considered unruly. This is what is happening in Britain and it is being exported to other parts of the world.  


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