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Amnesty International: A False Beacon
by Paul de Rooij
October 22, 2004

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Given the current escalation of Israeli depredations in Gaza and the daily US bombings of Falluja, it is interesting to examine Amnesty International’s (AI) statements on the situation. AI is widely viewed as an authority on human rights issues, and thus it is of interest to analyze its output on these recent events. Careful scrutiny of AI’s record reveals that, its typical response to the daily obscene deeds by either Israeli or US armies is a few barely audible ruminations with an occasional lame rebuke. The impotence of these responses raises many questions.

Occupation with human rights?

Consider the title of a recent press release: “Israeli army must respect human rights in its operations.” [1]  According to AI, the Israeli depredations on occupied land are acceptable as long as they “respect” human rights. This is analogous to recommending that a rapist should practice safe sex. [2] It is also difficult to imagine that a military occupation could ever be imposed while observing “human rights”.

Consider the context. During September 2004 the Israeli army killed on average 3.7 Palestinians per day; it injured an average of 19.3 p/day; it demolished many houses affecting the lives of thousands; it has transformed vast areas of Gaza into a denuded moonscape. It is also clear that these gruesome statistics will be worse in October. The Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz openly states that the Palestinians should be punished, and the measures advocated entail collective punishment. The entire Palestinian population is taken hostage; pressure is exerted on them as a whole. Ethnic Cleansing is on going, and the construction of the grotesque wall stands as proof of the criminality of this policy.

Several hundred kilometers of this. Israel’s largest construction project ever.
Photo Musa AlShaer, Sept 2004 (Aida refugee camp).


Given the devastation inflicted by the Israeli army and clear violations of international law, one would expect at least a tiny condemnation. However, this is the extent of AI’s reaction:

“[AI] is concerned that the Israeli army’s use of excessive force in this latest incursion in the Gaza Strip will result in further loss of lives and wanton destruction of Palestinian homes and property. Reprisals against protected persons and property are prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention and Israel is obliged to ensure that any measures taken to protect the lives of Israeli civilians are consistent with its obligations to respect human rights and international humanitarian law.

Israel should immediately allow international human rights and humanitarian organizations to enter the Gaza Strip. At present [AI] delegates and staff members of other international organizations are denied access to the Gaza Strip.”

Note that this lame statement was uttered in reaction to the attack on Jabalya, an onslaught which Dr. Mustafa Barghouti described as follows: “Sharon’s tanks are rampaging through Jabalia and Beit Lahia, just as they did in Khan Yunis, Rafah and Beit Hanun. The simple fact is that Sharon is doing to Gaza what he did to the West Bank in 2002.” [3] AI’s hypocrisy in issuing this limp statement is evident when it is compared with the press release analyzed below.

Double standard?

In May 2004 AI issued a press release headed “AI condemns murder of woman and her four daughters by Palestinian gunmen.” The body of the text contains the following condemnation:

“Such deliberate attacks against civilians, which have been widespread, systematic and in furtherance of a stated policy to attack the civilian population, constitute crimes against humanity, as defined by Article 7 (1) and (2)(a) of the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal.” [4]

So, when Palestinians kill some civilians, then it constitutes a “crime against humanity” – one of the most serious crimes under international law, and a precursor to genocide. But, when Israel kills far more civilians “in furtherance of a stated policy” (the phrasing AI used against Palestinians) to “exact a price” (to use the words of Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz [5]), all that AI can do is to wring its hands and worry about “the Israeli army’s use of excessive force”. Thus, we see that AI does not hesitate to use against Palestinians terms, such as “crime against humanity”, which it has never unambiguously leveled against Israel.

Note that the Israeli woman killed by Palestinians in the above episode was a settler. Thus, AI was stretching a point a to call her a civilian – settlers are armed and they consider themselves, when they feel like it, the shock troops of an expansionist zionism whose stated goal is to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians from, at least, all the land west of the River Jordan.

Regarding the Palestinian attack, AI also states: “deliberate attacks against civilians, which have been widespread, systematic and in furtherance of a stated policy to attack the civilian population.” Whoa! It is astonishing that such a description was added to its accusation pertaining a Palestinian attack, but at the same time, it is not willing to classify any Israeli actions as “systematic, deliberate and widespread [etc.]”. AI portrays Palestinian violence as worse than Israeli violence, and this amounts to a clear double standard.

Neglecting settler violence?

On Sept. 27, 2004 a settler from the Itamar settlement killed a Palestinian in cold blood, and the Israeli authorities even sought to exempt the settler from house arrest; at most – though not likely – he will be charged with manslaughter. [6]  While AI was willing to issue a press release about the settler woman and her kids who were killed, it was not willing to issue any statement about this incident. What makes this neglect curious is that around the same time it issued a press release regarding an abducted CNN stringer – someone who was eventually released unharmed. [7]  Researching AI’s public record reveals an odd sense of proportion in selecting which events it chooses to discuss.

It seems that AI regards settlements as mere misplaced suburbs, and its residents as just some Western suburbanites. For some settlements, this may be the case, but several settlements are home to racist zionist fanatics. Jeff Halper, the director of the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions, observes that there is now a second generation of settlers, those born in the settlements; he calls them the “clockwork orange” settlers who are more extreme, racist and violent than their predecessors. [8]  The clockwork orange settlers frequently violently harass Palestinians, demolish homes, and occasionally kill with impunity. This context raises questions about AI’s repeated calls to exempt settlers from Palestinian retribution.

During the second intifada, AI has not issued any statement about settler violence.

What happened to the supreme crime?

AI is not an anti-war organization, and this stance creates numerous contradictions. With the onset of the US war against Iraq, it issued statements about the means the US would employ in warfare, but curiously, AI didn’t condemn the war! This is particularly curious given that the war was one of aggression and thus constitutes a supreme international crime. This is what Prof. Michael Mandel (Prof. of Law at York Univ., Toronto) had to say about the matter:

When the attack was launched, stern warnings were issued to all the ‘belligerents’ by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International […], reminding them of their duties under the laws and customs of war. But neither said a single word about the illegality of the war itself or the supreme criminal responsibility under international law of the countries that had started it. [9]

And pertaining to the press releases AI issued during this period:

Amnesty also questioned whether the required precautions were being taken to protect civilians, and called for investigations into civilian deaths like those at the Karbala checkpoint, and the shooting of demonstrators in Falluja. But never once did Amnesty International […] mention the fundamental reason why none of the incidents really had to be investigated at all – namely that all of this death and destruction was legally, as well as morally, on the heads of the invaders, whatever precautions they claimed to take, because it was due to an illegal, aggressive war. Every death was a crime for which the leaders of the invading coalition were personally, criminally responsible. [10]

Again, AI ruminations amount to recommending the “rapist to engage in safe sex” – no mention of the crime! Even though AI often refers to international law to issue its statements, when it comes to US depredations, then even supreme crimes are not mentioned.

Another double standard?

Consider AI’s statement issued regarding the situation in Darfur:

“The United Nations Security Council should stop the transfer of arms being used to commit mass human rights violations in Darfur [AI] urged today while releasing a report based on satellite images showing large-scale destruction of villages in Darfur over the past year.” [11]

The situation may be awful in Darfur, and the measure suggested may be warranted. However, the curious aspect of this statement is that AI has never called on the UN or any other body to impose an arms embargo on Israel, although there are ample grounds for such a recommendation.

An American academic inquired about this double standard, and she received the following answer from Donatella Rovera, AI’s principal researcher on Israel-Palestine:

“The situations in Sudan and in Israel-Occupied Territories are quite different and different norms of international law apply, which do not make it possible to call for an arms embargos on either the Israeli or the Palestinian side. The West Bank and Gaza Strip are under Israeli military occupation (not the case for the Darfour region in Sudan). Hence, certain provisions of international humanitarian law, known as the laws of war (notably the 1907 Hague Convention and the Fourth Geneva Convention) apply in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (and not in the Darfour region).” (email communication July 5, 2004).

AI is couching its double standards in dubious legalese, but consider what Prof. Francis Boyle (Professor of International Law at Univ. of Illinois Champaign) has to say about Rovera’s statement:

This is total gibberish. When I was on the Board of Directors of Amnesty International USA near the end of my second term in 1990-92, we received the authority to call for an arms embargo against major human rights violators, which Israel clearly qualified for at the time and still does – even under United States domestic law. Of course no one at AI was going to do so because pro-Israel supporters were major funders of Amnesty International USA, which in turn was a major funder of Amnesty International in London. He who pays the piper calls the tune – especially at AIUSA Headquarters in New York and at AI Headquarters in London.

What about the prisoners?

The core of AI’s efforts have to do with “prisoners of conscience”, prison conditions, and torture. So, it is of some interest to determine how this issue is dealt with pertaining Palestinian prisoners and the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. [12] The table below provides some context for the Palestinian prisoners.


Number of Palestinian prisoners (8-Jul-04)
Total 5,892
Children (age < 18) 351
Women 75
Age > 50 42
Pct of prisoners actually put on trial 25%
Violation of the accords [1] 433
Administrative detention [2] 786
[1] All prisoners held prior to the signing of the Oslo Accords should have been released.
[2] Administrative detention is illegal under international law. Administrative detention orders may last for up to six months, with Palestinians held without charges or trial during this period. Israel routinely renews the detention orders thereby holding Palestinians without charge or trial indefinitely. During this period, detainees are often denied legal counsel.

The Palestinian case
: Technically, AI doesn’t publish the lists of prisoners of conscience [POC], and one must trawl through its public record to determine if there are Palestinian POCs. During the second intifada, its record indicates two POCs and two “possible” POCs, and no other information on Palestinian prisoners is evident. There are many Palestinian “administrative detainees” – those held without charges, without trial, and for indefinite terms – yet AI doesn’t deem fit to bestow on them its magic POC label. The contrast with the treatment of Cuban POCs is stark: here even people paid by the US embassy for subversive activities earned a POC status, and simple search of the AI-USA website or some of the right-wing Cuban-American websites reveal 88 POCs. [13] This implies that a large percentage of “political” prisoners in Cuba are POCs. [14] While the Palestinian POC list is not made public, when it comes to Cuba, a different standard applies. [15]

In the case of Cuba AI issues stern statements and calls to release the prisoners. Such statements may be justified given that there are 88 Cuban POCs. However, AI has not issued a similar statement about the much larger number of political prisoners held by Israel. Maybe the mere “four” Palestinian POCs do not warrant this effort.

Conditions for Palestinian prisoners in Israel and the occupied territories are appalling, and torture of prisoners is common. Earlier this year, Palestinian political prisoners went on hunger strike to protest these conditions. Israeli prison authorities engaged in awful tactics to disrupt the hunger strike, e.g., prison staff barbecued meat in the prison courtyard to unnerve the hunger strikers, confiscated salt, etc. [16] Given AI’s interest in prison conditions, torture, and denial of medical treatment, when it came to the Palestinian hunger strike there was no statement whatsoever. A request for a position on this issue revealed a similar unwillingness to utter a peep. A comparison with the treatment of Cuban POC would be instructive, but beyond the scope of this article.

The IOF’s “purity of arms” in action. Photo: Musa AlShaer, Bethlehem, Sept. 2004.

The Iraqi case: There is no doubt that US forces in Iraq are engaged in the systematic use of torture – contrary to initial US reports aimed to minimize the damage, it was not a case of “a few rotten apples,” and the evidence for the most perverse forms of torture – and indications that responsibility for them goes up the chain of command – is damning. Furthermore, it is also clear that many prisoners were killed while in detention – several deaths clearly due to torture. So, what does AI have to say about this?

AI wrote a letter to “His Excellency Mr. John D. Negroponte” to ask under which legal framework the prisoners would be treated. First, it is odd to see AI deferring to Negroponte in such an abject manner. Negroponte has a sinister past and it is odd to refer to him as “His Excellency”. The letter then requests a clarification of the legal framework applying to the prisoners – and this in the face of the torture revelations:

“Recalling reports of torture of Iraqis not only by the occupying powers but also by the Iraqi police, [AI] would welcome information about the legal and practical safeguards that will apply to arrest, detention and internment; what access international and Iraqi organizations will have to those held; and whether prisons and detention centres will be placed under Iraqi government or other control. The international community should know what measures are in place to ensure that the absolute prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment will be strictly observed by Iraqi, US and other forces. In this respect, we would appreciate knowing your views about our recommendation that the United Nations should have a specific monitoring mandate to supervise all places of detention.” [17]

It is curious that AI has to inquire about the rights of prisoners in Iraq by appealing to a representative of the country that launched an illegal war of aggression. The abject tone of the letter is disturbing – it also means that AI has no desire to confront serious US crimes in a forceful manner. Whereas in the past AI reports could cause trepidation among some dictators, today AI’s statements hardly make mass human rights abusers take notice. For this type of preferential service AI received a Nobel Peace Prize.

All other AI press releases are of a similar nature. For example:

[AI] calls on the MNF to take all necessary precautions to protect civilians and respect the principles of necessity and proportionality, and to take measures to ensure that they comply fully with their obligations under international law. [18]

It sounds familiar because AI is using the template which they have used to report on Israeli “abuses”.

A right to “defend itself”?

AI, just like the US government, issues ritual statements that “Israel has a right to defend itself”. AI accepts military intervention in the occupied territories to make sure that Israel obtains its elusive “security”. The only difference between AI’s position and that of the US is that AI urges the military intervention to “respect human rights” or for it not to be “excessive.” [19] Both accept Israel’s right to build the Apartheid Wall, AI just urges that it be built on the Green Line. [20]

Prof. Mandel offers an interesting view on this so-called right to self-defense:

“An aggressor has no right to self-defense. If you break into someone’s house and hold them at gunpoint and they try to kill you but you kill them first, they're guilty of nothing and you're guilty of murder.” [21]

Israel is the aggressor in the region, and its actions are meant to hold on to land it conquered by force. Ethnic cleansing has been on going since 1948 until the present day, and it is irrational to suggest that Israel has a right to repress those whom it seeks to dispossess. Today Israel tries to repress Palestinians who happen to have kept the keys to their houses that were stolen from them since 1948; so, Mandel’s analogy is appropriate.

AI statements about measured violence to obtain “security” also flies in the face of a history of ethnic cleansing. Israeli policy has been one of stealing the land and dispossessing the population. Given this history, it is outrageous to suggest that Israel has a right to “defend” itself since its actions have amounted to continued aggression.

AI’s position is riven with contradictions. On the one hand, it seeks to defend “human rights”, but on the other, it “understands” war or weapons of war, or accepts the right of “self-defense” of an aggressor. AI also attempts to equate the violence of the oppressor with that of the oppressed; the latter it tries to de-legitimize, while the former it tries to contain so that it “respects human rights”. Without addressing the underlying injustice, AI’s position is simply absurd. The implication of AI’s stance is that it does not promote a solution with a modicum of justice; it seems to accept the status quo, but with “human rights” – whatever that means in AI’s warped lexicon.

A false beacon

Anyone concerned with justice for the Palestinian cause or seeking to end the obscene war in Iraq will be disappointed with Amnesty International’s stance. It is no use appreciating the bits of its reports that are useful; the problem is that its overall position on key issues is at best contradictory. Many of the well-intentioned and idealistic volunteers working on AI’s campaigns may be wasting their efforts given that the AI framework adopts a blinkered understanding of the problems. Donating to AI doesn’t translate into effective action for these causes, and given AI’s record, the Palestinians certainly cannot expect fair coverage or representation. Will AI ever clearly and categorically condemn Israel for the large number of killings and the havoc and destruction it has caused in Jabalya or Beit Hanoun? Don’t count on it.

Each Israeli assault on Palestinian refugee camps, each US bombing of cities in Iraq, and each assassination of yet more Palestinians or Iraqis reveals AI’s dubious stance. Today, most AI pronouncements range between moral flatulence and moral fraudulence.

Paul de Rooij is a writer living in London. He can be reached at (NB: all emails with attachments will be automatically deleted.) Paul de Rooij © 2004

Further Reading

  1. Nabeel Abraham, et al.; International Human Rights Organizations and the Palestine Question, Middle East Report (MERIP), Vol. 18, No. 1, January-February 1988, pp. 12 – 20. Available online here

  2. Dennis Bernstein and Francis Boyle, “Amnesty on Jenin”: an interview, CAQ, Summer 2002, pp. 9 – 12, 27. Available online here. (very important)

  3. Sara Flounders, “Massacre in Jenin, Human Rights Watch and the Stage-Management of Imperialism,” CAQ, Fall 2002. Available online here.

  4. Michael Mandel, How America Gets Away with Murder, Pluto Press 2004. (important book).

  5. Paul de Rooij, AI: Say It Isn’t So, CounterPunch, Oct. 31, 2002

  6. Paul de Rooij, Ambient Death in Palestine, Dissident Voice, June 21, 2003.

  7. Paul de Rooij, AI: The Case of a Rape Foretold, Dissident Voice, Nov. 25, 2003.


  1. Amnesty International, “Israeli army must respect human rights in its operations”, MDE 15/094/2004, October 1, 2004.

  2. A very similar statement was issued in its “Excessive use of force”, MDE 15/095/2004, October 5, 2004, press release, where it demanded that Israel “put an immediate end to the use of excessive lethal force”. The implication is that a lower level of violence is acceptable. Again, AI didn’t condemn the continued occupation of Palestinian land. Another point must be made about its press releases regarding Israeli violence. Invariably these contain some finger pointing against Palestinians. However, the opposite is not the case, i.e., statements about Palestinian violence don’t contain condemnation of Israeli violence. Yet another double standard.

  3. Mustapha Barghouti, Occupation as withdrawal, Al Ahram, Oct. 7, 2004.

  4. AI, “AI condemns murder of woman and her four daughters by Palestinian gunmen”, MDE 15/049/2004, May 4, 2004.

  5. Amos Harel, The Gazan pot is threatening to boil over, Ha’aretz, 1 October 2004.

  6. Arnon Regular, Court: Settler to stay under house arrest over killing driver, Haaretz, Sept. 29, 2004.

  7. AI, “[AI] calls for immediate release of journalist Riad Ali”, MDE 15/093/2004, Sept. 28, 2004.

  8. Jeff Halper, A deeper look into the unfolding crisis in Palestine, July 19, 2004. This is an important interview.

  9. Michael Mandel, How America Gets Away With Murder, Pluto Press 2004, p. 7.

  10. ibid, p. 8. NB: this book contains more examples of AI’s inconsistencies and other problems with its moral backbone.

  11. Amnesty International, “Sudan: The UN Security Council should stop arms transfers to Sudan and the Janjawid militia”, AFR 54/074/2004, July 2, 2004.

  12. NB: the propaganda compliant term is “abuse scandal” – it is clearly more serious than that.

  13. See for example: AI-USA, “Amnesty International Urges Release of Prisoners of Conscience in Cuba on One-Year Anniversary of Arrests”, March 16, 2004.

  14. It is difficult to classify prisoners in Cuba, and there is some discussion about this on the web. For their own ends right-wing Cuban-Americans claim large numbers, but these claims are doubtful. However, the same groups use AI’s POC with relish. NB: many of the prisoners in AI’s Cuba POC list were paid by the US embassy to engage in black propaganda, and several were caught red-handed receiving money from embassy staff. Never mind that these people may be thus tainted, AI raised no questions about their “embassy” business to bestow a POC status.

  15. Source: personal communication with the principal AI researcher on Israel-Palestine.

  16. As an example of the measures taken against the prisoners see: Arnon Regular, Jonathan Lis, and Jackie Khoury, Prisons Service will set up barbecues to combat hunger strike by Palestinian security prisoners, Ha’aretz, Aug. 16, 2004. Here is one quote:

    “Barbecues have been set up to grill meat near the cells of Palestinian security prisoners in an effort to combat a hunger strike that the prisoners launched yesterday. Prisons Service guards confiscated cigarettes and candy, along with large quantities of salt, which the prisoners had hidden in their mattresses apparently to provide themselves with minerals during the strike. The guards also removed pens and newspapers. In addition to setting up barbecues to whet the appetite of security prisoners, the Prisons Service is halting all family visits for the strikers, while radios and televisions have been removed from their cells.”

  17. AI, “Clarification needed on status of prisoners after 30 June”, MDE 14/031/2004, June 18, 2004.

  18. AI, “End bloodshed and killing of children”, MDE 14/050/2004, Oct. 1, 2004.

  19. AI, “Excessive use of force” MDE 15/095/2004, October 5, 2004.

  20. AI, “The fence/wall violates international law,” MDE 15-018-2004, Feb. 18, 2004.

  21. Mandel, op. cit., p. 9.