Animosity International: Staff on strike in Amnesty offices across the globe

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

It's arguably the world's most venerated campaigning group. But now Amnesty is facing a crisis that threatens to tear it apart

For more of the past 50 years it has been regarded as the paragon of human rights organisations – a globally admired beacon of liberty and hope. But in recent times a note of discord has crept into the public reputation of Amnesty International. Behind the scenes lurks a crisis that threatens its very existence.

Staff are striking in Amnesty offices across the globe, and a vote of no-confidence has been passed in its leadership. On the face of it, the human rights organisation is being riven over a structural reorganisation and a couple of dozen redundancies among its 700 staff. But the real problem goes much deeper and has even been characterised as a "struggle for the soul" of the human right movement.

There are disputes at the International and UK arms of the organisation, both of which are in London. Staff at Amnesty International UK (AIUK) have called for the resignation of its director, Kate Allen. Staff at Amnesty's International Secretariat have issued a vote of no-confidence in the ability of the wider movement's Secretary General, Salil Shetty, and his senior leadership team to continue leading the organisation.

The increasingly bitter crisis comes as cuts of £2.5m are being implemented at AIUK, despite a steady annual growth in income, and despite staff agreeing to a pay freeze. The cuts are being implemented so senior managers can switch large amounts of money to Amnesty's International Secretariat in a plan to run down the London operation and build new "regional hubs" in Nairobi, Johannesburg, Bangkok and Hong Kong.

Amnesty management has responded by saying: "This statement by the union is not a fair or accurate representation of what has been a highly consultative and inclusive process of change."

But a senior director, Susan Lee, who runs Amnesty's programme in Latin America, has now resigned in protest at the way staff are being treated. Picket lines have formed outside Amnesty's offices in Senegal, Paris, Uganda, Beirut, New York, Hong Kong and Johannesburg. One union official, Alan Scott of Unite, described Amnesty as "one of the most mendacious employers" he has known. "Amnesty International cannot be an effective or credible human rights organisation if it does not respect the rights of its workers," he said.

High on the complaints of the staff is the lack of agreement on redundancy terms. (There are mutterings about Entwistle-esque severance terms reputedly received two years ago by Shetty's predecessor, Irene Khan, and her deputy, Kate Gilmore.) But the unhappiness at Amnesty is far wider and deeper than the issue of redundancy.

It points to an ideological rift. One side insists that Amnesty must physically position itself in solidarity with those whose causes it champions, who are mostly in the poor world. The other alleges diligent and effective human-rights research is being sacrificed by marketing managers who want to "build the Amnesty brand" to recruit more members and raise more funds.

Amnesty was founded in 1961 to campaign for Prisoners of Conscience jailed for their beliefs by authoritarian regimes. But as the years passed its brief has been steadily broadened – to the point where, some allege, it has lost its singular effectiveness.

In the early years it widened its concerns to campaign against the death penalty and torture, for which it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977. It then widened its brief to include concerns about "fair trial" and oppose internment without trial. Then, in 2001, in a world changed by globalisation and 9/11 terrorism, it underwent a major shift. It began to concern itself not just with civil and political concerns but also with economic, social and cultural rights. As Salil Shetty later put it: "The ultimate torture is poverty. There are many more prisoners of poverty today than prisoners of conscience."

Shetty was brought in two years ago as head of the International Secretariat with the brief to rectify what was seen as a "weakness" in Amnesty – that it was far stronger in Europe and the US than in the global south where most of its concerns were located. Under him, Amnesty has adopted the slogan of "Demand Dignity", which concerns itself with everything from forced evictions to corporate accountability.

He devised a plan to move campaigners, researchers and media staff to "regional hubs", much as he had as head of the aid agency ActionAid, moving its HQ from London to Johannesburg.

But over the years mission creep has led to some supporters being alienated. In 2007 the Catholic Church, a strong Amnesty enthusiast, withdrew its support when Amnesty added abortion to its palette of rights. In 2010 Amnesty upset many feminists when it suspended Gita Sahgal, its gender unit head, when she criticised its links with the Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg, whom she described as "Britain's most famous supporter of the Taliban". It was a move which Salman Rushdie described as a "moral bankruptcy" which had done incalculable damage to Amnesty's reputation. Last year Amnesty's support for Julian Assange angered many of its members.

Yet even those members of staff who agree with the broadening of the brief have been incensed by the way they claim research budgets have been slashed to find the money for the North to South decentralisation. "It's utterly shambolic," one said. "The transition is being prioritised over getting the human rights work done."

There is confusion over whether staff in Nairobi will be paid the same salaries as London staff. What will British staff who move to Kenya be paid? What should be the redundancy terms for those who cannot move? Amnesty's existing terms were set in a much more generous era.

"The management also do not seem to have considered security issues properly [in the regional hubs]," one insider complained. "But it's more than that. They seem to be moving Amnesty into campaigning mode with big stunts and branding exercises designed to boost membership – at the expense of the detailed research on which our credibility depends. We will launch a campaign on Pussy Riot because it's fashionable, chasing the energy, lurching from one issue to the next.

"The danger is Amnesty may become less interested in helping individuals than in using them as emblems of problems which need to be tackled – and getting them to sign a release form so we can publicise their story to raise funds. At present we are more concerned with setting up an office in India, and raising funds locally there, than in doing the basic human rights work," said the insider.

In 2006 an academic, Stephen Hopgood, spent a year inside Amnesty International and produced a book he called Keepers of the Flame. He charted through the years an enduring feature of Amnesty's inner life – a struggle between those who seek to preserve Amnesty's accumulated store of moral authority and reformers who hope to change, modernise and use that moral authority in ways that its protectors fear may erode the organisation's uniqueness. It was a world, he said, of impossible choices. Over the past decade the choices appear to have got more impossible still.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape