Amnesty secretary-general ignites row

Cordone remarks “jihad in self-defense” not “antithetical” to human rights.

April 7, 2010 05:02
3 minute read.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants take part in a

Islamic Jihadists311. (photo credit: AP)

Amnesty International’s Secretary-General Claudio Cordone has sparked a furor by saying that “jihad in self-defense” is not “antithetical” to human rights.

Cordone made the comment in response to a “global petition” signed by a group of human rights activists. The activists had questioned Amnesty’s partnership with Cageprisoners, a British organization founded by ex-Guantanamo Bay prisoner Moazzam Begg – an alleged Taliban supporter – and its suspension of employee Gita Saghal after she went public with her criticism of that partnership in February.

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After admitting that the debate was not an “easy” one, Cordone wrote, “Now, Moazzam Begg and others in his group Cageprisoners also hold other views which they have clearly stated, for example on whether one should talk to the Taliban or on the role of jihad in self-defense.

“Are such views antithetical to human rights?” Cordone asked. “Our answer is no, even if we may disagree with them – and indeed those of us working to close Guantanamo have a range of beliefs about religion, secularism, armed struggle, peace and negotiations.”

While the response – which was made public by the three rights activists who initiated the petition – has created a heated row in the blogosphere and beyond, Cordone’s comments also prompted the activists themselves to issue a lengthy open letter, demanding clarification of Amnesty’s position on the concept of “defensive jihad” and calling into question the secretary-general’s original statements.

“On what grounds did you decide that ‘defensive jihad’ and its aims are not antithetical to human rights?” asked the letter, which was signed by Amrita Chhachhi, Sara Hossain and Sunila Abeysekera, all of whom are South Asian human rights advocates in different capacities.

“Can you elaborate [on] your examination of both the ideology of ‘defensive jihad’ and acts committed in its name for compliance with international humanitarian law, human rights law and international criminal law? On what opinions did you rely? Which experts were consulted?”

The open letter addressed the activists’ original petition, which was sent to Amnesty after Saghal was suspended from the organization for criticizing its partnership with Begg in a February interview with the Sunday Times of London.

In that interview, Saghal – who before her suspension was the head of the gender unit at Amnesty International’s secretariat – said she believed the organization’s collaboration with Begg “fundamentally damages” the group’s reputation.

She added that “as a former Guantanamo detainee, it was legitimate to hear [Begg’s] experiences, but as a supporter of the Taliban, it was absolutely wrong to legitimize him as a partner.”

The Sunday Times reported that prisoners represented by Cageprisoners included alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and Abu Qatada, a cleric with ties to Osama bin-Laden.

The original petition sent by the activists criticized Amnesty’s suspension of Saghal and warned of the consequences of negotiating with the Taliban and trying to advance human rights by working with similar groups.

The petition was also signed by leading human and women’s rights advocates around the world, many of whom would normally be considered supporters of Amnesty International.

Responding to an article covering the affair, which ran in the Hebrew daily Ma’ariv on Tuesday, Amnesty’s Israel branch said in a written statement, “Amnesty International does not support jihad! The organization rejects violence of any kind and violations of human rights, whether they are perpetrated by Islamic groups, states or other actors.”

Amnesty International Israel’s director, Itay Epstein, was also quoted in the statement condemning the Ma’ariv article and accusing the author of “inserting his own personal beliefs under the cover of objective journalism.”

No comment from Amnesty’s international secretariat in London was available at press time.

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