The challenge of Salil Shetty

Salil Shetty is the new general sec of amnesty international.

The son of a journalist Father and a Mother active in the women’s movement in Bangalore, he enters office as ‘no stranger to radicalism’, as the Observer put it on sunday.

He was named the next secretary general in 2009 and since then has been welcomed with enthusiasm and high expectations from others.

Shetty was previously the director of the United Nations Millennium Campaign, as well as being the Chief Executive of ActionAid.

He has a strong reputation and will be greeted in kind. He has a lot of issues to oversee in Amnesty; he has already commented on the recent controversy which saw Gita Sahgal, former head of Amnesty’s gender unit, resign alongside her accusation that amnesty’s work with Moazzam Begg undermined its campaign for women’s rights.

On the plus side, Shetty has said that human rights is a universal, not just a western, concept, and should be bestowed upon everyone.

On the negative side, regarding his position on Amnesty’s work with Begg, he had this to say, quoted in the Observer piece on sunday:

“If a woman is dying I don’t first ask what are your views about the Taliban,” […] “If we start choosing which prisoner of conscience we support, depending on their views about the world as a whole, that goes against the idea that a right to life is a fundamental human right.”

It concerns me personally if Shetty qualifies this statement as one to add to the debate of working closely alongisde Begg. Criticism of Amnesty working alongside Begg was in no way an expression of support for the existence of Guantanamo Bay, and yet Shetty seems to mangle the fundamental right to life with opposing which prisoner (or ex-prisoner) it is that Amnesty chooses to work with.

Unlike what he seems to imply here, opposing amnesty’s work with Begg is categorically not going against “the idea that a right to life is a fundamental human right” – and it is absurd to even imply so.

Many critics were for the cause (the closure of the camp, human rights) but against Begg as a poster boy; indeed this was Sahgal’s opinion too, and failure to recognise this led her to resign.

I can think of many instances where the liberal-left would make severe noises about who Amnesty worked with in the name of human rights – say Nick Griffin for example, or even a lesser known member of the November the 9th society for example, who had been caught at the wrong end of a human rights abuse – and I see this as being totally justified. I support these people’s human rights (even if they don’t support mine) but I’d have no truck with the world’s “largest, most liberal human rights organisation” using them as a “poster boy”” or a credible figure to make an example of afterwards – ensuring a comfortable political platform.

Making no judgements of a person’s background, personal contacts and political views will run into problems down the line – but that is not even the problem here; Amnesty know only too well the stain upon Begg’s name, and are bending over backwards to justify their decision not to drop him. Shetty has made no signal to do otherwise. I’ll be keeping a watchful eye.

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