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Widney Brown speaks to the BBC regarding Gita Sahgal and human rights (with transcript)

February 11, 2010

Widney Brown, Senior Director for International Law and Policy, Amnesty International,  published a statement on Sunday following the article in the Sunday Times which contains Gita Sahgal’s criticisms and led to Sahgal’s suspension from her position with Amnesty.

This morning Widney Brown spoke to the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to clarify Amnesty’s position on human rights and to correct misrepresentations made by Gita Sahgal made on the Today programme yesterday.

Amnesty supports humans ‘every human’

On the Today programme yesterday Gita Sahgal, head of the gender unit at Amnesty’s International secretariat, accused the charity of putting the human rights of Al-Qaeda terror suspects above those of their victims. She said that the charity’s collaboration with Moazzam Begg, a former British inmate at Guantanamo Bay, “fundamentally damages” the organisation’s reputation.

Widney Brown, senior director for international law and policy at Amnesty International, responds to Ms Sahgal’s accusations.

Transcript by earwicga

1. BBC Is Amnesty International, the human rights organisation, who has worked for prisoners of conscience, has been saluted across political divides for a generation or more, falling into a terrible trap?  The head of its Gender Unit has been suspended after complaining that Amnesty was too close to Moazzam Begg the former Guantanamo inmate, who speaks for a group called Cageprisoners.  On yesterday’s programme I asked Gita Sahgal why she thought Amnesty failed to link what’s happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan with extremism in this country.
2. Gita Sahgal My suspicion is that they need perfect victims.  In other words we need to defend somebody who might not have done a wrong.  And I’m not saying that Moazzam Begg has, I want to make absolutely clear that I’m making no claim that he’s either committed a crime or a human rights violation, and that’s why I find the statement after statement that Amnesty International has put out in his support somewhat surprising, because the issues that I’m concerned with are addressed to Amnesty International
3. BBC But you’re making a wider point aren’t you?  That Islamic radicalism is treated what softly by liberals?
4. Gita Sahgal Something like that, but we’re not liberals, we’re a human rights organisation and we should not be falling into the traps that many people do fall into.
5. BBC That was Gita Sahgal.  Widney Brown is Amnesty’s Senior Director for Law and Policy and she’s on the line now.  Good morning to you.
6. Widney Brown Good Morning. 
7. BBC What’s your answer to what Gita Sahgal was saying then?
8. Widney Brown Well, first I want to clarify that she was not suspended because she brought these issues up in the organisation.  We encourage debate on precisely these sorts of issues within the organisation. 
9. BBC So it’s because she went to the papers?
10. Widney Brown I can’t comment on the grounds for it, but want to clarify any misrepresentation that it was because she brought this up internally.
11. BBC But just to make it very clear then, she was suspended because of, I mean it had something to do with these views that she’s been expounding.  It wasn’t something separate?
12. Widney Brown I’m not going to, we maintain confidentiality and we’re only breaking it because of the misrepresentation that she was suspended because she asked questions internally.
13. BBC Yeah, but that does raise quite an important point doesn’t it, because I mean she has been suspended having raised these questions.  I think the point that a lot of people make is that the two are linked.  Are you saying they’re utterly not linked?
14. Widney Brown The grounds for the suspension I cannot talk about consistent with confidentiality.  What I can do is try to answer the questions that she brought up in the interview yesterday.First of all, we are not a political organisation.  We’re non-partisan, and we work on behalf of victims of violations, regardless of their political affiliations.  So that is why on the issue of Guantanamo Bay we do work with Moazzam Begg as somebody who was released from there after three years of experiencing the violations there.  And of course yesterdays court decision in the Binyan Mohammed case underscores again how critical the violations are that are happening even now in the context of the war on terror.  Now, with regard to whether we are ignoring the issue of radical organisations, all you have to do is look on our website of all the work we’ve done on the Taliban and Afghanistan and Pakistan and other religious insurgent groups in places like Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and of course all over the Middle East.  As recently as the 26th of January we were saying explicitly, not just to the Afghan government, but to, in the context of the London conference, you can’t sell away women’s rights in a dialogue with the Taliban.
15. BBC Yeah, but I suppose that there’s the problem isn’t it, that what you’re accused of is a mixed message, because you do issue statements like that, but then if you become close to people, and let’s get away from Moazzam Begg, if you become close to people who are associated with supporting the Taliban or with supporting those that have been imprisoned in the war on terror, who do have very extreme views about violence and about women’s rights,  then you’re sending out a very different signal?
16. Widney Brown I would totally disagree.  Your human rights violations, your right to be free from them is not dependent on whether you’re quote a good or a bad person.  Whether you’re quote guilty or innocent.  If you’re being tortured the whole point is that governments think that they can justify torture if they can prove you’re guilty of something.
17. BBC So, you’re happy to support people who don’t themselves support human rights?
18. Widney Brown We support the rights of every human being to be free from human rights violations.  And we do not make that contingent on whether they can prove to us their guilt or innocence on any alleged charge.  I mean, the whole idea that we would think it’s ok to torture someone if they’re guilty undermines the whole principle that’s there’s an absolute prohibition on torture and ill treatment.
19. BBC Widney Brown, thank you very much

Please feel free to use the transcript in it’s entirety.  A trackback is always polite.

RelatedAmnesty, Moazzam Begg, Gita Sahgal – Link roundup

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2010 17:51

    Thanks for doing that, very useful to have the words in print and is good for people with hearing problems.

  2. February 11, 2010 18:12

    It was a pleasure transcribing Widney Brown’s words.


  1. Widney Brown on Today « Ten Percent

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