29 April, 2011

The cancellation of Mr. Amsterdam’s talk in Malaysia

Open split over whether the organization is aggressive enough on Thai repression.

An open split has divided the Asian operations Amnesty International, one of the world's most prestigious human rights groups, over its operations in Thailand.

Some 70 members of Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have sent an open letter to Salil Shetty, Amnesty International's Secretary General at the organization's London headquarters complaining about the actions of Benjamin Zawacki, AI's Southeast Asia researcher, and Donna Guest, the Asia-Pacific deputy director, in blocking a dialogue to be held by the Malaysia wing of the organization on the issue of human rights violations in Thailand.

Zawacki, in a brief telephone interview referred Asia Sentinel to a written statement saying it was self-explanatory. The statement said that "Amnesty International globally has avoided partisan entanglement in the Thai political crisis. Despite allegations from both sides that the organization supports the Yellow or Red positions and groups, Amnesty has limited itself to the human rights issues and has avoided politics."

The cancellation of Mr. Amsterdam’s talk in Malaysia due to:

1. Amnesty International globally has avoided partisan entanglement in the Thai political crisis. Despite allegations from both sides that the organization supports the Yellow or Red positions and groups, Amnesty has limited itself to the human rights issues and has avoided politics. Amnesty has been in touch with Mr. Amsterdam over the past year and is aware of the substance of his claims, as well as his political strategy, for which he is compensated. In this context, Mr. Amsterdam is a paid advocate of former Thai PM Thaksin, and is thus very clearly a partisan of one side of the political crisis. This is not a value judgment on Mr. Amsterdam’s position, it is simply a factual observation that implicates a rule that Amnesty applies in its work everywhere: remain neutral, objective, and impartial. Sharing a platform with Mr. Amsterdam would place Amnesty in breach of that rule.

2. Moreover, the substance of Mr. Amsterdam’s talk would have been particularly ill-advised for an Amnesty platform. Amnesty International understands that Mr. Amsterdam has presented a petition to the International Criminal Court (ICC) on the alleged commission of crimes against humanity by Thai authorities in April and May 2010. Thailand, however, has not acceded to the Rome Statute establising the ICC, meaning that the only possible way a case based on events involving Thai citizens in Thailand could reach the ICC would be through a referral by the UN Security Council. It is true that following the referral of Libya’s Colonel Qaddafi by the UN Security Council to the ICC, this avenue of seeking accountability has new life. That the international community struggles, however, to get the Security Council to respond to the massacres in the Sri Lankan civil war–in which 20,000 to 40,000 civilians were killed over a few months–is a sobering counterpoint. Thus, while Amnesty would not totally rule out the possibility of international accountability for various events in Thailand, the organization would clearly refrain from publicly taking a position that suggests that referral to the ICC is a feasible, or even desirable, method of seeking accountability in Thailand.

3. Finally, in addressing any situation that involves accountability in Thailand, Amnesty again must maintain its neutrality and avoid political partisanship. Thus, alongside discussion of the allegations raised by Mr. Amsterdam, considerable reference would also need to be made, among other events, to the thousands of extrajudicial executions as part of Mr. Taksin’s “war on drugs” and during counter-insurgency operations in southern Thailand. Mr. Thaksin strenuously combated Amnesty’s efforts to seek accountability for these serious violations. While these infractions of international human rights law do not in any way justify the present Thai government’s unlawful use of lethal force against demonstrators who may be generally labelled pro-Thaksin, they are crucial elements of any discussion of the Yellow-Red dynamic in Thailand, and in particular, of any discussion of justice and accountability in the country. Amnesty was not confident that a talk by Mr. Amsterdam, on an Amnesty platform, would refer to this context adequately.

Other human rights organizations in Thailand have been critical of Amnesty International's Thai operations, saying they often have not been aggressive in defending opponents of the Thai regime and the military as the government has slid deeper into repression. Human rights campaigners have charged that the government is using lèse majesté not to protect King Bumibhol Adulyadej and the royal family but to quell legitimate dissent.

"Amnesty International enjoys the support of many rich, elite, overseas-educated Thais, many of whom bear Royal decorations," said CJ Hinke, the head of Freedom Against Censorship Thailand and one of the signatories to the open letter. "AI is considered to be just liberal enough to provide the rich a halo of concern. That support will only continue as long as AI does not investigate Thailand's own human rights violations in any great depth. Lèse majesté in particular.

For its part, Amnesty International Bangkok has repeatedly issued press releases and campaigned publicly for the release of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, an online news editor for lèse majesté charges, and demanded the repeal of emergency powers that were ultimately withdrawn in December.

The open letter complains that Amnesty International Malaysia had planned to meet on April 23 with Robert Amsterdam, the lawyer representing the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship – Thailand's Red Shirt opposition -- who had filed a case at the International Criminal Court against the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva government for ordering the military crackdown in April-May 2010 which resulted in the deaths of 92 people, mostly civilians, and 2,000 people injured.

However, the letter says, the Malaysia wing "received strong instructions from the International Secretariat demanding them to cancel the dialogue session. The action is a clear violation on the very principle central to human rights for which is on freedom of expression and opinion, toleration of different opinions and ideas, and fighting against culture of impunity."

Amnesty International, the letter said, "is taking the same approach by the Thai government in banning Mr. Amsterdam from entering Thailand, and thus violating Mr. Amsterdam the right to exercise his freedom of expression."

In the statement, however, Zawacki called Amsterdam over the past year "a paid advocate of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin (Shinawatra) and is thus very clearly a partisan of one side of the political crisis. This is not a value judgment on Mr. Amsterdam's position, it is simply a factual observation that implicates a rule that Amnesty applies in its work everywhere: remain neutral, objective, and impartial. Sharing a platform with Mr. Amsterdam would place Amnesty in breach of that rule."

Read more here.

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