Amnesty International and Robert Amsterdam

Over the last few days I have read expressions of concern about the intervention of the International Secretariat of Amnestry International (specifically Benjamin Zawacki, AI Southeast Asia Researcher and Sam Zarifi, AI Asia-Pacific Director) to prevent a dialogue with Robert Amsterdam organised by AI Malaysia. Amsterdam’s blog has a brief post on the issue here.  Yesterday I asked AI’s Benjamin Zawacki if he had any comment on the issue and I have now received the following public statement:

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.