Three program directors have left in the last year. The most recent, Susan Lee, the Americas program director, resigned last month because of “senior management’s failure to honor its commitments to treat staff fairly and with respect.” The next day, the union voted to strike, saying it had lost all confidence in management because it lacked “integrity, competence, transparency and accountability.”
It is, according to one worker in the Amnesty UK office, a “stressful and unhappy” time.
“In my most fearful moments I feel we are on a precipice, that we are unintentionally and thoughtlessly putting the future of the movement at risk,” said the worker, who did not want to be named. “I worry that we could be seeing the unraveling of an inspiring idea that has been hugely successful.”
Amnesty was formed in 1961 after a British lawyer, Peter Benenson, on hearing that two Portuguese students had been imprisoned for drinking a toast to liberty, wrote an article in the Observer newspaper suggesting prisoners of conscience might be released if people wrote letters to governments.
Since then its scope has become much more far-reaching, encompassing support for abortion rights, the right to a fair trial and opposition to the death penalty. Shetty, who took up the role two years ago, has gone further — positioning the organization as a champion of economic, cultural and social rights — with the argument that “the ultimate torture is poverty.”
Critics argue that Amnesty has lost its focus and too much emphasis has been put on the brand rather than human rights work.
As one worker put it: “There is a fear that the hubs are more about media and communications than about campaigning for human rights. Are we there to publicize Amnesty, or fight for those rights?”
Kate Allen, head of Amnesty UK, insisted that the difficult changes happening in the organization were vital for that fight to continue.
“We have to have members all over the world, we have to have workers on the ground lobbying governments,” she said. “You can’t have that influence just by flying in. You need to be there.”
Redundancies were “really tough,” she said, but despite calls for her resignation she believes she can lead the section through the changes.
“It was quite horrible to hear my resignation called for,” she said. “But I absolutely stand by this decision. I don’t want to think about what Amnesty International would be like in 10 years’ time if it didn’t happen.”
The battle in the UK appears to have reached an impasse, but Allen hopes the extraordinary general meeting will clear the air.
“We are having a fierce debate, but we will come through it,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like [Amnesty] is broken; it feels like we are having a hard time changing but we will achieve it.”
One of her workers agreed, but only in part.
“It is not a bad thing to have a look and think about what we do,” she said. “As long as we don’t tear ourselves apart in the process.”