Why has Amnesty International refused to declare Bradley Manning a prisoner of conscience?
A few weeks ago, I put that very question to the human rights organization. My question was eventually answered but only after I wrote a column for the weekly paper New Europe criticizing Amnesty for not launching a major campaign in support of Manning.
Nicolas Beger, head of Amnesty's Brussels office, responded by saying that "we are simply not yet in a position to conclude whether Mr Manning should be regarded as a prisoner of conscience, without knowing more about the specific allegations and evidence, his motives, and how his case is prosecuted."
Beger explained that Amnesty will be sending an observer to Manning's trial which is scheduled to begin in June. "It is common practice for Amnesty International to reach a decision in complex cases only once it has examined all the issues at the trial. If a government seeks to punish someone for releasing, in a responsible manner and for reasons of conscience, information that he or she reasonably believed to be evidence of human rights violations that the government was attempting to keep secret, this would typically be grounds for Amnesty International to consider the person a prisoner of conscience."
The explanation is not convincing. Contrary to what Beger suggests, there is nothing complex among Manning's case. The soldier has been imprisoned for three years now because he caused an embarrassment for a superpower.
His motives for doing so were spelled out in a statement that he made at a pre-trial hearing earlier this year. Manning released a trove of documents to WikiLeaks because he was horrified by the "bloodlust" of the US army captured on the Collateral Murder video -- which shows an attack on unarmed civilians in Iraq -- and hoped that the American public would be similarly outraged.
Amnesty's website indicates that it has made a handful of appeals relating to Manning's case. Most of these were issued in 2011 and focused on his conditions of detention. Though Amnesty correctly denounced those conditions as cruel, it did not call for his release.
The argument that Amnesty should wait until Manning's trial before deciding its position has not been invoked in some high-profile cases outside America. After the group Pussy Riot staged a protest in Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral last year, Amnesty urged the Russian authorities to free three women arrested in connection with the incident ahead of their trial. Amnesty stated clearly that the members of Pussy Riot were targeted because of their "political opinions."
Why is Amnesty applying different rules to the US than to Russia?
My own interest in human rights was sparked by the protests over US foreign policy that occurred when Ronald Reagan visited Ireland in 1984 (I was 13-years-old at the time). I first heard about Amnesty a year or two later and have supported the organization ever since.
So it felt like a betrayal when I heard that Amnesty's American office was headed for most of last year by Suzanne Nossel; before taking up that job she had been a deputy assistant secretary of state under Hillary Clinton. Under Nossel's leadership, Amnesty whitewashed the invasion of Afghanistan by hosting a conference praising NATO's "progress" in that country. The guest of "honor" at that event was Madeleine Albright, the secretary of state who declared that killing as many as 500,000 children in Iraq by depriving them of essential medicines was a price worth paying.
If Amnesty is becoming more obsequious to the powerful, then it may be following a bad example set by its kindred organization Human Rights Watch.
Scott Long, a former member of staff in Human Rights Watch, revealed recently how the group has an absurd policy of "objectivity" on the Middle East. Each time it publishes a report rebuking Israeli aggression, it feels compelled to follow up with a report hostile to Hamas or the Palestinian Authority.
The policy misses a salient point: Israel is the largest recipient of aid from the US; it has been given a free pass by the "international community" to subjugate an entire people. A human rights organization should, therefore, be devoting more of its time and resources to exposing Israel's crimes than to striking some kind of spurious balance.
"I deserve it"
In 2010, I interviewed Kenneth Roth, the Human Rights Watch director. When preparing questions to ask him, I read that he was paid $345,000 per year -- almost as much as Barack Obama's salary. I put it to him that it seemed an exorbitant sum for the head of a non-profit organization. Roth agreed that it was "a lot of money" but added: "I think I could make a case that I deserve it."
Roth had just returned from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Perhaps the only reason why a human rights defender should go that confab for a global elite would be to cause trouble. But I didn't get the impression that the business and political leaders in the Alpine resort had been discomfited by Roth's presence.
Human Rights Watch has been even more reticent than Amnesty on Bradley Manning's treatment.
The only statement relating to Manning that I could find on the Human Rights Watch website was issued in March 2011. It did no more than call on the US to "publicly explain" why it was subjecting Manning to "possibly punitive and degrading treatment."
Bradley Manning has performed a tremendous service to humanity. It is not far-fetched to argue that the 2011 uprisings in Arab countries would not have happened without him.
The demonstrations which ended Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's rule in Tunisia took place after Manning had shattered some myths about that country's relationship with the US. A diplomatic cable that Manning gave to WikiLeaks stated bluntly that America did not consider Ben Ali an "ally," despite how it had shored up his regime.
Freedom of information was recognized as a basic human right at the inaugural session of the UN's general assembly. Bradley Manning has taken an enormous risk to uphold that right. It is a shame that Amnesty and Human Rights Watch are not standing up for him.
•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 28 May 2013.