How Nick Cohen misleads in his attack on Amnesty International


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9:45 am - November 13th 2012

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by Steve Hynd

Nick Cohen held nothing back in Sunday’s Observer as he declared that Amnesty International (AI) had ‘lost its way’. You could, at times, find crumbs of real issues and debates – all of which are already taking place within the AI – but to which his article added little.

Indeed, the misleading and at times factually wrong nature of Cohen’s claims makes it impossible for a neutral reader to disentangle his hyperbole from genuine debate.

He accused Amnesty of both suffering from a ‘post-colonial guilt’ and seeing ‘freedom as a bourgeoisie illusion’. To simplify this argument in such a flippant way is to undermine the complexity of human rights theory.

There is a very real discussion here that is raging within the AI membership. How you reconcile Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ECSR) – which could be argued to be relative to their surroundings – with AI’s traditional absolutist approach. AI would argue that there is no distinction, many members would and do. These sorts of subtleties though find little time in Cohen’s article.

Indeed, AI staff have gone on strike and I have blogged about why they have here. I see no reason though for AI to apologise for moving its resources in an effort to globally rebalance its work.

Again though, the debate around growing globally and how this affects national sections is one that is fiercely debated within AI but Cohen seems happy to skip over it. There are many who disagree with me and feel that money raised in the UK should be spent in the UK, others think it is only right and proper to spread influence into geographic areas where traditionally AI has not had a significant presence.

Instead of taking on these interesting and nuanced points, he quotes Unite union’s call for Kate Allen to stand down and then inexplicably connects that to Irene Khan’s recent ‘£500,000 pay off’ as Secretary General of AI. In addition, this £500,000 was not totally a ‘pay-off’. It included the current years pay and pension contributions. The actual ‘pay-off’ part of the sum was much smaller – although still outrageous.

What Cohen fails to say, is that at the time – the UK director Kate Allen was one of the fiercest critics of this whole debacle and spoke clearly and eloquently on the behalf of the UK membership.

Amnesty International’s growing causes
Nick Cohen then slips effortlessly back into his meandering ideological argument connecting AI financial situation with an accusation that “it is afflicted with a mental deformation: the racism of low expectations; the belief that human rights are “western” rights”.

Again, this simply could not be further from the truth. If anything AI is too rigid in its belief that human rights are universal and applicable to all. Cohen offers no support to this statement.

Cohen moves on to take issue with AI’s expansion of its mandate, to include working on issues such as death penalty cases. Cohen argues that these causes AI has adopted (through a slow democratic process) are a ‘hodgepodge’ of campaigns that have resulted in AI work just being a ‘rich man’s self-indulgence’.

This ‘hodgepodge’ he describes partly reflects AI internal democracy (any member can bring a motion to their national AGM who will in turn take some policy ideas to the International Council Meeting to be voted on). It also however reflects AI growing capacity to work on ‘the full spectrum’ of human rights. Some in AI consider this a natural evolution for a human rights organisation.

Human rights for all
Cohen seems to see (or wishes to present no argument for) why AI might be working on issues such as the right to education. Instead he comments “Human rights “for the vast majority of the world’s population don’t mean very much”…Freedom of expression means nothing to a man who can’t read”.

You can hear him sneering as he adds, “Poverty, not authoritarianism, was the evil that Amnesty must face”.

As a standalone sentence, ‘Freedom of expression means nothing to a man who can’t read’ makes a lot of sense. As I stated earlier though, there is a very real debate within AI membership about the scope of AI mandate and whether or not it should stretch to ESCR. Again though, Cohen shows no willing to dwell on such important questions.

Remaining in the UK
As Cohen’s article drags on so it gets more and more alarmist. He quotes an anonymous source within AI that claims: “sustained and strategic campaigning that we do with partner organisations, the UK government, the UK public, etc, will end

This is simply not true. Sustained and strategic campaigning in the UK will remain at the heart of AIUK’s work.

Cohen finishes with a rallying cry for members to not ‘take it’. And, to an extent, I agree. If you are a member, research these issues beyond Cohen’s misleading snapshots and then come along to the AGMs and debate and vote.


A longer version of this post is here.

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Reader comments


I called Cohen a fake liberal, and a Neo Con on twitter. Prompting a defence from his moronic supporters to laugh and claim it was ludicrous to doubt his leftie views. Some people are just deluded I guess. He is another Philips in the making.

But when you really represent Tel aviv central not sure what you are doing writing for a British Newspaper.

Sally says:

“But when you really represent Tel aviv central not sure what you are doing writing for a British Newspaper.”

Really classy.

What is LibCon’s policy on anti-semitic comments btw?

@3 – that ain’t anti semetic, it’s just a bog standard slur.

I think Cohen has a point in that Amnesty has just been churning out senior staff with whopping golden handshakes whilst at the same time really mocking their workers. Good org but bad management.

Since when have facts been anti semitic?

Cohen uses his column to promote neo con policies for the benefit of Israel. Fact.

The pro Israel lobby has really jumped the shark if facts are to be banned.

Thanks for the post, it is great that you are using Nick Cohen’s article to raise the underlying issues in interpreting human rights rather than focusing on speculating about Nick Cohen’s motives. It is an important discussion. What do we mean by human rights when we use them to discuss the big issues?

Breaking it down into component rights – self-determination, freedom from torture, banning extrajudicial executions, sexual freedoms etc helps us get a bit more concrete about what we mean and what we want to achieve. But not so that everyone buys the whole range of rights. It obviously isn’t as simple as westerners only care about individual, civil and political rights and think they are the only legitimate universal rights, or non-westerners care more about economic, social and cultural rights and think that the individual rights are luxuries to dream about when more basic needs have been met. But I do agree some rights scare people and they use other rights to fight against them. And this worries Nick Cohen as it should concern all of us. Even if you are clear about the concrete rights you do or do not believe in, how do you legitimise them in opposition to someone else’s?

If you can’t do better than say “my army is bigger than your army”, then sure, it will be seen as imperialistic. But I think we can do better. For me the first step is to accept that you will only promote human rights in ways which respect human rights. Something Amnesty International is obviously more committed and better placed to do than Governments. Only organizations like AI can develop the concept of human rights with a degree of consistency, and to develop its universality through dialogue rather than conquest. This approach as a whole seems to me to be what Nick Cohen is sceptical about.

If we assume others are totally insincere about human rights then any consistent campaign for human rights is closed to us, and we are left only with “my army is bigger than your army”.

At the same time I think it is true that armies have been used to protect some rights (as well as remove some). There are powerful human rights dimensions to wars and revolutions, and the treatment of the wars’ losers or enemies of the revolution are one of their strongest indicators.

So we are driven to the issue of just wars, the responsibility to protect and so on. Perhaps some of the same people who want AI to be “pure” in concerning itself with prisoners of conscience (who neither use nor advocate violence) would want AI to be less “pure” in refusing to endorse wars of liberation. Whatever hypocrisy we might see among such advocates, the responsibility to protect is still a valid human rights issue in my eyes. One which does lend to accusations of imperialism if this responsibility is then palmed off to sovereign states. Only if an intervention gives the ICC clear jurisdiction to prosecute the whole range of rights violations by all sides in a conflict can this circle be squared in my opinion.

The struggle to achieve a genuine responsibility to protect is a long way off, and begins with the struggle to strengthen the ICC’s scope and independence and the UN’s political power and equality. People who campaign for wars to protect human rights who do not have the same energy in campaigning for just supra-national institutions to enforce human rights observance, are – in my eyes – more interested in the wars (for some other reason) than in human rights. Only if such campaigns go together can its opponents justly call it human rights imperialism. So far we have only had imperialism with human rights frills and rhetoric.

(Sorry for the long post!)

Arif

“Thanks for the post, it is great that you are using Nick Cohen’s article to raise the underlying issues in interpreting human rights rather than focusing on speculating about Nick Cohen’s motives.”

You make some interesting points, Arif, but Cohen’s article is a rant in which, as Hynd points out, it is impossible to disentangle hyperbole from genuine debate. I can only take your word for what he is getting at because I couldn’t disentangle any genine debate from the unproven assertions and logical backflips. I’m very surprised that a newspaper like the Observer printed his piece, as it contributes nothing to debate of serious issues.

I would not like to comment on Cohen’s motives either. Perhaps Kate Allen knocked over his beer!

” Thanks for the post, it is great that you are using Nick Cohen’s article to raise the underlying issues in interpreting human rights rather than focusing on speculating about Nick Cohen’s motives”

But you have to speculate on Cohens motives. Because of his past articles, and frankly the weaselie way he makes his arguments. Cohen dresses up and camouflages his pro neo con US agenda. I for one would not be surprised if he is on payroll of CIA. You would be surprised how many journalists are.

What is LibCon’s policy on anti-semitic comments btw?

Sally has made countless anti-semitic comments over the years but for some reason gets a free pass here. You can see the thinking in her last comment:

Cohen = Jew = Greedy/Conspiratorial = Payroll of the CIA

Makes perfect sense to her.

As to Amnesty, I gave up on them over the Gita Saghal affair and their current anti-union activity means I am as likely to go back to them as vote New Labour. Expanding their activity is one thing; actively opposing causes that should be supporting is another.

11. So Much for Subtlety

So Nick Cohen is right – AI is moving away from their core business to ever larger and wilder shores. Moving from an absolutist approach to a relativist one. The author admits as much. But he does spin it very well.

So Much For Subtlety – can you be clear what you mean by absolute and relative in this context?

It is my understanding that Nick Cohen does see some human rights as relative, for example relative to whether you believe you are at war with those who you wish to kill without a trial while having no intention of facing trial yourself. He also seems conflicted on deporting people to places where they may be tortured for similar reasons.

Does he, or more importantly do you see human rights as absolute then? If so, do you mean they are morally absolute or politically absolute, or both? Once we work out the implications of those answers, there is also a question about which human rights are absolute or relative and on what basis they should be distinguished. If you think there are straightforward answers and that AI has failed to see them, then maybe you could put them forward clearly. That Nick Cohen does not do so suggests that he accepts that it is not simple. He seems to be arguing a preference for focusing on a narrow range of human rights for a number of reasons. If he thinks they (and they alone) are absolute, he and you can help the debate by saying why.

As far as I can tell, Nick Cohen is arguing a wider range of rights leads to a kind of dilution and trade-offs which threaten the absolute authority of the narrow range he favours. I think that is a respectable enough argument, but there are also very strong counter-arguments. For one thing, if the basis of the choice of legitimate human rights is Nick Cohen’s intuitions it is a very shaky subjective foundation. If it is any wider cultural agreement, then you are already on the terrain of relativism. If there are clear philosophical principles underlying them, state them clearly, so that we can then test their integrity. That is something the absolutist critics of AI should do first to raise the level of discussion from the relativism they claim to oppose.

13. Chaise Guevara

“I for one would not be surprised if he is on payroll of CIA. You would be surprised how many journalists are.”

I keep telling you lot, the real puppet masters are our secret lizard overlords. Wake up, sheeple!

14. TorquilMacneil

“As a standalone sentence, ‘Freedom of expression means nothing to a man who can’t read’ makes a lot of sense.”

Oh god, that sentence alone vindicates Nick Cohen’s allegations. How did Amnesty come to this?

Cohen uses his column to promote neo con policies for the benefit of Israel. Fact.

Cohen has supported a neo-con foreign policy countless times, but his interest in Israel seems to be close to zero. Why do you link the two? Is it because of his surname?

16. Jerhovas Witless

10. Shatterface

I think its very important you define what you mean by anti-semetic.

Do you it is legitmate for example,for someone to critisise a Jewish women living in a settlement in occupied terretory, that she has a God given right to be there.

Or what about the utterings of the Israeli Interior Minister:-

“Mexicans, Asians and Negroes that arrive here do not even believe that this country belongs to us, to the white man!“

Do you think commenting on that white supremacist statement
is anti-Semitic.

Cohen has supported a neo-con foreign policy countless times, but his interest in Israel seems to be close to zero. Why do you link the two? Is it because of his surname?
He did support the last Israeli offensive quite strongly.
Cohen would like to see Amnesty as a tool against China, Russia, some Muslim states and some lefty South American states but feels they are wrong pointing out the abuses of the Bush US, Thatcher / Blair UK, US client states and others with right wing agenda.
I use to find Cohen mildly interesting but there is only so much of the “I am a lefty but” brigade you can take.
He seems to have morphed into a Michael Gove clone. In fact he berates Dave not for his policies but he feels that Boris or Govey should be in that job.
I always admired Paul Johnson having the political guts to admit he changed from left to right. Cohen and his mate Martin Bright don’t seem to have the same courage.

I quite like Nick Cohen but also feel he can go a bit adrift sometimes. He’s an admirer of the much- missed Christopher Hitchens. In his efforts to follow in Hitch’s footsteps he occasionally stumbles as he lacks Hitch’s perspicacity.

Cohen is no Hitchens.
He is far too much of political coward to be placed with Hitchens.
Although ex trots, with the associated bigotry, like Hitchens who find the light on the road to Damascus are tiresome

sorry of a

Actually Arifs posts were better than the original article by Cohen.

In fact he berates Dave not for his policies but he feels that Boris or Govey should be in that job.

This is utter arsewipe.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/sep/09/nick-cohen-starving-children-charity

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/29/nick-cohen-construction-workers-blacklist

In fact he berates Dave not for his policies but he feels that Boris or Govey should be in that job.

Utter rubbish. It’s really not a good idea to pull lies from your backside that way when the evidence proving otherwise is just a few clicks away.

Hmm, apologies for repetitive nature of posts – assumed first had got lost when it didn’t immediately appear.

Sy
My point exactly in those articles his attacks on Cameron and Osbourne not Gove and his cliché. I doubt he would write them if Gove was PM.
Cohen writes a few articles defending workers rights, which he doesn’t believe in, to appease “I am a left but “fellow travellers like your self but the vast majority of his articles support the right. Hence the reason why he is a political coward, a little like you.
Also it is amazing how many of the right love Nick, strange that eh?
Name one political difference between Gove and Cohen?
Listen to this Cohen is fawning over Govey
http://download.guardian.co.uk/sys-audio/Observer/audio/2006/07/20/goveforobs.mp3

Strange Sy, that you mainly comment when Nick’s name is mentioned.
If you are Nick, you are missing a L

“Actually Arifs posts were better than the original article by Cohen.”

Precisely. And, as Steve Hynd says, there are issues here that require debate. It is just surprising that the Observer prints such a confusing article about something that its core readership probably has an interest in.

Also Sly, Cohen has produced only 2 left of centre articles in last 12 years. Pete Hitchens has a better ratio.
Even in those articles his real foe is the left.
Also Sly, Cohen was very silent about the attack on gays by his friend Mel Phillips. Very quiet.

Name one political difference between Gove and Cohen?

Cohen votes Labour, Gove votes Tory.

My point exactly in those articles his attacks on Cameron and Osbourne not Gove and his cliché. I doubt he would write them if Gove was PM.

The word you’re after is ‘clique’, not cliché. And you specifically said earlier “In fact he berates Dave not for his policies but he feels that Boris or Govey should be in that job.” And yet there he is, berating Cameron for his policies.

Strange Sy, that you mainly comment when Nick’s name is mentioned.

Wrong and more than a little desperate. I broadly agree with the original post here. As always when Cohen writes this stuff about his pet foes the liberal left, he takes a grain of truth and turns it into loaf of bullshit. But luckily for him, there’ll always be clowns like you along to make his point for him.

“Name one political difference between Gove and Cohen?

Cohen votes Labour, Gove votes Tory.”
He says he does but do really believe him. As I said a political coward. Although he did want the lib dems to form a government with the Tories
Actually I was looking for evidence of a difference in core beliefs

My point exactly in those articles his attacks on Cameron and Osbourne not Gove and his cliché. I doubt he would write them if Gove was PM.

The word you’re after is ‘clique’, not cliché. And you specifically said earlier “In fact he berates Dave not for his policies but he feels that Boris or Govey should be in that job.” And yet there he is, berating Cameron for his policies.
Sorry I did mean clique but I kept pressing spell check. Sorry.

Really the attack in the article is aimed at Dave in a personal manner. He actually doesn’t disagree with austerity measures , if you listen to his defence of the cuts with Michael White. Also this and other articles tend to blame Labour and their policies for the world economic crisis. Also you know if Gove was PM, there would be no article.

“Strange Sy, that you mainly comment when Nick’s name is mentioned.
Wrong and more than a little desperate. “
True
I broadly agree with the original post here. As always when Cohen writes this stuff about his pet foes the liberal left, he takes a grain of truth and turns it into loaf of bullshit. But luckily for him, there’ll always be clowns like you along to make his point for him.
Although you agree with Cohen as in the other posts. You tend to use the “I don’t normally agree with Cohen but” quite frequently.
Also who said I was part of the liberal left.
I don’t like Cohen because of his lack of political honesty not for his views.
But I do like your fiery response. Good on you


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Steve Hynd

    My article on @libcon responding to @NickCohen4's article in the Observer attacking @AmnestyUK http://t.co/ewGcA2ks cc @NewsFromAmnesty

  2. Gael

    RT @libcon: How Nick Cohen misleads in his attack on Amnesty International http://t.co/wXHPyTAm

  3. kristyan benedict

    My article on @libcon responding to @NickCohen4's article in the Observer attacking @AmnestyUK http://t.co/ewGcA2ks cc @NewsFromAmnesty

  4. VanillaRat

    RT @libcon: How Nick Cohen misleads in his attack on Amnesty International http://t.co/wXHPyTAm

  5. Jason Brickley

    How Nick Cohen misleads in his attack on Amnesty International http://t.co/NqiIGsrJ

  6. In defence of Amnesty International. A response to Nick Cohen. | Hynd's Blog

    [...] edited version of this article was published on the Liberal Conspiracy [...]

  7. UoB_Amnesty

    If you can't open that link http://http://t.co/tyWWVVhk

  8. Sunny Hundal

    A must-read by @steve4319 – How Nick Cohen misleads in his attack on Amnesty International UK http://t.co/xBUFFF20

  9. leftlinks

    Liberal Conspiracy – How Nick Cohen misleads in his attack on Amnesty International http://t.co/54Xch07j

  10. Steve Hynd

    A must-read by @steve4319 – How Nick Cohen misleads in his attack on Amnesty International UK http://t.co/xBUFFF20

  11. Benjohn Barnes

    A must-read by @steve4319 – How Nick Cohen misleads in his attack on Amnesty International UK http://t.co/xBUFFF20

  12. kristyan benedict

    A must-read by @steve4319 – How Nick Cohen misleads in his attack on Amnesty International UK http://t.co/xBUFFF20

  13. Padbrit

    A must-read by @steve4319 – How Nick Cohen misleads in his attack on Amnesty International UK http://t.co/xBUFFF20





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