Amnesty International started with the laudable but modest aim of supporting and if possible obtaining the release of prisoners of conscience. It would not defend those who had advocated, incited, or perpetrated violence, which is why it would not continue to defend Nelson Mandela once he avowed his leadership of Umkhonto we Sizwe.
But charities have their bureaucratic imperatives to grow, and they do so by moral imperialism. Here is the statement of purpose that I took from one Amnesty website:
Our purpose is to protect individuals wherever justice, fairness, freedom and truth are denied.
There is not much danger, then, of Amnesty working itself out of a job.
There were two examples of this moral imperialism in action reported in the British Medical Journal for April 10. The first concerned a report by Amnesty on the maternal mortality rate in the United States, which it said had doubled from 6.6 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1987 to 13.3 in 2006. This is five times the rate in Greece; moreover the rate of “women of color” was four times that of the rest of the population. “This,” said the report, “is not just a public health emergency — it is a human rights crisis.”
Now it is obvious that a rise in deaths of 6 or 7 per 100,000 live births is a very bad thing, though whether the words “emergency” and “crisis” are the best ones to describe it is a matter of judgment. But why is it a very bad thing?
Is it a bad thing because there is a disparity between “women of color” and others? Clearly not: for if it were, it would be a problem that could be solved by the simple expedient of increasing the maternal mortality of those others, a solution too horrible to contemplate.
Talk of human rights obscures the real reason why the figures are disturbing: they mean that women are dying young of presumably preventable causes, and babies are likewise being orphaned at birth. This is a tragedy for all concerned. In other words, while the disparity is indicative of a problem, it is not itself the problem. The infringement of human rights has nothing to do with it.
In any case, maternal mortality rates are a far cry from prisoners of conscience. It is as if a charity devoted to the prevention of cruelty to animals started to pronounce on the preservation of historical monuments: both worthy causes, but better pursued separately.
A second item concerned the death penalty. Amnesty is now against the death penalty wherever it is applied, though it would be perfectly possible for someone to be for the death penalty and against the imprisonment of people who peaceably express an opinion the authorities dislike.
Amnesty states that there were at least 719 executions in 2009 (excluding China) and that “the worst offending” countries (again excluding China) were Iran (388), Iraq (120), Saudi Arabia (69), and the United States (52). The phrase “worst offending” suggests that there is nothing, other than numbers, to choose between them, and that the question of the death penalty is beyond all dispute.
Now there are, of course, strong arguments for the abolition of the death penalty (the strongest of which, in my opinion, is the occurrence of judicial error even in the most scrupulous of jurisdictions). But there are also arguments in favor of the death penalty, and it is possible, and perhaps even likely, that the majority of the human race accept these arguments.
Be that as it may, a murderer awaiting execution in the United States is hardly to be equated with a prisoner of conscience, even if it is cruel and unusual punishment to keep such a murderer on death row for years. It is as if Amnesty grew bored with its original purpose and now seems to suffer from what one might call the not-a-sparrow-falls-but-it-is-our-moral-concern syndrome, itself a result of believing that virtue is proportionate to the number of good causes that one espouses. Therefore, one must spread one’s moral wings and fly off into the ethical stratosphere.