MENA Director at Amnesty International:

Our Goal is to Remind Governments of their
Obligations & to Encourage Reforms

Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International

Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International said that the they are interested in reminding governments of their international obligations and encouraging them to implement positive reforms. He stressed on the Organization’s independence and the accuracy, and the impartiality of the statements and reports issued by it, noting that they do not rely on just a single source of information and expressing their willingness to receive any clarifications or corrections by governme?ts.

Luther said in an interview with the (Bahrain Monitor) that Amnesty International did not ignore the violations and abuses committed by armed opposition groups, and that it had issued reports listing their violations. He underscored the importance of the freedom of expression and the role of human rights defenders given the fundamental basis they provide for demanding other rights, and their role in the protection of human rights.

Below is the transcript of the interview

Some states complain that Amnesty International goes to great lengths to uncover violations and then direct strong criticisms by issuing statements and reports but it put no effort into providing assistance to those countries to develop their human rights system through capacity-building, training and spreading awareness of human rights. How do you assess this problem?

Amnesty international investigates human rights violations and abuses by governments and non-government actors and publishes statements and reports with detailed recommendations to address these violations. The organization believes that human rights education is fundamental for addressing the underlying causes of human rights violations and preventing human rights abuses. For this purpose, the organization has a MENA Regional Office which develops and implements strategies that aim at promoting human righ?s knowledge and awareness in the region, and building the capacity of activists and human rights defenders. In doing so, the office conducts and contributes to workshops and other training events and responds as well to specific training needs of activists, human rights NGOs and human rights defenders in the region through providing customized training workshops. As well, it produces and disseminates Arabic-language specialized human rights training and awareness-raising materials, including the Arabic hum?n rights publication Mawared.

The organization does not have the capacity to do training for government officials. There are other organizations with the expertise and resources to deliver training and capacity building to officials, including the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

There are also complaints that Amnesty International does not sufficiently shed light on the positive developments in a country , and by doing so it risks pushing countries back to square one because of the non-stop criticism which ends up making these countries revert back to the trend of past abuses. In other words, Amnesty International ​​does not strike a balance between the need for criticism and campaigning for improving the human rights situation in a country, in the one hand, and providing this country with the help needed to move step by step forward, on the other hand?

Amnesty International’s reports on the human rights situation in any country are balanced and impartial. Where positive reforms have been made, this is reflected and welcomed in our reports. We aim to improve the protection and promotion of human rights by reminding governments to abide by their international human rights obligations and by encouraging them to implement positive reforms in practice. If positive reforms were made and their impact in practice was not felt, this will also be noted using individual cases to illustrate continuing practices and any shortcoming in the reforms. As long as human rights violations continue in any given country, albeit to a lesser extent than previously, Amnesty International will continue to highlight these violations and will keep putting pressure on the authorities to address the violations.

Some countries through their official media outlets accuse Amnesty International and other leading human rights organizations of being mere political tools in the hands of major powers, used in political conflicts in order to serve the interests of these powers. They argue that whenever there is a dispute between a major Western nation and another country, the enthusiasm and momentum of international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, mounts in tandem with pressure from those Western countries. What is your response to these prevailing accusations?

Amnesty International is independent of any political ideology, economic interest or religion. No government is beyond scrutiny. Our annual report covers the human rights situation in 160 countries and territories.

Your reports and statements are usually resented by the states in question, which claim reporting bias, inaccurate information and sometimes an exaggeration of the magnitude of the violations and a lack in familiarity with the political realities in the country in question, which makes its recommendations not applicable. What is the mechanism that you apply in collecting and analyzing information and ensuring its credibility?

Amnesty International investigates and exposes the facts, whenever and wherever abuses happen, regardless of the political affiliations of who commits them. Our statements are accurate and impartial to the best of our knowledge and our findings are based on information obtained from a variety of sources, including governments. If governments and others believe they have any corrections to make to our facts and conclusions, we are happy to receive and reflect them in our reports and statements.

Some opposition groups commit human rights abuses in their countries and Amnesty International may rely on these groups as a main source of its information, and could consider them as victims of violations. Amnesty International is also accused by some countries of turning a blind eye to the abuses by the opposition, and not mentioning them in its statements and reports. How valid are these allegations?

This is not true. Amnesty International exposes human rights violations and calls for those who perpetrate such violations to be held to account, regardless of their political affiliation or status. Amnesty International has issued numerous reports focusing on abuses committed by armed groups, including for example in Iraq and Syria. Such abuses include killing of civilians, kidnapping and torture. The organization relies on a wide range of reliable sources, not just one source.

How do you assess the information on government violations when the opposition is the source? And vice versa, how do you evaluate the information on the violations by the opposition and verify its authenticity if the source is the government itself?

Information obtained and used by Amnesty International comes from a variety of sources, including victims of human rights and their relatives. Often allegations received obtained by Amnesty International are presented to the government authorities for their comment and response, as was the case when we submitted a memorandum to the Bahraini authorities in October 2014 ahead of the publication of our report this month.

What triggers Amnesty International to issue a routine statement, or an urgent one, or a report on a state? What are the issues and cases which Amnesty International pays more attention to in their work, and how does it consider, in political or legal sense, that its response is proportionate to the violation committed?

Amnesty International’s work covers 160 countries and territories. This work is guided by Amnesty International’s mission. Article 4 of Amnesty International’s statute requires that “there will be at all times for Amnesty International an Integrated Strategic Plan covering a period of six years”. Amnesty’s current Integrated Strategic Plan was adopted by the International Council Meeting held in August 2009 and runs from 1 April 2010 until the end of March 2016. The full ISP is available publicly at the fo?lowing link: 

We know that Amnesty International does not accept funding from states, though most of the major human rights organizations do receive funding for their activities, particularly from Western countries. How in your view can you convince citizens in the Middle East that the money is provided without affecting the work of these organizations, or interfere in setting the priorities of their activities, both in terms of targeted countries or topics?

As you said, Amnesty International does not accept money from governments for its research and campaigning work. This question needs to be addressed to the organizations who do.

What are the standards adopted by Amnesty International in determining who is (a prisoner of opinion/ or a prisoner of conscience) and who is the (political prisoner)? And what position ensues towards each of them?

A prisoner of conscience is a person imprisoned or otherwise physically restricted because of their political, religious or other conscientiously held beliefs, ethnic origin, sex, color, language, national or social origin, economic status, birth, sexual orientation or other status – who has not used violence or advocated violence or hatred. Amnesty International insists that all prisoners of conscience be set free immediately and without conditions. Under international law, governments have no right to ho?d these people.

Political prisoners are those whose case have a significant political element. This may include the motivation of the prisoner’s acts, the acts in themselves or the motivation of the authorities in imprisoning them. The term “political” is used by Amnesty International to refer to all aspects of human relations related to “politics”, that is the mechanisms of society and civil order.

In many countries, political prisoners are convicted in trials that violate internationally agreed standards. In other countries, political prisoners may be held for years, sometimes decades, without any trial or judicial hearing at all. Amnesty International demands that political prisoners receive a fair trial within a reasonable time, in accordance with the internationally recognized right of all prisoners to a fair and prompt trial or to be released. The term “political prisoner” includes both prisoner? of conscience and those who have resorted to criminal violence (or have been accused of other ordinary crimes such as trespassing or destruction of property) for political motives. However, it is only for prisoners of conscience that Amnesty International demands immediate and unconditional release.

We notice that Amnesty International pays significant attention to the issues of (freedom of expression), (human rights activists), (civil society institutions) and (combating torture). Why do these issues constitute the magnet and focus of Amnesty International’s efforts?

Amnesty International works on many other human rights in addition to these. Unfortunately, in many countries, these rights continue to be curtailed and torture and other ill-treatment continue to take place, despite the existence of national safeguards. The right to freedom of expression and the role of human rights defenders are fundamental to demanding and protecting other rights.

One last question: It is noticeable in your reports and statements the reference to ethnic or sectarian affiliation, such as saying that this detainee is Kurdish or Sunni or Shiite, which in the view of some fuels the sectarian and ethnic discord. Not many would understand the insistence on using such terms. On the other hand there are those who accuse AI of not using accurate terms in their characterization of cases and incidents of abuse, and that terms such as (abuse / repression / excessive force); may not necessarily reflect the reality on the ground, i.e. there is an exaggeration in the use of words and phrases?

Amnesty International refers to the ethnic or religious background of a case only when the individual’s identity is part of the reason the individual has been discriminated against, tortured or deprived of their rights.

Amnesty International’s use of terms such as torture or other ill-treatment or excessive use of force is based on international human rights laws and standards. In many instances, national legislation may be in line with international standards; however, the practices of the security forces or the treatment of detainees amounts to torture and other ill-treatment or to excessive use of force.