Debating Amnesty About Syria and Double Standards

I sent the following note to Amnesty on June 16 after it put out a detailed report on the conflict in Syria:

Dear Amnesty

In your most recent report on Syria you ask the UN Security Council to impose an arms embargo on the Syrian government.  You ask for no such arms embargo on the Syrian rebels and only ask that the Security Council “request” of states who supply the rebels that they put “mechanisms” in place to prevent the arms from being used to violate human rights: <www.amnestyus…rce=W1206EDMNAP>.

In 2009, you asked for the Security Council to “to impose an immediate, comprehensive arms embargo on all parties to the conflict in Gaza” (my emphasis): <www.amnesty.o…mounts-20090115>.

Please explain why you think arming Palestinians is harmful to a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Gaza, while apparently believing that arming rebels in Syria is benign or perhaps even helpful.

Would you trust the Assad regime to arms rebels in foreign countries in such a way as prevent human rights abuses?  What is it about the track record of the Saudi state or the US government that makes Amnesty believe that they would ever attempt to arm the Syrian rebels in such a way as to prevent human rights abuses — assuming such a feat is even possible?

I’ve rarely received replies to the numerous notes I’ve sent Amnesty over the years.  I was surprised to see this one on July 4:

Dear Mr Emersberger,

Thank you for contacting Amnesty International.  Please accept our apologies for the delay in responding to you.

You ask why there is not a call for a total arms embargo on supplies to all parties to the conflict in Syria, similar to the comprehensive arms embargo Amnesty International called for in 2009 in the context of the conflict in Gaza.

Amnesty International’s policy on the transfer of military, security and police equipment is that when we can make a reasonable assumption based on the available facts that a specific transfer or set of transfers will be used to contribute to serous [sic] violations or abuses of human rights, then Amnesty International can call for the cessation of that transfer or set of transfers.  Our action is guided by what is likely to provide the greatest degree of human rights protection.

Amnesty International only calls for a total ban on all arms supplies if certain criteria are met, for example, when there is overwhelming evidence that arms provided have been used to commit crimes under international law on a systematic basis or mass scale.  As such, I would like to emphasise that Amnesty International has been raising concerns with Hamas about deliberately targeting civilians and carrying out indiscriminate attacks for a decade.  As early as 2002, we characterised the campaign of suicide bombings and other attacks on civilians by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups to be crimes against humanity.  In the context of the 2009 Gaza conflict, we found that firing indiscriminate rockets at Israeli towns was a war crime.

Hence it is evident that these Palestinian armed groups have a proven track record, over many years, of consistently committing abuses involving the use of weapons, despite Amnesty International’s repeated expressions of concern.  These groups have not only failed to address our concerns but persisted in perpetrating such abuses.  Therefore, we called for a comprehensive arms embargo on these groups in order to prevent serious abuses in the future.

Following our research into the situation in Syrian, where the government forces have committed wide-spread and systematic violations of human rights and attacks amounting to crimes against humanity, Amnesty International believes that this criterion has also been met.  Amnesty International began calling for an arms embargo on Syria in April 2011, when the Syrian authorities were repressing peaceful protestors, and before any armed opposition had developed.  We are now clarifying that our intention with this call remains the complete halting of the flow of weapons, munitions, armaments and related equipment to the Syrian government forces and associated militia.

Based upon the evidence we have at our disposal, the abuses reported to have been committed by armed opposition groups in Syria have not yet reached the level where we would call for a total embargo on all arms in the same manner as we are doing with regard to the government.

However, in line with Amnesty International’s policy on arms transfers — whether to states or to other parties to a conflict — we call on governments which may be considering supplying the opposition with arms to protect the civilian population to first have in place the necessary mechanisms to ensure that any material to be supplied will not be used to commit serious human rights abuses and/or war crimes — in other words, to refrain from supplying any arms where there is a substantial risk that those arms are likely to be used to commit or facilitate such crimes or serious abuses.

The mechanisms should include a rigorous risk assessment and monitoring process, which would enable such arms transfers to be halted should evidence emerge that they are being used to carry out human rights abuses, or are being transferred or diverted to third parties.  The mechanism should also include a system for limiting arms supplied to only those weapons, munitions and related equipment which are not inherently indiscriminate (e.g. no use of anti-personnel land mines or cluster bombs), and a system for ensuring that those who receive the arms are equipped with the practical knowledge and awareness of international human rights and humanitarian law to understand their obligation to uphold the relevant standards and their criminal liability under international humanitarian law should they fail to do so.

For us to conclude that a total embargo on arms supplies to the opposition is necessary, our research would need to show that the level of abuses committed by armed opposition groups had reached the requisite level of gravity.  As mentioned above, our researchers are currently researching abuses by armed opposition groups, and we would, of course, not hesitate to make such a call for a total arms embargo on the opposition should our research show the situation warranted it.

But in the meantime, I would underline the importance of the requirement for effective mechanisms to be in place to ensure that any particular material to be supplied is not likely to be used to commit serious human rights abuses or war crimes.

I replied the same day:

Dear Amnesty:

Your reply to me states that “In the context of the 2009 Gaza conflict, we found that firing indiscriminate rockets at Israeli towns was a war crime.”  Hence you called for total embargo on arms to both the Palestinians and the Israelis.  In the case of Syria, you stated that “the abuses reported to have been committed by armed opposition groups in Syria have not yet reached the level where we would call for a total embargo on all arms in the same manner as we are doing with regard to the government.”

According to figures gathered by B’Tselem, a source I’m sure Amnesty considers very reliable, eight Israeli civilians, at most, were killed by Palestinian rocket fire or other weapons in the last 3 years.1

In Syria, one rebel attack alone, a very recent assault on a TV station killed seven civilians.2  Islamic extremists claimed responsibility for bombings in Damascus that killed 55 people in May, several weeks before your statement was published.3

These figures alone, nowhere near exhaustive in the case of the Syrian rebel groups, expose the remarkable double standard you have applied in calling for an arms embargo on Palestinians but not on Syrian rebels.

You also suggested in your reply that Hamas’ track record since 2002 justifies your call for an arms embargo on Palestinians.  However, you ignored my questions regarding the track record of the states supporting the Syrian rebels.  I ask again

“What is it about the track record of the Saudi state or the US government that makes Amnesty believe that they would ever attempt to arm the Syrian rebels in such a way as to prevent human rights abuses?”

I would refer you to your own reports on the Saudi and US governments over many years.  The track record of both states is appalling and has been for decades — in the case of the USA, its record outside its own borders is especially gruesome.

Putting your double standard aside, do you think the US would ever back an arms embargo on Israel with no such embargo being applied to the Palestinians?  Are the Syrian government’s supporters in Russia likely to support an arms embargo only on Syria?

Please note, I am not suggesting that Amnesty make a blanket denunciation of any effort by oppressed people to use violence in self defence, to overthrow a dictatorship, or to end a military occupation.  However, if you think Saudi and US support for the Syrian rebels is not damaging to the human rights situation, then you should provide a great deal of evidence that you’ve thought through the consequences of such support.  You haven’t done that.

Democracy Now! reports today that the U.N.’s top human rights official, Navi Pillay, has stated

“The provision of arms to the Syrian government and to its opponents is fueling the violence.  Any further militarization of the conflict must be avoided at all costs.”4

The UN has a well-documented institutional bias in favor of the USA and its allies.  It appears that Amnesty’s bias is even worse.

After the UN called for arms to be cut off from all sides in Syria, my hunch was that Amnesty would soon follow suit.  I doubted Amnesty would want to cling to a stance that even the UN rejects.  As of July 5, my hunch has been proven wrong.  A statement put out by Amnesty called for international “action” on Syria and reaffirmed its support for an arms embargo only on the Syrian government: <www.amnestyus…on-and-violence>.

Long before this recent Syria report, it’s been clear that Amnesty’s priorities and standards for evidence are biased in favor of the world’s most powerful and criminal states.  I’ve reviewed in detail how this was shown in the way Amnesty responded to US-perpetrated (not simply US-backed) coup in Haiti in 2004.5

In April, Suzanne Nossel, Amnesty USA’s director, misrepresented an Iranian dissident by falsely claiming that the dissident had commented on an Iranian “nuclear weapons program.”  Before being hired by Amnesty, Nossel supported the US invasion of Iraq and (three years after the illegal invasion of Iraq led to hundreds of thousands of deaths) advised the US government that the “military option cannot be off the table” in dealing with another “menacing state” — namely Iran.6

With people like Nossel highly placed within the organization, it is not surprising that Amnesty, like Human Rights Watch, has been openly dismissive of the plight of Julian Assange — a man who has clearly been targeted for having exposed grave human rights abuses.7

Hopefully, Amnesty’s reply to me is a sign that the human rights industry is coming under greater scrutiny from the Left.



1  According to B’Tselem, there were 3 Israeli civilians (inside Israel) killed by Palestinians during operation “Cast Lead” and another 5 Israeli civilians killed (again, inside Israel since these are the deaths that may be attributable to rocket fire at Israeli towns) since the end of “Cast Lead” early in 2009 until 2012: <old.btselem.o…ret_stat=during>; <old.btselem.o…eret_stat=after>.

2  Ian Black, “Syrian Violence Escalates as UN Prepares for Conference,” Guardian, June 27, 2012.

3  Damien Pearse and agencies, “Islamist Group al-Nusra Front Claims Responsibility for Damascus Bombings,” Guardian, May 12, 2012.

4  “U.N. Urges End to Arming of Rebels, Assad Forces,” July 3, 2012

5  Joe Emersberger, “Amnesty International’s Track Record in Haiti Since 2004,” HaitiAnalysis, February 7, 2007.

6  Joe Emersberger, “Amnesty U.S.A Director Says Iran Has a ‘Weapons Program’, Misrepresents Iranian Dissident,” ZBlogs, April 14, 2012.

7  Joe Emersberger, “Julian Assange Ordeal Is Exposing Major Problems with Amnesty and Human Rights Watch,” ZBlogs, June 21, 2012.

Joe Emersberger is an editor of HaitiAnalysis at <>.

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