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For Amnesty Ireland, dissembling and sophistry is a way of life

Some recent dissembling on the part of Amnesty Ireland has reminded me of a previous instance when that organisation engaged in disingenuous sophistry. As someone who agrees with the majority of positions taken by Amnesty Ireland, I find such behaviour disappointing. While there are many contemporary issues where reasonable people may differ, it seems worthwhile to present arguments with more candour and in a more forthright manner.

On 20th November 2020, Amnesty Ireland was a co-signatory to an open letter that stated as follows:

”Let us say unequivocally that the statements of newly launched organisations that seek to defend biology or fight gender identity and expression do not represent the wider LGBTI+ community nor feminists in Ireland … We call on media, and politicians to no longer provide legitimate representation for those that share bigoted beliefs, that are aligned with far right ideologies and seek nothing but harm and division.”

The meaning of this language is perfectly clear. Amnesty Ireland is calling for sanctions to be applied by both our media and our politicians, against people that they disagree with. There is no suggestion that those to be sanctioned have incited violence, or have been guilty of any infraction other than disagreeing with Amnesty Ireland.

On 24th November 2020, Amnesty Ireland issued a follow-up statement addressing the criticism that they had received. They stated as follows:

“There are attempts to decontextualise phrases used in the letter in a way that misleads and confuses people, which is a common tactic used against many of our human rights campaigns. For example, the letter asks for media and politicians to not grant legitimacy to those spreading vitriol or misinformation, or to present them as legitimate. This is being framed by some as a call to take away their – and more broadly, women’s – political representation. When read in context, in this letter we are clearly not calling for that.”

So when Amnesty Ireland announces that they “call on media, and politicians to no longer provide legitimate representation”, we are absolutely not to interpret this as “a call to take away … political representation”? This is absurd gibberish and it serves only to obfuscate the positions that Amnesty Ireland is advocating for. However, that is not quite the same thing as obfuscating the positions of others.

For example on 18th January 2018, Amnesty Ireland issued a statement about a report that had been written by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency. Amnesty Ireland wrote as follows:

“A new report published today by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency has underlined the importance of protecting the work of civil society organisations (CSOs). The report found that it has become more difficult for civil society groups, including human rights organisations, to operate within the European Union as a result of both legal and practical restrictions. The ability of civil society organisations to access funding is an integral part of the right to freedom of association. In relation to Ireland, the report notes concerns regarding the vague wording and overly broad application of the Electoral Act …”

I think most readers would interpret this language as describing concerns within the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, about the “vague wording and overly broad application of the Electoral Act”. As it happens, I have previously been involved in complying with these provisions of the Electoral Act. I found the language perfectly clear and the application of the Act to be entirely appropriate. This prompted me to find out more about the concerns within the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, and so I went looking for the report itself. You won’t find a link to the report in the Amnesty Ireland media release, but you can find it on the Fundamental Rights Agency web site.

The relevant comments in the report are in Section 2.1.2 on page 22. In this section, you can find the following language:

“In Ireland, concerns were expressed over the vague wording and overly broad application of the Electoral Act …”

That is, in this specific part of the report the EU Fundamental Rights Agency is not expressing their own concerns, but rather reporting that concerns had been expressed by others. Helpfully, they also provided a reference to exactly which others they were referring to. The reference that is provided to support this statement in the report, is to a letter that had been written to then Minister Eoghan Murphy TD. That was a letter which had been co-signed by Amnesty Ireland.

So in a letter to then Minister Eoghan Murphy TD, Amnesty Ireland expressed their opinion that the application of the Electoral Act in Ireland had been overly broad. Subsequently, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency reported that Minister Murphy had received this letter. The reaction of Amnesty Ireland was to then issue a media statement titled, “EU report expresses concerns regarding overly broad application of Ireland’s Electoral Act”. The following day, an article on this Amnesty Ireland media statement appeared in The Irish Times under the title, EU rights group defends foreign funding of NGOs. There are better ways to discuss our differences and disagreements than to engage in this kind of sophistry.

Moreover, since Amnesty Ireland was so committed to the content of Section 2.1.2 within the EU Fundamental Rights Agency report, they might have noticed that the same section includes the following comment:

“Associations should be free to determine their activities and make decisions without state interference. As such, they should be free to enjoy the rights to express opinion, disseminate information, engage with the public and advocate before governments and international bodies.”

The reference in the report supporting this statement is from a United Nations Human Rights Council document, which states:

“The Special Rapporteur recognizes that the formation of associations embracing minority or dissenting views or beliefs may sometimes lead to tensions, but he emphasizes the duty of the State to ensure that everyone can peacefully express their views without any fear.”

There was a time when Amnesty was in favour of “associations embracing minority or dissenting views or beliefs” being allowed to “peacefully express their views”. Now it seems that Amnesty Ireland will instead “call on media, and politicians to no longer provide legitimate representation” to those they disagree with. In my view that is a regrettable volte face, but it may be a little easier to understand the Amnesty Ireland positions in this area, if there were more candour with respect to how those positions are presented.



The author, John Hamill, is Co-Host of The Freethought Prophet Podcast.

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