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May 3, 2023 10:40 am

When ‘Fact-Finders’ Don’t Care About Facts: A Case Study on Amnesty International

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avatar by David M. Litman


People hold Hamas flags as Palestinians gather after performing the last Friday of Ramadan to protest over the possible eviction of several Palestinian families from homes on land claimed by Jewish settlers in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, in Jerusalem’s Old City, May 7, 2021. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Last week saw the leak of an internal report that was sharply critical of Amnesty International’s conduct and conclusions related to an August 2022 press release, which claimed that Ukrainian forces were illegally endangering civilians.

For those who follow Amnesty’s work on other conflicts, the report’s conclusions are unsurprising. The review panel found that the organization used insufficiently substantiated evidence and “ambiguous, imprecise, and in some respects legally questionable” language to categorically accuse Ukrainian forces of violating the laws of armed conflict.

The identified substantive and professional shortcomings have only been compounded by the news that Amnesty worked to “soften” the criticism, and keep it from the public eye. Rather than taking its role seriously as “human rights” organization, by employing rigorous and reliable fact-finding procedures and employing careful and credible legal analyses, Amnesty is once again showing a preference for politics and public relations over factual accuracy and human rights.

Lest one think that the Ukraine press release debacle was an exceptional case, consider my efforts to get Amnesty to correct a particularly egregious, and demonstrably false, claim.

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The specific claim is just one of many factual errors and omissions in Amnesty’s 2022 report that accused Israel of “apartheid.” But it’s a particularly noteworthy error for a few reasons. For one, it’s directly contradicted by the very source Amnesty cited. Two, the error is such that it implies either the authors deliberately misrepresented casualty figures or they do not understand the very laws they accuse Israel of violating. But most importantly, it’s noteworthy because at least two Amnesty officials have been directly confronted with the incontrovertible evidence of the error, and yet no correction has been issued.

In the report, as well as in subsequent promotional material, Amnesty claimed that a certain number of Palestinians were killed “outside the context of armed conflict” during a certain period of time. However, if you follow the footnote and check the source, you’ll discover that Amnesty’s claim is a glaring misrepresentation. That figure, according to Amnesty’s own source (B’Tselem), is for the number of people “who were not taking part in hostilities” that were killed during that period. The latter phrase is a reference to the laws of armed conflict and, as Amnesty’s own source explains, includes people killed during armed conflict.

(It’s worth noting that B’Tselem has a very broad definition of “not taking part in hostilities,” and thus the figure that Amnesty uses includes individuals who were actively engaged in violent events at the time of their death.)

This false claim was directly raised with an Amnesty representative in April 2022 at a panel at Harvard University, during which he spoke about Amnesty’s “apartheid” report. Though the representative claimed he could not address it on the spot (video of the full exchange is available here), he provided CAMERA with an email address to follow up on the error. Disappointingly, no response was forthcoming after an email was sent detailing the error (a screenshot of the email is available here).

More recently, in an extended online exchange, the error was once again directly raised with Amnesty International’s UK Campaigns Manager Kristyan Benedict. Disturbingly, Benedict suggested the reason that neither he nor Amnesty will address such concerns over factual errors is because such time wouldn’t “contribute to helping to end Israeli apartheid.” In other words, the conclusion has already been declared and the facts don’t matter. The hypothesis must be treated as correct regardless of what the data shows.

This is not the behavior of a credible fact-finder.

It’s not just Israelis who should be concerned by this attitude. Indeed, as The New York Times article reminds us, the Ukrainians also became the victims of Amnesty’s arms-length relationship with accuracy.

Everyone who cares about human rights should be alarmed when once-respectable “human rights” organizations pervert the discourse in service of a partisan agenda instead of the truth. The behavior of both Ukraine and Israel deserves legitimate scrutiny, but Amnesty’s criticisms are built on dubious legal interpretations and are not based on credible fact-finding. As a consequence, bad actors who trample over human rights as a hobby — like Putin’s regime and Hamas — have been emboldened. Numerous military experts have raised the alarm on the dangerous effect this type of distortion can have on the ability of other democracies to confront major security threats, too.

Amnesty’s supporters, who are presumably committed to building a future based on real respect for human rights and international humanitarian law, deserve better.

Just as important, however, is that the media — another industry built on fact-finding in which perceived credibility is critical — must exercise greater caution and scrutiny when it comes to Amnesty’s claims. Trust is earned, not a given. Considering the organization’s documented disregard for accuracy in circumstances like Ukraine and Israel, Amnesty still has a long way to go to earn that trust back.

David M. Litman is a Senior Research Analyst at CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.

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