Amnesty tars its own brush

Organisation accuses world of Covid-19 human rights failures only to fail itself

Mark Cantrell
9 min readApr 24, 2021


The Covid-19 pandemic has “brutally exposed” global inequalities and a dire regard for human rights, says an Amnesty International report, but the organisation has no such ‘excuse’ for its own failings. By Mark Cantrell

Stock image courtesy of Pixabay

APRIL was a curious month for human rights. Britain saw its record condemned as “shameful” by Amnesty International, only for that same organisation itself to come under fire for falling short.

The one condemnation doesn’t preclude the other, of course, and it may be tempting to suggest — a little cynically — that it takes one to know one. But if nothing else, it serves as a reminder that human rights must never be taken for granted — especially among their supposed defenders.

Amnesty faced its own shameful reckoning with the public eye courtesy of an article in The Guardian (20 April 2021), which revealed the findings of an internal review at the organisation’s international secretariat and its UK branch. The article also spoke of the experiences of eight whistleblowers — all current or former staff members — who accused the organisation of racial discrimination.

Katherine Odukoya — one of those who blew the whistle — told the newspaper: “We joined Amnesty hoping to campaign against human rights abuses but were instead let down through realising that the organisation actually helped perpetuate them.”

Amnesty International is accused of having a culture of white privilege, with incidents of open racism that included the use of the N-word and the P-word, along with micro-aggressive behaviour such as touching the hair of black colleagues. Furthermore, the report claims the organisation operates “systemic bias”, with staff from ethnic minorities feeling “disempowered and sidelined”, among other things.

“[H]ow can an organisation really expect to speak up for the rights of people across the world, if it cannot respect and secure the rights of those it employs?”

Amnesty UK’s director Kate Allen said she was “deeply sorry”, adding: “I want to apologise to anyone who has experienced harm and pain and felt that we have not effectively and properly addressed allegations of racism within the organisation. These are serious and challenging concerns and, although I cannot discuss individual cases, we take allegations of discrimination seriously and investigate them thoroughly in line with our policies and procedures.”

She added: “We know that institutional racism exists in the UK and, like any other organisation, we aren’t immune to this very real problem… We are reckoning with the uncomfortable fact that we have not been good enough and from this, we understand that we must change to become better.” (Read the statement in full.)

Some may feel that’s not good enough; they’d have a point. One quite rightly expects more of an international human rights organisation of Amnesty’s calibre. Even so, just because the organisation has joined them in the gallery of shame, it’s no ‘get out of jail free’ card for the countries slammed in its global report. That includes Britain, which came in for some sharp criticism.

The 408-page report — Amnesty International Report 2020/21: The State of the World’s Human Rights — offers a pretty comprehensive analysis of human rights trends globally, covering 149 countries during a particularly turbulent 2020. Inevitably, Covid-19 and the measures taken to contain the virus feature prominently in the document. For those wanting to play fast and loose with human rights, this public health emergency has proved something of a godsend.

Shame on UK

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Crown copyright.

EVEN where the pandemic hasn’t been exploited for authoritarian ends, the disease has revealed many ‘pre-existing conditions’ symptomatic of long-ignored socio-economic inequalities. As we are learning the hard way, social injustice serves pestilence a path of limited resistance; our societies were already sick.

“[W]e’re speeding toward the cliff edge. We need to stop this headlong rush into abandoning our human rights.” Kate Allen

Here in the UK, the record has been “shameful”, but since shame seems very much a quality lacking in high government circles these days, it’s unlikely that ministers will be losing any sleep over Amnesty’s criticism.

They might, however, share a private smirk at Amnesty’s tarnished image; who knows? But those criticisms of the Government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic still stand as topics of legitimate discussion.

Amnesty has accused the authorities in the UK of violating the right to health and the right to life of people living in care homes. Among its concerns, the report cited a failure to provide adequate PPE and regular testing to help protect residents and staff.

Discharging infected — or possibly infected — patients from hospitals to care homes and “suspending regular oversight procedures” were further ‘red flags’ for a less than robust regard for residents’ rights, it adds. Then there was the blanket imposition of Do Not Resuscitate orders placed on care home residents without due process; another source of “grave concern”.

The Government’s ongoing refusal to conduct an urgent independent inquiry into its handling of the pandemic, especially given the “serious concern” over the UK’s “extremely high” overall death toll from Covid-19, also came in for criticism.

Race is an important factor here — with a disproportionate death rate among Black and minority healthcare workers highlighted — but concerns also extended beyond the health emergency. Policing and civil rights was also a factor, with the report flagging “racial disproportionality” (specifically against Black people) as a strong feature in a range of policing issues during 2020, including stop and search and the use of force.

Meanwhile, the British Government was criticised for efforts to ‘insulate’ itself from public accountability and dissent. This authoritarian streak includes efforts to amend or review legislation that would reduce the public’s ability to challenge Government decisions — including the process of judicial review and an ongoing review of the Human Rights Act.

These are grave concerns, Amnesty said, but the organisation expressed further qualms about the new Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill, which critics say would threaten to seriously restrict Britons’ right to peaceful protest. Amnesty has warned that taken together all of these legislative moves could severely curtail the right to peaceably challenge or protest in the UK.

A draconian streak at home is complemented by an easy-going attitude to relations with potential human rights abusers abroad, the report suggests. Amnesty highlighted a u-turn on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, noting that the UK resumed issuing licenses for military exports to the country, reversing a court ruling made in 2019 that required the Government to suspend new licensing of military equipment.

All told, these are hardly revelations; such concerns have been aired in UK press and media before now, but taken together they certainly focus the mind on a worrying trend. We’re heading for a cliff edge, warns Amnesty UK’s Allen.

“Having made mistake after lethal mistake during the pandemic, the Government is now shamefully trying to strip away our right to lawfully challenge its decisions no matter how poor they are,” she said.

“For years, the UK has been moving in the wrong direction on human rights — but things are now getting worse at an accelerating rate.

“On the right to protest, on the Human Rights Act, on accountability for coronavirus deaths, on asylum, on arms sales or on trade with despots — we’re speeding toward the cliff edge. We need to stop this headlong rush into abandoning our human rights.”

A world of woe

Stock image courtesy of Pixabay.

AS with Britain, so too the wider world: the global pandemic has “exposed and deepened” global inequality, with the worst of the impact falling on the heads of the most marginalised and vulnerable.

The pandemic has worsened an “already precarious” situation for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, trapping many in squalid camps. Health workers, migrant workers, and those in the so-called informal sector — many on the frontlines of the pandemic — have also been “betrayed”, Amnesty says, by neglected health systems and inadequate economic and social support.

“Leadership in 2020 came not from power, privilege or profiteers. It came from the countless people marching to demand change.” Agnès Callamard

Amnesty’s report also highlights a marked increase in gender-based and domestic violence, with many women and LGBT+ people facing increased barriers to protection and support due to restrictions on freedom of movement, along with a lack of confidential mechanisms for victims to report violence while isolated with their abusers.

Leaders who have exploited the crisis to launch fresh attacks on human rights have also undermined the response to the global pandemic. Leaders in Hungary and the Gulf have introduced new laws against ‘spreading false news’, it says, which have been used to silence criticism of governmental responses to the pandemic.

Excessive violence has also been a hallmark of the way the pandemic was policed in many countries — including the Philippines, Nigeria and Brazil, where it is claimed an average of 17 people were killed a day by police in the first half of the year.

Meanwhile, China has increased its persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang under cover of the pandemic, while India’s crackdown on civil society has also intensified — to little effect on damping down the pandemic, as the current catastrophic surge in infections demonstrates to tragic effect.

Amnesty also warned that key global bodies — including the International Criminal Court and the United Nations — have proved inadequate in meeting the human rights challenges of the past year, especially with regards to vetoes creating deadlock at the UN Security Council.

A grim consideration, this, given the power readily available to governments willing to apply force to diminish the human rights of some or all of their notional citizenry. There’s a sliver of light in the report, however; crumbs of comfort food, perhaps.

The report serves to show how regressive policies have actually inspired many people to join long-standing struggles such as Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria, as well as new creative forms of protest such as virtual climate strikes. People are far from cowed, then; repression provokes resistance.

Amnesty rebooted?

Stock image courtesy of Pixabay.

“COVID-19 has brutally exposed and deepened inequality both within and between countries,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s new secretary general. “The pandemic has cast a harsh light on the world’s inability to cooperate effectively in times of dire global need.

“International institutions such as the International Criminal Court and UN human rights mechanisms are there to hold states and individual perpetrators to account. Sadly, 2020 shows that they have been wrestled into political deadlock by leaders seeking to exploit and undermine collective responses to human rights violations.”

The only way “out of this mess” is through international cooperation, she added. That means ensuring vaccine supplies are quickly made available to everyone, everywhere — and free at the point of use. It means pharmaceutical companies must share their knowledge and technology. And it means G20 members and international financial institutions must provide debt relief for the poorest 77 countries to respond and recover from the pandemic.

Perhaps most pertinently, as Callamard added: “We must reset and reboot to build a world grounded in equality, human rights and humanity. Leadership in 2020 came not from power, privilege or profiteers. It came from the countless people marching to demand change.”

That brings us back to Amnesty’s fall from grace: one might add it is also incumbent on Amnesty to get its own house in order too. After all, how can an organisation really expect to speak up for the rights of people across the world, if it cannot respect and secure the rights of those it employs?




Mark Cantrell

A UK writer and journalist, Mark Cantrell is also the author of two novels: Citizen Zero and Silas Morlock. Read more of his work at