Amnesty International’s moral disaster

Across the world, people who care about Russia and Russians have condemned Amnesty International’s decision to remove the status of prisoner of conscience from Aleksei Navalny.

Amnesty argue that comments made by Navalny about migration around fifteen years ago disbar him from the claim to be a prisoner of conscience today.

Here ‘prisoner of conscience’ is a label that Amnesty Internatonal declare or revoke as they wish, apparently to support their advocacy of human rights. It is merely a subjective decision for them alone, but given their prestige, and Navalny’s fame, their announcement about Navalny has become a global news story with a cascade of negative consequences.

By any reasonable standard, if anyone in the world today is a prisoner of conscience, it is Aleksei Navalny. Who else has acted with such courage and at such grave personal risk in the defence of a political campaign that incorporates human rights?

For the author Boris Akunin, Amnesty’s declaration closes down remaining opportunities to protect Navalny’s human rights: the opposite outcome of their mission statement.

The people at Amnesty can only be ignoring Navalny’s personal predicament and his political perspective, apparently disregarding:

a) the danger Navalny faces in a notorious penal colony, where he is held only because of his political and anti-corruption campaigning;

b) the evolution of Navalny’s politics, turning him into the single most distinctive and credible opposition voice in Russia over more than a decade;

c) the breadth of Navalny’s conception of rights: most recently, his leadership of the campaign for welfare payments to Russians during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic folded a social rights agenda into a wider discourse of political and civil rights.

Amnesty’s action not only harms Navalny’s personal safety, but also has wider political consequences for human rights in Russia, and changes how Amnesty is perceived there. ‘Navalny has not ceased to be a prisoner of conscience,’ says the liberal commentator Yulia Latynina. ‘But Amnesty has ceased to be an organization that defends human rights.’

I would encourage anyone who wants to understand the Navalny phenomenon to listen to this (subtitled) interview of late December 2020 with the economist Sergei Guriev, which covers the range of Navalny’s views, and this piece in the New Yorker by Masha Gessen, which charts her own evolution from a Navalny-sceptic to a Navalny-supporter.