As if the circus-turned-madhouse confirmation process could not get any more bizarre, Amnesty International decided to jump in the ring with its own unprecedented and frankly ridiculous demands that the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearing be postponed until more information about Brett Kavanaugh’s potential involvement in torture and extraordinary rendition can be further investigated. In a letter released Monday, Margaret Huang, President of Amnesty (USA), wrote:
Amnesty International believes that the vetting of Brett Kavanaugh’s record on human rights has been insufficient and calls for the vote on his nomination for Supreme Court of the United States to be further postponed unless and until any information relevant to Kavanaugh’s possible involvement in human rights violations—including in relation to the U.S. government’s use of torture and other forms of ill-treatment, such as during the CIA detention program—is declassified and made public.
That’s right. The man who had more documents about him released than any other previous Supreme Court nominee, who has been so thoroughly vetted that they are going to his high school yearbook to dig up dirt on him, is now being accused of “possible” human rights violations.
Ms. Huang apparently thinks Judge Kavanaugh was the mastermind behind the use of black sites and extraordinary rendition, which included the use of waterboarding. Kavanaugh never rose to the level of policymaking in the Bush White House, and Ms. Huang certainly knows this. So these claims are being leveled in a deeply disingenuous fashion.
But something more is going on with Amnesty International. Traditionally, Amnesty was concerned with political prisoners and defending the rights of these prisoners from abuse. On this score, Amnesty still does valuable work. Nevertheless, there is a major change that has been going on for some time at Amnesty that is now manifesting itself in the Kavanaugh statement.
Amnesty is moving away from its more limited role of protecting political rights and individual liberty to the more progressive and wholistic view of embracing a comprehensive approach that advocates for economic and social rights as well. Kumi Naidoo, the secretary general of Amnesty, said in a recent speech that “our world is facing complex problems that can only be tackled if we break away from old ideas that human rights are about some forms of injustice that people face‚ but not others. The patterns of oppression that we’re living through are interconnected.”
No doubt this will warm the hearts of many progressives. Intersectionality is the buzzword of the day, but as human rights activist and scholar Aaron Rhodes has pointed out, there is a downside to this embrace of progressive politics. Amnesty “has embraced an approach to human rights that makes no distinction between human rights and ‘social justice,’ thus breaching the principle that human rights are essentially nonpolitical, nonpartisan in nature, and are concerned with means, not ends.”
The problem that Amnesty faces in embracing the rhetoric and policies of the current social justice movement is that it undermines the organization’s credibility, appeal, and effectiveness. Instead of being more limited and focused on its mission, Amnesty is using a rhetoric that may play well to a certain audience but will hit a brick wall and will not appeal to people in countries that do not share this same agenda. And as hard as it is to believe for our progressive friends, most countries outside of a handful of Western European countries, America, Canada, and Australia will not receive this sort of ideological sermonizing warmly.
Human rights protection’s greatest strength is that it takes very little ideological commitment and thus allows for greater consensus and appeal across cultures and nations. People with radically different beliefs and values can agree that protecting certain basic rights is a good thing. But even now, Amnesty is moving away from its original mission of protecting rights to advocating for equality. Rhodes has been watching this worrying trend:
This Progressive approach to human rights, and to the Constitution and law in general, has shown its willingness to twist the idea of human rights and the rights protected by the Constitution and the law in any way possible to achieve political objectives. Like most of the international human rights movement today, they promote things like gender and racial quotas (sex and race discrimination), and restrictions on freedom of speech (hate speech laws), and infringements on the freedom of religion in the name of “equality” (forcing Christian vendoers to participate in rituals that violate their faith).
In light of these developments, Huang’s unusual intervention into the confirmation of a possible Supreme Court justice won’t be the last one.
Aside from the ways that Amnesty’s more partisan approach will hamper its mission, its accusations against Kavanaugh come across as purely partisan and desperate. It is an organization that is so far left that any sign of #resistance will earn it praise and goodwill from its primary constituency. But it comes at a price, even if it is not apparent at the moment. And that is sad because in the name of promoting an ideological agenda an organization that is doing good and necessary work gets sucked into the black hole of polarization and partisanship, making an issue that should be bipartisan into more ammunition for political warfare. It adds fuel to the fire but, worse, it hurts the political prisoners who need their help the most.
Daniel Strand, a Providence contributing editor, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in the history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.
Photo Credit: Brett Kavanaugh when a protestor interrupted his Senate confirmation hearing on September 5, 2018. Screenshot of CSPAN video.