United Kingdom: WLUML Statement in Support of Gita Sahgal

The Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) international solidarity network expresses its solidarity with Gita Sahgal, a longstanding ally of the network who is active in various organisations, collectives, and movements committed to upholding universal human rights. As a feminist, anti-racist activist, filmmaker and researcher, Sahgal has devoted her career to exposing systematic discrimination and rights violations by state and non-state actors in Britain, South Asia and internationally. Much of this work has included rigorous research into transnational fundamentalist movements, and their intersections with human rights, especially those of women. In addition, Gita Sahgal is the Head of the Gender Unit at Amnesty International (AI).

WLUML has learned that she has repeatedly, and to no avail, raised internal inquiries into Amnesty International’s association with the organisation Cageprisoners, headed by Moazzam Begg, around the Counter Terror with Justice Campaign. British citizen Moazzam Begg was abducted in 2002 by American and Pakistani intelligence officers in Pakistan, to where he had fled from Afghanistan with his family soon after the US-led ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ bombing of the country began in retaliation for the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Begg was held first in Bagram detention facility and Kandahar, then detained in Guantánamo until he was released by the United States in 2005. Begg has never been charged with any terrorist-related offence or put on trial. In a book about his experiences, Enemy Combatant, co-authored with Victoria Brittain, he states that in 2001 he believed “the Taliban were better than anything Afghanistan has had in the past 25 years” and he is one of the current advocates of dialogue with the Taliban. Cageprisoners campaigns “to raise awareness of the plight of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and other detainees held as part of the War on Terror”. Amnesty International’s Counter Terror with Justice Campaign calls for an end to human rights abuses at Guantánamo and other locations, and for those detained there to be brought to justice, in fair trials that respect due process. Gita Sahgal’s concern about a lack of transparency in AI’s partnerships led to Sahgal’s decision to approach the Sunday Times newspaper media about this issue. This resulted in an article by Richard Kerbaj published on 7 February 2010, entitled “Amnesty International is ‘damaged’ by Taliban link: An official at the human rights charity deplores its work with a ‘jihadist’” in which Kerbaj reports Sahgal’s suggestions that the charity has mistakenly allied itself with Begg and his “jihadi” group. The same day, Sahgal was suspended from her position as Head of the Gender Unit.

Gita Sahgal’s concerns are about Amnesty International’s association with fundamentalist groups that have claimed to support the Taliban and promote ideas of the Islamic Right, which are not supportive of women’s rights. Sahgal is well-placed to raise such issues, with a demonstrated commitment to exposing and addressing fundamentalisms – political movements of the extreme Right, often operating within religious, ethnic and/or cultural discourses – and assessing the implications of their agendas on women’s human rights, including as a founding member of Women Against Fundamentalisms (WAF) in the UK. Along with directing numerous films on the topics of women’s rights, conflict and violence against women, Sahgal has also written extensively on multiculturalism and religious fundamentalism, and is the co-editor of Refusing Holy Orders: Women and Fundamentalism in Britain (Virago, 1992; WLUML, 2001).

It is clear that Sahgal, like Amnesty International, is committed to promoting and upholding human rights. We agree, with Sahgal, that AI’s admirable and non-partisan support of the human rights of those who have faced unfair imprisonment, denial of due process, and torture is to be commended and supported. Nonetheless, if human rights are indeed universal and indivisible, then she has raised a crucial point in distinguishing between supporting specific human rights of an affected group, and providing a public platform for those who may not support the indivisible human rights of others.

The human rights of women and minorities are particularly abused by state and non-state actors who justify their political agendas by reference to religion. Those who challenge the structures, policies and practices that create and perpetuate such violations are frequently isolated and attacked. The WLUML network recognizes the bravery demonstrated by Gita Sahgal in raising the important issue of state and non-state collaboration with those groups who may not uphold the rights of all, even if they themselves are also the victims of human rights violations.

We call for civil society and governments alike to engage in a wider debate about partnerships with organisations that claim to support human rights but do not uphold the rights of all, including women and minorities. While WLUML deeply regrets the attempts of some media commentators and apologists for torture and war crimes to hijack this important debate to smear progressive movements, organisations and individuals, we as Human Rights organisations and activists, cannot ask for democracy, openness to criticism and transparency of other organisations and government, if we ourselves do not observe these basic rules.