“We are independent of any government, political ideology, economic interest or religion,” Amnesty International proudly claims. But, how far does the rhetoric reach in practice?
Human rights NGO Amnesty International’s reporting on the case of Moroccan journalist Omar Radi has thrown into light the organization’s clear pro-Western bias. A closer look at the history of Amnesty International and its reporting on alleged human rights violations in the Middle East and North Africa region, as well as other Global South states, reveals clear double standards and a neo-colonial standpoint towards developing countries.
American human rights lawyer and former Amnesty International board member Francis Boyle said in a 2002 interview for Global Policy Forum: “Amnesty International is primarily motivated not by human rights but by publicity. Second comes money. Third comes getting more members. Fourth, internal turf battles. And then finally, human rights, genuine human rights concerns.”
The circumstances surrounding the Radi case, an increased lack of transparency surrounding funding and influence, and a history of disseminating misinformation for political gain sadly confirm Boyle’s assessment.
The Omar Radi investigation
For Amnesty International, there is no doubt of Morocco’s guilt in the Omar Radi spyware scandal. The rights group released a report on June 22, 2020, after six months of research aiming to prove that, as they always suspected, the North African, majority Muslim kingdom was indeed involved in foul play.
However, though the rhetoric in the report condemning the Moroccan government left no room for doubt, the grasping-at-straws evidence did.
Before outlining the evidence or circumstances of Radi’s case, the Amnesty Report sets the scene for the reader by reliving previous investigations and characterizing Morocco as a serial offender, as would a lawyer pushing for a guilty verdict.
Amnesty International’s analysis of Radi’s cell phone showed that malware infected the device using a “network injection” while it was connected to the internet through a LTE/4G mobile connection.
“This type of attack is possible using two techniques: deploying a device commonly referred to as a ‘rogue cell tower’, ‘IMSI Catcher’ or ‘stingray’, or by leveraging access to the mobile operator’s internal infrastructure. It is currently unclear which of these two options have been used against Omar and Maati,” explains the report.
Amnesty links this to Pegasus and NSO Group by saying the technology is the same as that described in a leaked document from 2015 that appears to have been written by Israeli spyware company NSO Group.
Here, Amnesty lays out the first vague example of evidence in the investigation. “In sum, previous attacks against HRDs [human rights defenders] documented by Amnesty in Morocco have raised the possibility of NSO tools being used in network injection attacks. It is also clear from publicly available information that NSO Group sells network injection capabilities.”
The investigation found traces of malware received by SMS “carrying malicious links tied to NSO Group” on Radi’s phone dating back to 2017 and 2018, linking them to the alleged hacking of Maati Monjib. Forensic experts found that the same software was used in both cases, leading Amnesty to conclude that Moroccan security services were behind the hack.
Amnesty’s experts found evidence of hacks taking place on January 27, February 11, and September 13, 2019. Then, in October 2019, Amnesty International sent NSO Group a copy of their findings, urging them to break ties with any governments using the spyware for nefarious purposes.
“Our analysis of Omar’s phone revealed traces of similar network injections as recently as 29th January 2020. These most recent attempts involved the new, previously undisclosed, domain name urlpush[.]net,” the report said. The domain name was registered on November 6, 2019.
“On 27th January 2020, while visiting a link to a news site he clicked from the Facebook app, Omar’s browser was hijacked and finally redirected in under 3 milliseconds to the new exploitation server with the same URL structure as the one we previously observed in 2019,” Amnesty International added.
Here, the report lacks clarity: “Suspicious of this unusual behavior, Omar Radi promptly took a screenshot of his Safari browser attempting to open the malicious site while being connected to the 4G network.”
Unless Radi, or a third party, were already monitoring his phone with spyware technology, taking the screenshot would be impossible. Humans simply do not have the reactions to take a screenshot in under 3 milliseconds.
After citing research from a Canadian investigation into the use of NSO Group software in 45 countries, Amnesty International finally laid out the evidence connecting the Moroccan government to the alleged hacking of Radi’s phone.
“Our own research indicates the continued use of the same malicious network infrastructure across attacks to be characteristic of a single and same entity behind the use of NSO Group’s product in Morocco,” the report concluded.
Here ends the evidence put forth by Amnesty International in the “conclusive” report. The investigative document, however, then continues to hammer nails into the coffin, using condemnatory and inflexible language to fill the holes left by lack of conclusive evidence.
Impartiality in question
Radi told Morocco World News he is sure the Moroccan government is behind the attacks because “NSO provides its offers only for government institutions, it is clear that Moroccan authorities are behind this. Morocco is one of the customers of NSO.”
The journalist was key to the Amnesty investigation: “I worked with AI on the report,” he said to MWN. “I am part of it.” Radi’s active involvement in the investigation process points further to lack of impartiality in the NGO’s reporting. This clear bias shows that Amnesty International set out to prove the Moroccan state was behind the hack, rather than to gather and weigh all the facts and consider them through an objective lens.
“Let me ask you this, if the Moroccan authorities have proof that I work for a suspicious source or spying body, why wouldn’t [they] arrest me and take my statements? Authorities have nothing against me.”
The National Brigade of Judicial Police (BNPJ) summoned Radi on June 24 — one day after he spoke with MWN — as part of an official investigation to determine his alleged involvement in a case of obtaining foreign financing related to “intelligence services.”
While Amnesty International claims that representatives contacted the Moroccan government prior to the release of the Radi report, Rabat denies receiving any such email. The Moroccan Ministry of State for Human Rights first questioned which email address Amnesty had used to contact the ministry and then firmly refuted having received any communication from the organization.
The government also reviewed official network activity to fully confirm they did not receive any emails. However, recent updates suggest the emails were automatically quarantined since the sender was a known hacker.
Morocco World News contacted Amnesty International for comment on both the apparent impartiality of the investigation and the lack of tangible evidence.
In our correspondence with Amnesty International, MWN cited a letter from NSO Group to the UN dated June 1.
“It is important to understand, however, that NSO’s ability to assess the use of its technologies through System-based inquiries depends on the cooperation of the user. Absent customer cooperation, we are limited to reviewing available metadata, which fails to provide detailed insights and does not provide sufficient data to allow one to determine if there was any misuse,” the tech company’s letter explained.
“Because certain allegations do not make it clear which user might have improperly targeted a particular person, we may end up contacting multiple customers, and undertaking multiple inspections, in any given inquiry. Reconstructing potential usage of the System after the fact thus can be demanding, and sometimes leads to limited conclusions and less than a full picture.”
If the manufacturer of the spyware system cannot determine with accuracy if there was any misuse of the system without cooperation from the user, how, we asked Amnesty International, could they report with any certainty that the Moroccan government was behind the alleged hack of Radi’s cell phone?
Amnesty International refused to comment on either point, instead sending a link to a statement accusing the Moroccan government of instigating a smear campaign against the organization.
The bias and conscious intent to paint Morocco as a perpetual rights offender reflects Amnesty International’s double standards and neo-colonial view. The patronizing teacher-child tone of Amnesty’s campaign against Morocco and the NGO’s refusal to engage in an open dialogue about the lack of impartiality in their reporting is a sad indictment of Amnesty’s inflexible, outdated views of Global South and Muslim-majority countries.
A bid to undermine progress
On June 26, Morocco released a statement rejecting the false claims set out in the Amnesty International report. The Moroccan government called on the NGO to provide the evidence behind the allegations.
Morocco World News contacted Amnesty International for comment on Morocco’s rejection of the report but received no answer.
On July 2, the government released a second statement calling on Amnesty International to back up their claims with tangible evidence. The statement said the NGO’s allegations “are in line with the strategy Amnesty International has been employing for years against Morocco’s interests, attempting to undermine the country’s internationally-recognized progress in the field of human rights.”
Morocco’s government reiterated its belief that the NGO is aiming to become a “political actor” in Morocco and is operating with a clear agenda after Amnesty launched a targeted social media campaign in Morocco.
The campaign on Amnesty’s social media calls on Moroccan “human rights defenders” to follow particular guidelines to see if their iPhones were subjected to “cyber-spying attacks,” promulgating their own story that the Moroccan government actively targeted Radi. The NGO also targeted English-language social media users with a different version of the campaign, focusing on NSO Group.
Double standards in reporting US and UK privacy breaches
The use of spyware and invasion of personal privacy is not new. However, Amnesty International’s loud and strongly-worded protestations are. In 2013, the revelations of whistleblower Edward Snowden shone the spotlight on both the US and the UK.
Both countries, it appeared, had long been using spyware and malware to access personal and private information. The US, for example, has the capacity to monitor every email that comes into the country, meaning that spying and hacking of individuals’ private correspondence is widespread.
The leaks revealed that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had accessed the telephone records of millions of American citizens. Meanwhile, the British intelligence service, GCHQ, has been accessing private information online through a surveillance program known as Prism.
Amnesty International brought a claim against the UK after it was revealed that the British intelligence service had hacked the communications of an Amnesty staff member. The claim was accompanied by a gentle reminder.
“In the face of such secret and extensive programmes of mass surveillance the current legal framework governing surveillance in the UK is woefully inadequate and urgently needs reform,” said Michael Bochenek, director of law and policy at Amnesty International.
“As a global organization working on many sensitive issues that would be of particular interest to security services in the USA and UK, we are deeply troubled by the prospect that the communications of our staff may have been intercepted. We should remember, however, that secret, mass surveillance programmes like PRISM and Tempora affect not just organizations like Amnesty International, but each and every one of us and our right to privacy,” he added.
A press release dated August 29, 2013, gave the US and the UK a softly toned reprimand, in sharp contrast to the outrage and vitriolic condemnation of Morocco’s alleged breaches of the right to privacy. The double standard reflects Amnesty international’s pro-Western lens and unwillingness to bite back at those who pay the bills.
Morocco World News asked Amnesty International about social media campaigns and mainstream media campaigns: “Amnesty International launched a series of targeted posts warning Moroccan journalists about spyware but the same did not happen in the US or the UK in 2013 after Amnesty found that both countries were using spyware. Why the difference in handling?”
Amnesty International declined to comment.
AIUSA and Israel
The Moroccan government’s theory that the report and one-sided investigation are part of a “defamation campaign” is understandable, bearing in mind Amnesty’s history of manipulating investigations and campaigns to fit certain political agendas.
The shocking truth about Amnesty International dates back decades. Boyle, a founding member of the Amnesty International Middle East Coordination groups, shared the story of his disillusionment with Morocco World News. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, breaking international law and violating human rights laws. Both Amnesty International and Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) stood by in silence as over 20,000 people died.
Boyle contacted Nobel Peace Prize winner Sean MacBride, calling on him to intervene with AI in London. MacBride persuaded the general secretary of AI to appoint Boyle as a human rights consultant for AI’s work in the Middle East.
At the first meeting, Boyle warned the AI Mid-East Co-Group that they must respond strongly to the atrocities Israeli forces were carrying out in the Middle East, with full USA support. “Soon thereafter, I found out that the Members of the AIUSA Mid-East Co-Group had been instructed to have nothing more to do with me by a direct order coming from the AIUSA Board of Directors,” Boyle recounted.
Boyle outlined how AIUK and AIUSA consistently failed to crack down on human rights violations and instances of Israeli government-approved torture against Palestinians for over a decade.
“I am confident the pro-Israel groups threatened the AI Secretary General that they would have their members withhold or reduce their contributions to AI and AIUSA if AI/London did not reign in its pathetic, pitiful, and meager criticisms of Israel. While I was on the AIUSA Board, AIUSA paid about 20% of the budget for AI/London. He who pays the piper calls the tune,” the human rights lawyer explained.
On December 19, 1990, the world collectively shivered in horror after Amnesty International released a chilling report of atrocities in the Middle East.
“Iraqi forces in occupied Kuwait have tortured and executed hundreds of unarmed civilians, some of them children, arrested thousands of others and cut off 312 premature babies from hospital incubators, according to a report released here today by Amnesty International,” the Washington Post wrote.
Boyle had seen the report ahead of publication and found that it lacked tangible evidence, was rife with technical errors, and was missing facts. Boyle feared that the US and the UK would use the report as evidence to provoke a war with Iraq, and warned Amnesty International UK not to publish it. The NGO ignored the warnings and proceeded to launch what Boyle calls a “Disinformation” campaign against Iraq.
“From this episode I could only conclude that AI/London deliberately intended the Dead-Babies Report and Campaign to be used in order to tip the balance in favor of war against Iraq,” he said.
At the height of the US warmongering campaign, Amnesty International had no qualms about confidently stating that it had “verified” the accusations peddled by a Kuwaiti girl named Nayirah. In a recriminating 82-page report it published in December 1990, Amnesty International left no doubt in the minds of readers that the evidence was airtight.
“Premature babies at the Maternity Hospital died after Iraqi soldiers took them out of the incubators. This happened in August in the early days of the invasion. A total of 312 babies died this way. I personally took part in the burial of 72 of them in al-Rigga cemetery,” AI wrote, citing an anonymous eyewitness. The report included the testimonies of two doctors, as well as a grave-digger who claimed that Iraqi soldiers had taken babies from their incubators and killed them.
The report was strongly worded, and included no hint that the sources may not be reliable. It was presented as a substantiated and wholly “verified” report whose legitimacy was beyond doubt.
Seven US Senators used the spurious testimony, legitimized by Amnesty International, to justify their support for the war. President George H.W. Bush used the report on six occasions in the following weeks. Then, on January 9, 1990, the president cited the report in a letter he sent to university newspapers across the US.
Some time later, it became clear that the stories of Iraqi soldiers unplugging premature babies were fabricated. The 15-year-old who peddled the allegations turned out to be the daughter of the then Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States. Amnesty then launched a coverup campaign to disassociate itself from the political machinations the report had facilitated.
Perhaps, like former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in May 1995, Amnesty International thinks that the price “was worth it” to build “democracy” and establish human rights in Iraq, further corroborating the idea of Amnesty International as a neo-colonial tool.
Apartheid and Amnesty
Boyle fears that nothing has changed at Amnesty International in the intervening years. “For all I know, the same people at AI/London who waged this Dead-Babies Disinformation Campaign against Iraq are still at AI/London producing more disinformation against Arab/Muslim states in the Middle East in order to further the political and economic interests of the United States, Britain, and Israel. Because of its Dead-Babies Disinformation Campaign against Iraq and its ensuing coverup, Amnesty International will never have any credibility in the Middle East!”
Boyle believes a similar campaign of disinformation and refusal to take on diplomatic heavyweights, such as the US, defined Amnesty’s response to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
According to Boyle, Amnesty was the only human rights body in the world not to intervene in the battle to end apartheid. The NGO claimed they could not work against this type of government.
“But the truth of the matter was that Amnesty International is headquartered in London, and AIUSA is headquartered in New York and Washington. The biggest political supporters of the criminal apartheid regime in South Africa were the governments of Britain, the United States, and Israel. Likewise, the biggest sources of economic investments in the criminal apartheid regime in South Africa came from Britain and the United States. Once again, he who pays the piper calls the tune,” Boyle said, bringing the argument back to funding and political influence.
The human rights professor outlined Amnesty International’s refusal to report on violations in Ireland and Puerto Rico, echoing his fundamental belief that Amnesty International exists as a neo-colonial global policeman, unwilling to bite the hand that feeds it.
“Effectively, Amnesty International and AIUSA function as tools for the imperialist, colonial and genocidal policies of the United States, Britain, and Israel,” he said.
Iraq as a victim of international politics — in part through reckless reporting
Amnesty International’s report fueled the US decision to start a war that resulted in the deaths of as many as 1.5 million Iraqi civilians. The international community and Amnesty International, did not, however, learn from the mistakes of the 1991 Iraq war.
In 2003, the US administration declared their intention to invade Iraq again, enjoying support from the UK despite opposition from a number of fellow UN member states, including France. The UK, under Prime Minister Tony Blair, tried and failed to secure support from the UN Security Council but pledged support for the US regardless.
The operation to invade Iraq was, for the UK, based on spurious evidence that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The US aimed to remove Saddam Hussein from power, a motive the UK could not legally support.
Years later, the Chilcot Inquiry found that the claims Iraq was developing WMDs were baseless, meaning Blair had led his country to war with lies in pursuit of the US agenda in the wake of 9/11.
Despite the repercussions of the first Iraq war and Amnesty International’s involvement in lighting its fuse, the NGO remained fairly neutral on the prospect of a second war in Iraq based on the spurious evidence that Iraq was developing WMDs.
On March 19, 2003, Amnesty International General Secretary Irene Khan penned an open letter to Blair, President George W. Bush, and Saddam Hussein. The letter does not warn against going to war with Iraq, but sets a low bar in gently prompting both sides to adhere to human rights laws during the conflict.
“Amnesty International is writing to the Governments of the USA, UK and Spain, who have declared their intention to launch military action against Iraq. AI demands adherence to obligations under international human rights and humanitarian laws in the event of war,” the letter reads.
In a bid to display a vestige of impartiality, Khan added: “Amnesty International is making the same demand of the government of Iraq which must equally abide by its obligations.” However, in her effort to act objectively, Khan equated the aggressor to the victim and abandoned the concept of equity in favor of “equality.”
In 2020, the Iraqi people are still reeling from the conflict while the country tries to rebuild itself for the second time in just a few decades.
‘Uncorroborated and highly manipulated information’
Amnesty International’s tendency to side with the money and the controlling politics of Western powers reared its ugly head again in 2018 when the NGO released a series of reports on the civil society protests in Nicaragua.
Conscientious objector and anti-war activist Camilo Mejia wrote an open letter to Amnesty International, accusing the NGO of “destabilizing” the situation in Nicaragua and “contributing to the chaos in which the nation finds itself.”
Mejia said the Amnesty International reports on the protests created a misleading narrative, disseminating a strong anti-government message which covered up the complexities of the situation on the ground.
“Amnesty International’s assertions are mostly based on either testimony by anti-government witnesses and victims or the uncorroborated and highly manipulated information emitted by US-financed anti-government media outlets and non-profit organisations collectively known as ‘civil society,’” he wrote.
Mejia emphasized that the vast majority of news organizations and sources Amnesty International cited in its two reports on the unraveling political chaos and violence in Nicaragua are funded by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and, by extension, the US.
The anti-war protestor and Iraq War veteran shone the spotlight on Washington’s historic hegemony in Latin America, arguing that, to preserve US dominance through economic control, the capitalist superpower aimed to sabotage the potential success of an independent Nicaragua.
In 2019, Mejia published a report in collaboration with the Alliance for Global Justice in which he set out the disinformation in Amnesty International’s Nicaragua reports, highlighting the clear bias and gaping holes in evidence.
Amnesty International’s intervention in Nicaragua, and refusal to see the situation as anything other than a black and white narrative of good vs. bad, reflects the neo-colonial, imperialist lens through which the NGO views the world.
Money, money, money
Amnesty International relies on donations and membership payments for survival. Access to detailed information about the nationality of donors and members is nigh on impossible. However, the little transparent information that is available strongly suggests the NGO’s membership is largely based in Western countries, including Australia (250,000), Canada, Sweden (upwards of 100,000), and Germany. Of Amnesty International’s two million members, nearly half come from the Netherlands (255,000), the US (350,000), and the UK (200,000) alone.
The organization’s worldview, including prejudices and stereotyping, echoes that of its membership, who, sitting comfortably in a warm armchair, credit card in hand, feel that they are doing their part to help in far away crises: Crises that affect other people, in other cultures, and other countries.
However, the question of funding goes much deeper than that of membership. The organization’s neo-colonial, teacher-child view on developing countries echoes and takes its cue from US foreign policy, among others.
Amnesty International’s 2017 financial review states, “We are independent of any government, ideology, economic interest and religion. Our only interest is in achieving human rights for all.” The review also explicitly states that the NGO does not accept donations from governments or political organizations. However, previous reports show that this is not the case.
A 2017 report by Reseau International shows that Amnesty International received funding from the “National Foundation for American Democracy (NED), which is officially funded by the United States Congress, through the budget of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).”
The Reseau International report explains that the NGO is far from transparent in terms of access to information, and that information about donors is increasingly difficult to find. “Today, it is almost impossible to find direct evidence that in 2008, the Israeli branch of Amnesty International accepted a donation of NIS 130,186 (£30,277) from the State Department of the United States government,” the report notes.
The Embassy of the Netherlands in Israel, the UK government’s Department for International Development (DFID), the US government, through other associations, and the Norwegian Telethon are among other Western organizations with lobbying weight.
Where is the money going?
In 2010, facing fierce international criticism for its response to human rights abuses in Iraq at the hands of British and US soldiers, Amnesty International made the decision to overhaul its management. Among the heads to roll were former General Secretary Irene Khan, the organization’s first Muslim leader, and her deputy, Kate Gilmore.
The organization paid Khan £533,103 to leave Amnesty International, while Gilmore was sent packing with £325,244. The massive payoffs sent waves of doubt throughout Amnesty’s membership, with many wondering how much of their donations went to paying corporate-sized salaries and hush money.
In a less-than-transparent statement, Amnesty International’s international executive committee (IEC) chairman, Peter Pack said the “substantial majority (of the payments) reflected contractual entitlements.”
Before the giant cash-in-hand payoff, Khan was earning £132,490 a year, without bonuses, relocation grants, and support for expenses. Upon leaving Amnesty International, Khan stepped straight into a chair on the British Charity Commission board, having been appointed by the British government via the Cabinet Office.
The former general secretary’s replacement, however, has topped the City of London-style salary. Salil Shetty earns £192,800 a year on top of a £7,800 annual housing allowance.
A lack of transparency
The most recent available financial report on Amnesty International’s website does not give the names of organizations, trusts, or foundations that donated. However, it specifies that 6% of Amnesty International’s income comes from trusts and foundations, 10% from “legacies and bequests,” and a further 10% is classed as “other income.”
Bearing in mind that the NGO raised £327.8 million in 2017, 10% is still a significant amount of money to go unaccounted for, raising questions about the transparency of the enterprise. Furthermore, the NGO states that “96% of our income is ‘unrestricted’. This means we are not asked to use it in a particular way – so we can spend most of our money wherever the need is greatest.”
This, however, means that 4% of the NGO’s income is “restricted;” that is to say, the donor can specify in which area it would like the funds to be used and, therefore, sway Amnesty International’s global outlook.
Morocco World News contacted Amnesty International several times over a period of two weeks for comment. A spokesperson from the NGO deflected the questions on funding, saying: “To be clear on funding, the overwhelming majority of Amnesty’s income comes from individuals the world over.”
The Amnesty representative repeated the message on the NGO’s website word for word, saying: “These personal and unaffiliated donations allow Amnesty to maintain full independence from any and all governments, political ideologies, economic interests or religions.”
Amnesty International did not, however, deny that a percentage of their funding comes from donations that are neither “personal” nor “unaffiliated.”
When asked directly how far donors can “restrict” their contributions and where the 4% of restricted donations come from, Amnesty refused to comment.
MWN also asked the NGO where the 10% classed as “other income” comes from. Amnesty again refused to comment, sending only a link to another defamatory report about Morocco.
The NGO’s consistent refusal to engage with questions over its lack of transparency and bias is reflective of a lack of respect for Morocco and the journey it has made, and continues to make, since its independence in 1956.
Last year, while Morocco celebrated 20 years since King Mohammed VI’s coronation, global media shone the spotlight on the reforms the monarch has made in the field of human rights during his reign.
Among numerous reforms over two decades, King Mohammed VI and the Moroccan government have fought to address holes in Morocco’s human rights record and to mend wounds wrought open during the reign of King Hassan II. And, though there is still significant work to be done, progress has been made.
It would be ludicrous to deny that human rights violations go on in Morocco, or in any other country in the world. No state, however established its democracy or developed its economy, is immune. Striving to eradicate human rights violations will be humanity’s mission for centuries to come. This said, every state, however established its democracy or developed its economy, should be viewed and judged on an equal basis.
Amnesty International, however, is willing only to see, and actively look for, the negative aspects of Moroccan policy and security, in line with its own entrenched imperialist world view of Muslim-majority and Global South countries.
Until the NGO revitalizes its world view with a modern, impartial perspective based on truth rather than international agendas and neo-colonial attitudes, the blindly negative, condemnatory narrative about these countries will not change and Amnesty International will not achieve the global impact its noble goals deserve.