Solidarities Across Borders

At the Edges of Amnesty

During the 1970s ‘human rights’ was on the rise as a key framework for political action. A wide range of individuals and groups, including revolutionary leftists, people living with disabilities, Soviet dissidents, and the US president Jimmy Carter and many of his peers, came to use the same language to talk about their often quite different political goals. In doing so they formed new alliances, sometimes in a temporary coalition or campaign, other times in an ongoing organisation or movement. How did they experience these new alliances and connections, and what challenges did working in solidarity with different sectors of society pose? Looking at how activists navigated these challenges can help us understand both the opportunities and the limitations of broad political concepts like human rights for linking diverse struggles together.

Amnesty International provides a vantage point for observing how people came together and the challenges they faced in doing so. The organisation was created as a campaign against political imprisonment by British lawyer Peter Benenson in London, 1961. Frustrated that existing movements only supported prisoners from the same ideological persuasion as the campaigners themselves, he formed Amnesty with the aim of extending solidarity across political borders. As the remit of the organisation grew to include more human rights themes such as the death penalty, torture, and disappearance, so too did its membership across the globe.

While this expansion was uneven, with more interest generated in the global North than in the South, huge numbers of people from across many sectors of their societies became members of the organisation. By 1978 it counted over 200,000 members and supporters in 111 countries, with ‘national sections’ (formal Amnesty structures) in 35 of those countries. These members faced the challenge of working together across distance and difference.

In my research, I am guided by the question of how people create solidarity, building enduring forms of collaboration across borders – meaning the geopolitical borders of the nation state but also divisions in social position and experience both within and between countries. As the history of women’s or queer caucuses shows us, many social groups struggle to have their particular experience addressed within larger organisations and movements. I explore the complex process of negotiating solidarity across borders through a global history of Amnesty International.

This is how I came across the figure of Mongo Beti. Born in Cameroon under French colonial rule and resident in France, Beti was a novelist and activist who co-founded the Committee to Defend and Assist Political Prisoners in Cameroon (CDAPPC) in 1976. He joined Amnesty that same year, after having been approached by a member who was keen to get the French national section of Amnesty (AISF, established in 1971) to pay more attention to human rights violations in Africa. As a relatively well-known novelist and African himself, it was thought that his influence could potentially carry some weight.

Yet Beti found that it was difficult to leverage this influence. Frustrated, in 1977 he published an article in CDAPPC’s newsletter, SOS Cameroun, where he contrasted AISF’s enthusiasm for highlighting human rights violations in the Soviet world and in Latin America with what he saw as its refusal to campaign on Africa. Indeed, Amnesty International devoted relatively less attention to African countries (beyond South Africa) than to others. Latin America, for example, had received strong attention during the 1970s as a result of the organisation’s campaign against torture, a prevalent method of repression in the region. National sections could choose which campaigns and countries they prioritised as long as they maintained ‘balance’, which meant campaigning on violations in all three regions of the Cold War world, East, West and non-aligned.

But this particularly Anglo-American understanding of the world obscured as much as it revealed, classifying francophone Africa as ‘non-aligned’ when it in Beti’s view repression there was intimately connected to French objectives. For him, AISF’s lack of attention to these countries reflected its implicit acceptance of French neocolonial interests in the region. He pointed out that AISF President Marie-Jose Protais had worked for the French Department of External Cooperation, a fact that further confirmed this complicity. Unsurprisingly, the leadership of AISF was not pleased and terminated his membership.

Beti took his response public. In early 1978 he – along with French activist and academic Odile Tobner, his wife – had launched a new publication, Peuples Noires Peuples Africaines (PNPA). The creation of PNPA shows that Beti’s critiques of Amnesty were a microcosm of his broader critique of French progressive circles. Joining a rich world of black publications produced in Paris, it was to be a ‘review of French-speaking black radicals’ inspired by the couples’ ‘disgust’ and ‘dismay’ at the reluctance of French society to look beyond the ‘Berlin wall of French society’ and examine the practices of ‘dictatorship, torture, concentration camps and so many other fruits of high civilization’ occurring in French-speaking Africa.

Amnesty International poster in French with the text: for the defense of human rights.
Amnesty International, poster, unknown date, International Institute for Social History, Amsterdam. IISG BG D39/491.

Within its pages he defended himself against his ejection from AISF, even producing a double issue of the journal subtitled ‘Amnesty International French Section – or the Defence of the Rights of White Man?’ in which he reprinted all the correspondence and documentation relating to the episode. Over 130 pages of the journal, financed out of Beti and Tobile’s savings and the wages they earned as school teachers, were devoted to reproducing and analysing the minutiae of the conflict. Beti also took the issue beyond the pages of PNPA, placing a number of statements in the form of advertisements in French national newspaper Le Monde. He was clearly deeply affected by what had happened, willing to invest scarce resources into ensuring it did not pass unnoticed.

At one level, Beti’s conflict with AISF was indicative of broader discontent within the section. The correspondence he republished showed deeper debates over internal democracy as well as the issue of whether the section focused sufficiently on Africa. The treatment of Beti provoked its own wave of responses, including resignations, illustrating the fragile nature of the relatively new French section of Amnesty and showing that Beti was not alone in his critiques. Beyond this, the alienation and anger articulated by Beti demonstrates how difficult it can be to engage in organisational critique for those at the margins of both that organisation and the society it operates in.

Alongside his critique of AISF’s leadership, Beti’s writings demonstrated a genuine critical engagement with Amnesty and his belief in the usefulness of human rights, and this human rights organisation, for achieving change in West Africa. He encouraged Africans in Europe, and particularly Cameroonian students, workers, and exiled activists, to make contact with Amnesty, where he believed that they would find European activists with whom they could establish meaningful links. It is evident that he saw great potential in the structure of grassroots membership and in Amnesty’s stated methods for advancing the interests of Africans opposed to oppressive governments.

However, the termination of his Amnesty membership pushed Beti to reflect on the possibilities for pursuing change through predominantly white French organisations. The intimate connection between Western neocolonial interests and repression in Africa meant that defeating the latter meant dismantling the former, threatening the material and political interests of those who made up the majority of Amnesty’s membership. This, he said, was ‘a contradiction that no white organization, no white community, no white institution has been able to truly overcome to this day.’

The activist experience, such as that of Beti’s, is often left out of human rights histories that have tended to focus on diplomats and discourses. But this monumental shift in politics – in which human rights came to achieve unprecedented global prominence – raises the question of how those engaged in campaigns (and in the meetings and organisational work that made them possible) experienced this political realignment and the new alliances and configurations that came with it.

As Beti recognised, human rights organisations and movements had (and continue to have) the potential to amplify marginalised struggles by connecting marginalised groups with others who share their broader goals. These connections, in turn, expand the collective political imaginations of the organisations and movements in question. Yet as Beti’s experience also shows, this solidarity must be negotiated, even demanded. By recovering moments when these demands were made, we can understand the barriers that have existed within human rights as a global political framework – and that have led to critiques like that of Kenyan legal anthropologist Mutua Makuta, who has characterised human rights as a language that merely divides the world into ‘savages, victims, and saviours’. It is only by engaging with these critiques that we can continue the work of dismantling those barriers.

Feature image:  Amnesty International Section française, poster, unknown date. International Institute for Social History, Amsterdam. IISG BG D39/480.

One Comment

  1. Thank you for this revealing artifcle about the difficulties of working within Amnesty International. As a gaduate in “European History with French” as well as a member of Amnesty International, I found it quite horrifying, but with this new understanding, I hope this article will inform my future work within my AI branch here in Brighton.

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