Withdrawal from Amnesty and establishment of the Benenson Society
It is with regret that I confirm that St Aloysius’ College in Sydney is severing its association with Amnesty International. At their meeting last week Amnesty confirmed that it was abandoning its long-held policy of neutrality on abortion. This means that the College and many other schools, I believe, will no longer support Amnesty groups. I raised these concerns with Amnesty a year ago and have canvassed the arguments in the media, as recently as a fortnight ago in an article in The Australian.
Many people will argue that we should remain inside Amnesty, because of the overwhelming good that it does. Indeed, some of the strongest proponents of the change are counting on this sentiment. What is different about abortion, unlike, for example, promotion of gay rights, is that this policy explicitly excludes some of the most vulnerable members of society—the ‘unborn human’—from its campaigns for human rights. To my mind this goes right to the core of Amnesty as a human rights organisation and as a body that gives primacy to conscience. It strikes against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child which states that every child ‘needs special safeguards and care, including legal protection, before as well as after birth.’ This is surely a crossing of the Rubicon, a qualitative difference to other points of disagreement within an organisation. Consequently, we feel we have no choice but to leave Amnesty.
Amnesty has weakened itself by becoming exclusive in a way that will harm its work. Amnesty has had an almost unique position in the depth of its membership in being able to attract conservative and liberal, religious and secular support, for issues around freedom of conscience and political rights. Its decision means that for many people of faith, membership will no longer be possible. The big tent that is Amnesty has become smaller and it runs the risk of becoming just another secular left voice. Amnesty is not a Catholic or religious organisation. We were not seeking to impose a Catholic line on Amnesty nor to demonise others. Some 500 Catholic schools have Amnesty groups—schools pay teachers to mentor such groups, Religious Studies textbooks often encourage membership in Amnesty and provide links to Amnesty on the internet. These groups help raise funds for Amnesty. All that could end now—and for what advantage?
We reject any attempt to see the promotion of human rights as a purely secular project. In my correspondence with Amnesty their spokesperson, Ms Rosenman, has asserted that Amnesty respects the right of Catholics to hold their views on abortion but she goes on to say that Amnesty is not a religious organisation and that ‘the project of human rights is a secular one’. Now there is a world of difference between correctly saying that Amnesty is not a religious organization and claiming that the work for human rights is a secular one.
Peter Benenson’s own project in starting Amnesty was influenced by his religious experience. The first Amnesty campaign in 1961 highlighted the fate of six prisoners of conscience: Angolan anti- colonialist poet and resistance leader, Agostinho Neto; the Greek Communist Toni Ambatielos; Archbishop Josef Beran of Prague and Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty of Budapest, both imprisoned by Communist dictatorships; Reverend Ashton Jones, a campaigner for the rights for blacks in the US; and the Romanian philosopher, Constantin Noica.
Later in his life Benenson founded the Association of Christians Against Torture. In his history of Amnesty, Keepers of the Flame, Stephen Hopgood writes that ‘The Amnesty movement was to be a spiritual awakening that would stimulate moral change in members’ own societies as well’ (p.57). It is striking how many of the key early figures of Amnesty had strong religious connections—Quaker, Jewish, Protestant and Catholic. Far from being a secular project one could argue that Amnesty itself has its origins in the religious commitment to justice. It seems that increasingly our society is developing collective amnesia about the influence people of faith have had in shaping much of our modern world.
Here at Aloysius we are determined not to abdicate a role for our students in promoting human rights. I am very appreciative of the commitment of Mrs Sharon Connolly and the student members of our Amnesty group, who like hundreds of other groups were never consulted, or even informed, by Amnesty of the change in policy.
We will establish a society here at the College that will allow our students to continue to have an involvement in the promotion of human rights through the raising of awareness of violations of these rights and through lobbying of governments for prisoners of conscience, the end of torture and the death penalty, and the rights of all to basic freedoms. The society will not be a specifically religious or Catholic body, and will maintain a policy of neutrality on abortion.
The society will be called the Benenson Society, after Peter Benenson, the Catholic lawyer who founded Amnesty, and will hopefully embody something of the spirituality, as well as idealism, that led to the formation of Amnesty. The Benenson Society will have as its symbol a stylised white rose. This symbol draws inspiration from the White Rose Society, a group of Catholic and Protestant students and teachers at Munich University, who opposed Nazism with letters and pamphlets, with nine paying the ultimate price of being guillotined for their stand for human rights. A film about one of its members, Sophie Scholl, was released recently. Over the next few months we will work on a charter for the group with Mrs Connolly and the boys. Already schools from Sydney and Melbourne have expressed interest in the project, and it may well be a model that many school groups could follow.
I have indicated to Amnesty that if they wish we would be happy to cooperate in particular campaigns. We would seek to look for other organisations also to work with, such as Consistent Life, a network of over 200 organisations that oppose war, abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, poverty and the death penalty.
Chris Middleton SJ
August 20, 2007