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Analysis: Has Amnesty International gone astray?

How former Amnesty officer Gita Sahgal’s thorny opinions became too hard to defend.

Amnesty itself does not shy from using strong language.

In 2005, acting secretary general, Irene Khan, called the Guantanamo Bay prison the "gulag of our times.”

Amnesty says strong statements like these are the product of a passionate staff. “This is a place where things are discussed,” said spokeswoman Susanna Flood. “It’s part of our modus operandi.”

Flood said she could not go into the specifics of Sahgal’s case.

Amnesty thrives on “vigorous internal debate” according to communications director Marcia Poole.

Yet the key word is “internal”; debate almost never reaches public ears as it has in the case of Gita Sahgal. Experts say that’s because having a unified platform is vitally important to achieving human rights initiatives.

“Their influence derives from their ability to mobilize opinion; to utilize shame,” said human rights attorney Yasmine Ergas. “So it’s particularly important for them to have one voice.”

Employees at mission-driven organizations that deal with policy can’t publicly denounce the group and expect to keep their job, said former Human Rights Watch associate director Susan Osnos. “That’s just an oxymoron. I don’t know what other choice the group would have.”

Yet Osnos doesn’t criticize those who speak up. They just can’t be surprised by the consequences.

“I think if someone feels so strongly opposed to an issue that she’ll speak publicly,” said Osnos, “she must also be prepared to leave.”

Christopher Livesay is a freelance journalist in New York City. His current work focuses on human rights, science and art.