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Amnesty failed Nguyen Tuong Van

By Howard Glenn and Greg Barns - posted Friday, 16 December 2005

The tragedy of Van Nguyen has exposed the fact that the tactics of the leading death penalty abolition movement in the world - Amnesty International - need an overhaul. Amnesty Australia missed a major opportunity in the campaign to save Van Nguyen’s life, by refusing to use consumer pressure as a means of lobbying the Singaporean Government.

The Singaporean Government is a prominent player in the Australian marketplace. The telephone company Optus, electricity generator SP Ausnet and Singapore airlines are three “household” consumer names in Australia. Optus is wholly owned by SingTel - in turn owned 63 per cent by the Singapore Government’s investment arm - Temasek Holdings. SP Ausnet is a subsidiary of Singapore Power, a government owed entity and Singapore Airlines is also government owned.

The customer base of these three companies in Australia totals around 10 million - half this country’s population. And all three companies operate in enormously competitive industries where profit margins are tight and consumers are footloose.


If there was ever a time when a human rights issue could be advanced through consumer pressure, then Van Nguyen’s case was it.

But despite all this Amnesty not only refused a request to work with groups such as Rights Australia to encourage consumers to contact companies such as Optus, SP Ausnet and Singapore Airlines urging them to call for clemency for Van Nguyen, but its campaign activities actually undermined efforts to use consumer pressure.

In the case of Optus, the actions of Amnesty helped Optus’ business over the past couple of weeks.

When Rights Australia asked publicly why Amnesty hadn’t responded to a request made to it, to work jointly in encouraging customers of Optus to send messages to Optus’ CEO Paul O’Sullivan, urging him to support calls for clemency for Van Nguyen, it received a disturbing reply from Amnesty.

On November 23 Amnesty’s International Campaign Unit manager told Rights Australia, “Amnesty International does not call for, support or oppose the use of boycotts to address human rights violations. This is a matter of policy and it applies to all of our work, irrespective of the country, human rights issue or individual case concerned.”

But no one was urging a boycott of Optus’s products in this case. Flooding the company with millions of messages urging it to lobby its Singaporean owners about Van Nugyen, is not the same as asking consumers to cancel their Optus account.


Amnesty then went further and actually ensured that Optus and its Singaporean owner would benefit financially from the campaign to save Van Nguyen. On November 24, Amnesty launched an SMS focused fundraising and protest campaign. Russell Thirgood, Amnesty’s Australian President sent an email to Amnesty members and supporters urging them to “SMS ‘Save Van’ to 1977 4539”. Amnesty “will urgently send an appeal on your behalf to the Singapore Government to stop the execution scheduled for December 2”, Mr Thirgood’s email said. Mr Thirgood encouraged the recipient “to make a donation or join Amnesty International”.

This type of email is a common fundraising tool used by organisations like Amnesty to quickly turn concern into cash, but in this case it cut right across any positive impact that a consumer campaign focused on Optus might have had. Amnesty no doubt benefited financially from Mr Thirgood’s email as its members and supporters pledged donations for its work in Australia. And any of Optus’ six million mobile customers who responded to Amnesty’s SMS campaign were financially bolstering the pockets of the telephone company's 63 per cent owner - the Singaporean government. Right at the very time when that government needed to feel Australian anger over Van Nguyen’s plight.

Letting Optus of the hook, as Amnesty’s actions have done in this case, highlights that the “one size fits all” strategy adopted by Amnesty is sometimes counterproductive. There’s a place for candle-light vigils and the gentle firm pressure that Amnesty mobilises in its campaigns around the globe. But there’s also a time and place to look at utilising sharper tools to achieve victories for human rights. Van Nguyen’s plight was clearly one where consumer pressure may have had a substantial impact.

Amnesty needs to examine whether doing the same thing over and over again, without success, but each time hoping for a different result is not smart in any line of work, let alone in the world of human rights advocacy.

Amnesty’s conduct in the Van Nguyen saga shows that there is a fine line between an admirable consistency and a denial of reality.

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About the Authors

Howard Glenn leads lobby group Rights Australia Inc, was previously founder and national director of Australians for Just Refugee Programs, and brought the widest range of organisations and individuals together to challenge poor treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

Formerly CEO of the National Australia Day Council, he was responsible for modernising national celebrations and the Australian of the Year Awards, and involving communities across Australia in debates on reconciliation, republic and national identity.

Howard was an adviser to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Hawke-Keating Governments, and had key involvement with Indigenous education policy, the response to the deaths in custody Royal Commission and the establishment of the reconciliation process. Outside government he has extensive community sector involvement, currently on human rights, HIV-AIDS, drug and alcohol issues. When not at a computer, Howard is a middle distance runner and a surf lifesaver.

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Howard Glenn
All articles by Greg Barns

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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