Amnesty International (AI) has a culture of white privilege with incidents of overt racism, according to an internal review into its secretariat.
British newspaper The Guardian reported Tuesday that eight current and former employees of Amnesty International UK (AIUK) described their own experiences of racial discrimination and issued a statement calling on senior figures to stand down.
One of the whistle blowers, Katherine Odukoya, said: “We joined Amnesty hoping to campaign against human rights abuses but were instead let down through realizing that the organization actually helped perpetuate them.”
Representatives of both arms of the UK-based human rights organization apologized and pledged to make changes, with the director of AIUK citing “the uncomfortable fact that we have not been good enough.”
The internal review at Amnesty’s international secretariat, commissioned following the Black Lives Matter movement, recorded multiple examples of workers reporting alleged racism.
Citing the use of inappropriate language by senior AI officials, the report notes systemic bias including the capability of black staff being questioned consistently and without justification, and the sidelining on staff projects.
The report also highlights a lack of awareness or sensitivity to religious practices resulting in problematic comments and behavior, as well as aggressive and dismissive behavior, particularly over email and often directed towards staff in offices in the global south.
Citing the killing of George Floyd, it said, in an email dated June 2019, that racism was encoded into the “very organizational model” of the human rights body, which had been shaped by the “colonial power dynamics and borders” that were “fresh” at the time of its founding in 1961.
“Despite some notable and hard-won changes in recent years, control and influence over our resources, decision-making … has remained overwhelmingly in the hands of … people from the white majority Global North,” according to the report.
The report said there had been bias and insensitivity in the way some people were treated at the international secretariat – the arm of the organization which sets policy and hires researchers from hubs across the world.
The board went on to inform staff that an independent review would take place. Over the next few months, workplace experts from the consultancy Howlett Brown conducted a “temperature check.”
The experts were given access to staff surveys and carried out six focus groups made up of 51 staff including two exclusively attended by black staff.
Published in October 2020 but not press released, the 46-page internal report by Howlett Brown, focused on Amnesty’s international secretariat, summarized that “the external face of AI Secretariat was very different to its internal face.”
The experts recommended that to resolve issues there would need to be a recognition of the “systemic privileges that exist.”
A statement released alongside the report by the AI coalition leadership team said it was “sobered” by the findings, saying “it is a timely reminder that discrimination, racism and anti-Black racism exist in our organization.”
Separately, staff at AIUK, which is also based in London but has a separate employment structure from the international secretariat, made claims of racial discrimination, telling the Guardian there were similarities between their experiences and the culture at the international secretariat.
They described feeling “dehumanized” over their race and ethnicity over a number of years, with some reporting official grievances.
In a joint statement, two current and six former employees of AIUK called for the director, senior management team and board to resign, claiming the leadership “knowingly upheld racism and actively harmed staff from ethnic minority backgrounds.”
This was the case for Odukoya, who said that as a black woman she was constantly mentally exhausted navigating an environment that was “hostile to blackness.” “There’s a hegemonic white middle-class culture that seemed to be protected and reproduced. White privilege was pervasive,” she said.
Kate Allen, the director of AIUK, apologized, saying these were serious and challenging concerns and, although she could not discuss individual cases, the allegations of discrimination would be taken seriously and investigated.
“We know that institutional racism exists in the UK and, like any other organization, we aren’t immune to this very real problem,” she said.
In response to the Howlett Brown report, Allen stated that the international secretariat had also taken significant measures to act on its findings.
Amnesty International said it wholeheartedly apologized to any staff who experienced discrimination, adding that the accounts detailed in the Howlett Brown report were “unacceptable.”
In February 2019, it was revealed that Amnesty International had a “toxic” working environment. A review into workplace culture, commissioned after two staff members killed themselves in 2018, found widespread bullying.