If you don't compromise you lose

John Dalhuisen
John Dalhuisen is ESI Senior Fellow and former director for Europe at Amnesty International

25 March 2018, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung

For ten years, John Dalhuisen was an important figure at Amnesty International. Then he left. Today he believes that human rights activists often do more harm than good to their cause.

By Michael Martens

The German original of this article was published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung:
"Amnesty International: Idealismus ist blind für Kompromisse"English PDF

It wasn’t easy for John Dalhuisen to quit his job at Amnesty International. He had spent ten years working for the most renowned human rights organization in the world, and they were ten good years. Most recently he was director of the Europe and Central Asia programme, responsible for a region ranging from Lisbon to Vladivostok. On behalf of more than two million Amnesty members, he took part in the organization’s decision–making, met ministers, sometimes heads of state or presidents. He was lucky: He found fulfilment in his job. He believed in what he did.

Dalhuisen comes from a lawyer’s dynasty, a grandfather was a law professor in South Africa, who taught leaders of the anti–apartheid movement, including Nelson Mandela. “When I came to Amnesty, I felt the utmost respect for the people there,” says Dalhuisen. Again and again in the conversation, he stresses that nothing has changed in his esteem for his former colleagues at Amnesty. These are, he says, people of high personal integrity who are committed to a good cause. But John Dalhuisen quit anyway. He needs three hours to answer the question why. In these hours he says things like: “I worry that a lot of human rights activists are making the wrong moral calculations. Not because they are bad people, obviously – but because they are not weighing everything up correctly.”

Dalhuisen is not prone to righteousness. He likes to introduce his answers with questions or qualifications, seems self–critical, almost brooding. Often, he will take a run–up of a few sentences before making up his mind on a statement. His views, however, then often differ significantly from those that are common amongst his former colleagues and which he, though with diminishing conviction, held only a year ago. It was the migration debate that made Dalhuisen question whether the human rights movement understood the immensity of the challenge it was facing – and whether Amnesty was still the right employer for him. “In recent years, many Europeans have felt a growing unease about the arrival of a large number of migrants. You can’t just ignore this fundamental fact. But the human rights movement is inclined to do this,” says Dalhuisen.

Many activists in the human rights movement have a blind spot: “They are so convinced they are right that they struggle to reflect on where they might be going wrong. Compromises are considered dirty. But sometimes they offer the best possible solution.” But it takes a certain amount of courage to admit that compromises can be ok. Courage, which was lacking at Amnesty.

This has consequences. After all, what happens when a growing majority of citizens reject core values that organizations like Amnesty, Human Rights Watch or Doctors Without Borders have fought for so successfully in recent decades? “Today, the biggest risk for the human rights movement is not that it does not get what it wants but that it ends up with much less than it had before. The danger is not that established parties do not adopt the migration policies promoted by human rights activists – but that there are political forces waiting in the wings who will systematically dismantle the existing human rights framework.”

Dalhuisen, born in 1976, worries that Amnesty and Western liberals are harbouring a misplaced confidence in the irreversibility of human rights achievements. He is stunned by the careless self–assurance with which many proponents of open borders – and given their demands this de facto includes organizations such as Amnesty, Human Rights Watch or Doctors Without Borders - believe the right to asylum to be beyond the reach of political forces. They seem to consider the Geneva Refugee Convention or the asylum articles of European Constitutions to be something carved in stone, a kind of natural law. But that’s just not the case. Gravity cannot be abolished – but the Geneva Convention can be, as can the right to asylum enshrined in national constitutions. All things human–made can be destroyed by humans. “And this will eventually happen if we fail to protect borders by other, more humane measures than by abolishing the right to asylum,” Dalhuisen fears. Reduced to three sentences, his assessment is this: If you want an open Europe that continues to help those in need, you must counteract the emergence of political majorities that want to abolish or nullify the right to asylum.

This can only work if the political mainstream succeeds in removing the most important reason for the emergence of such forces – uncontrolled, or the perception of uncontrolled, immigration – by securing Europe’s borders more effectively. But Dalhuisen found that few within the human rights movement, including Amnesty, see things this way.

Is this scaremongering? Or kowtowing to populism? Dalhuisen rejects that. After all, he says, the writing is on the wall everywhere. In Germany, when Frauke Petry was still leading the AfD, she suggested to transform the right to asylum into a privilege awarded at the state’s direction. In Great Britain, many Tories, including Theresa May, think that the country should leave the European Convention on Human Rights. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is closing borders and rejects the admission of Muslim migrants in principle. When Orbán says: “We do not regard these people as Muslim refugees. We regard them as Muslim invaders”, you will find groups in all parts of Europe applauding him. Any human rights activist who has no sense of how far–reaching the dangers of such statements are, is making a serious mistake, warns Dalhuisen. “No one should assume that international human rights conventions are unalterable. They can be changed and will be changed if a majority wants it.” And such a majority will not only arise in Hungary if those who wish to retain the right to asylum are not smarter in how they go about defending it.

Dalhuisen’s concerns can be illustrated by a thought experiment: Imagine what Europe’s parliaments would look like today if European politicians had fulfilled all the demands of human rights organizations over the past three years. If Macedonia, Hungary, Bulgaria and other states had not built fences. If the EU–Turkey Agreement had not been signed. If “safe and legal passages” had been provided as not just “Doctors without Borders” are calling for. If the influx of more than a million people per year had continued or risen further. If the summer of 2015 had kept on repeating itself. What would the election results have been in such a Europe, in France, Germany, Italy?

“Established parties that would not have offered policies to control immigration in such a situation would have been swept away by the first party promising the opposite,” Dalhuisen surmises. He relates a two–hour conversation with a senior Italian politician he had when he was still Amnesty’s Europe director. In Italy, the previous government – a centre–left government, mind you – has reduced the number of people arriving by striking “deals” with militia leaders in Libya that are truly awful: Erstwhile people smugglers are now being paid to control Libya’s shores, so no one can put to sea. In Libyan camps, captured refugees and migrants are exposed to the most severe violations of their human dignity, a modern slave trade has emerged. The Italian contact justified this dirty policy by not being able to control Italy’s borders otherwise, recalls Dalhuisen. The man knew: If he does not do it, somebody else will come along and do it, quite likely through even more problematic means and with even fewer scruples. Although there are Italian politicians who are not comfortable with cooperating with Libyan militias, they also see no other way to reduce the number of arrivals and thus to counter the fears of a majority of Italians. “No significant party in Italy has spoken out against this policy – because they have no alternative offer.”

But what follows from all this? Should Amnesty and similar groups back down and waive their concerns because the majority simply wants closed borders? “Of course not. But they should think more carefully about who their enemies are and who their potential allies.” For those condemning the political mainstream that still recognizes Europe’s human rights commitments for taking into account political majorities and making compromises - and those who even equate that mainstream with demagogues from left or right – who are they then left with as partners in politics where decisions are made? When Dalhuisen speaks of the “mainstream” he means the Merkels and Macrons, the moderate politicians who can only continue in European politics if they win elections. As an example of the inability or unwillingness of human rights groups to distinguish between friend and foe, Dalhuisen mentions the debate on the 2016 EU–Turkey Agreement. The agreement foresees the return of irregular migrants arriving from the Turkish coast on the Greek islands to Turkey so that the life–threatening passage is no longer worthwhile. In turn, Syrians from Turkey were to be resettled to EU countries in an orderly process and larger contingents. Human rights organizations are up in arms against the agreement calling it a “dirty deal” (Pro Asyl). Indeed, there are weaknesses in its practical implementation. The assumption that Turkey is a safe third country for all irregular migrants is simply wrong. “But the contention that Turkey is unsafe for everyone, which is why no one should be sent back, is equally wrong,” says Dalhuisen.

Those who care about maintaining the right to asylum in Europe should be asking themselves what a politically viable alternative to the agreement could be. Given the current state of European politics, human rights activists should think twice before writing off an agreement that secures borders while maintaining the right to asylum and foreseeing relocations from Turkey to Europe. Better to remedy the shortcomings of the agreement, for example, to think through how to promote the development of a functioning asylum system in Turkey.

With such considerations, Dalhuisen was fighting a losing battle at Amnesty. “But it is a brute political reality that European citizens want to see borders brought under control and, in case of doubt, will elect parties that promise to enforce this wish, regardless of how they do it. The question for the human rights activist is whether to acknowledge this reality and try to work out the best possible refugee protection policy under these conditions – and then try to persuade persuadable political forces to adopt it? Or to keep on insisting on a perfect but impossible solution?” Dalhuisen believes in compromise because, unlike maximalist positions, it offers a chance of success. But established human rights groups will have none of it. They want the EU–Turkey Agreement terminated, now. But what would come next? “Many human rights activists tend to overlook the suffering caused by their unwillingness to compromise for those on whose behalf they are actually advocating.” This is a sentence whose force is easily overlooked. But it is a heavy charge: Are Amnesty International and similar groups the right place for people who want to effectively fight for maintaining open societies in Europe?

John Dalhuisen visibly makes an effort to reconcile his convictions with his respect for his former colleagues. He doesn’t want to hurt anybody. Finally, he says: “On some issues Amnesty indeed seems to be the wrong place. In the migration debate, the human rights movement has lost the ability to put forward rights compliant proposals that politicians can put in turn to the electorate.”

The rigid adherence to maximalist positions at the expense of attainable goals is a “strategic mistake” on the part of the human rights movement – albeit one based on an understandable conflict of interest: “Like companies, human rights associations have a business model. Amnesty is selling moral purity. Pragmatism and compromise cannot be marketed quite so well. I have sympathy for this dilemma and I understand it.” But those locked into this model should also be thinking about the costs. “This attitude is the result of a poor analysis that ignores the actual social consequences of political decisions. Ultimately, human lives are being sacrificed on the altar of idealism.”

Three years ago, John Dalhuisen would not have expressed such thoughts. But the consequences of 2015 have left an impact on him. “I left Amnesty because I take the threat of the far right seriously and do not think you can defeat it by relying on pure principles. What is needed is a combination of pragmatism and principles.” And that is precisely what the human rights movement is lacking, which is why it is losing more and more of its influence on the political mainstream in the migration debate. Now that he’s no longer part of the “machine,” as Dalhuisen calls Amnesty, he finds it easier to acknowledge this. Since leaving the “machine”, Dalhuisen is working with a man who, for some human rights activists, is one of their worst enemies: He is now cooperating with the political adviser Gerald Knaus and his Berlin–based think tank “European Stability Initiative”. Knaus is considered the intellectual father of the EU–Turkey agreement – and is seen by some as the pioneer of a “dirty deal” between Turkey and Europe at the expense of refugees. In the past, Dalhuisen also saw it that way. He publicly criticized and insulted Knaus, calling his ideas “morally bankrupt”. Until he met him. During a conversation at Amnesty’s London headquarters, he realized that Knaus does not want to abolish the right to asylum in Europe but to save it. One argument that particularly engaged him was Knaus’s challenge to Amnesty: “Think carefully what you demand! For what you risk is that the Orbáns of this world will eventually win.” Dalhuisen tried to prompt such thinking at Amnesty but had little success: “With many of my colleagues at Amnesty I have clearly failed to de–demonize Knaus and his ideas.”

This is probably also due to the self–image that a lobby group like Amnesty must necessarily have. But Dalhuisen did not want to be part of it anymore, because he did not become active in the human rights movement in order to feel at peace with his ideals, but to push through as many of them as possible. “Amnesty International and the human rights movement in general have achieved a great deal of good. But if they fail to face the challenges of our time, they will sink into insignificance, while hard won human rights conventions will be washed away.”


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