Amnesty International’s toxic work culture

Amnesty International, a London based non-governmental organization focused on human rights is facing criticism after it was revealed that the organisation is suffering from a toxic work environment.

Background

Amnesty International was founded in London in 1961 by the lawyer Peter Benenson. Amnesty draws attention to human rights abuses and campaigns for compliance with international laws and standards. It works to mobilize public opinion to put pressure on governments that let abuse take place.Amnesty considers capital punishment to be "the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights". The organization was awarded the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize for its "defence of human dignity against torture" and the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights in 1978.

Amnesty International is largely made up of voluntary members, but retains a small number of paid professionals. 

Analysis

A report undertaken by KonTerra Group led by psychologists has found that Amnesty International which is focused on human rights has a “toxic” working environment, is prone to  power abuses  , such as bullying, public humiliation and discrimination.

A review into workplace culture, commissioned after two staff members killed themselves last year, found a dangerous “us versus them” dynamic, and a severe lack of trust in senior management, which threatened Amnesty’s credibility as a human rights champion.

The review was based on a survey of 475 staff members, which amounts to about 70 percent of the workforce of Amnesty's international secretariat, and interviews conducted by the KonTerra Group. “There were multiple reports of managers belittling staff in meetings, deliberately excluding certain staff from reporting, or making demeaning, menacing comments like: ‘You’re shit!’ or: ‘You should quit! If you stay in this position, your life will be a misery,’” it said.

Many staff at Amnesty described their employment as a vocation or life cause and said there had a “significant risk of experiencing secondary stress or vicarious trauma” due to the nature of the work. One of the issues facing the organisation was a “martyrdom culture”, in which staff would sacrifice their own wellbeing by taking on huge workloads – a clear “recipe for overload and burnout”. The restructuring had “taken a considerable toll” on staff wellbeing, it said. “Amnesty cannot effectively strive to make the world a better place while perpetuating an organisational culture deeply marked by secrecy, mistrust, nepotism and other forms of power abuse.”

Assessment

Our assessment is that given the organization’s mission is to primarily  protect and promote human rights, it has deviated  from this path by not being able to adhere to such standards internally . It is quite  likely that this anomaly  can be used as a pretext by governments and other opponents to dismiss the advocacy they have been following in protecting human rights , jeopardizing its very existence.