Amnesty, Attention, and Raif Badawi

Amnesty International’s defense of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi has gathered quite a bit of attention over the last few weeks.  While his case would have captured some attention regardless, the Charlie Hebdo shooting and the death of King Abdullah have amplified the relevance of Badawi’s case.  Although some intricacies of this case are particular to Amnesty’s prisoner of conscience strategy, it still sheds a great deal of light on attempts to use international attention and political pressure.

Amnesty’s prisoner of conscience strategy exists on two levels.  The first focuses on immediate action.  Amnesty attempts to channel pressure to achieve their goals in one particular case. For the Raif Badawi case, the goal at this level is to stop his flogging and obtain his release from prison.

However, the second level uses the prisoner of conscience as a symbol of a particular type of human rights abuses.  If Amnesty’s sole focus was to secure the release of the prisoners of conscience they adopt they would help many individuals, but their impact would be relatively limited.  As Nicholas Kristof would happily tell you, it is much easier to bring attention to systemic problems when you highlight the story of an individual.  Amnesty does just that, linking broader human rights problems to an individual case.

Amnesty’s first priority is certainly protecting Badawi from vicious punishment, yet he also has great symbolic value.  First, he is imprisoned for apostasy, having “insulted Islam” on his website.  The charges make clear Saudi Arabia’s complete intolerance for dissent, free speech, and freedom of religion.  His particularly medieval punishment, 50 lashes each week for 12 weeks, also demonstrates the brutality of the Saudi government.  Last, Saudi Arabia’s status as a key US ally gives Amnesty both a primary actor, Saudi Arabia, and a secondary one, the US, to pressure through naming and shaming.  Raif Badawi’s case draws clear attention to Saudi Arabia’s horrendous human rights record, and Amnesty is also able to use the attention to pressure the US to use its leverage over Saudi Arabia.

Recent events, while completely unexpected by Amnesty, have amplified Badawi’s symbolic value.  First, on January 7th, gunmen attacked the headquarters of French satirical magainze Charlie Hebdo, killing eleven.  The attack led to popular defense of ideals of free speech, culminating in a unity rally on January 11th, two days after Badawi was lashed for the first time.  The march was attended by as many as 2 million people including many notable world leaders, among them Saudi officials.  Many pointed to the hypocrisy of a number of leaders at the march, and Raif Badawi was often brought up both to criticize the Saudi leaders attending and the many leaders allied with them.  Nicholas Kristof used his January 14th column to criticize Saudi Arabia’s treatment of Badawi and the US alliance with the Saudis.  Amnesty provided the means for this criticism, having been far and away the main promoter of his case.  For example, the first person to use what became the fairly popular hashtag #jesuisraif, an appropriation of #jesuischarlie, linked to Amnesty’s update on the case.

The death of King Abdullah on January 23rd further put Saudi Arabia under the spotlight.  While a number of Western leaders gave glowing statements remembering Abdullah,  his death also brought examination of Saudi Arabia’s government and the US alliance with it.  Raif Badawi’s case served as a clear example of human rights abuses that critics could point to.  With the instability in the Middle East, most recently with Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical importance to the US and EU is greater than ever.  However, it is nearly impossible to talk about Saudi Arabia without mentioning its abhorrent human rights record, and Raif Badawi’s case offers a clear demonstration of these abuses.

There is not a linear path from attempts to use attention and political pressure to the intended goal.  No one can really direct the efforts, but powerful individuals and organizations can provide the means for broad-based actions to serve the intended purpose.  Amnesty knew that Raif Badawi’s treatment showed the brutality and intolerance of a staunch Western ally.  They would have had no idea that there would be events leading to intense attention on free speech and the Saudi government, but their focus on Badawi clearly stemmed from the aspects of his case that made his symbolic value particularly important.  As they had already provided coverage and research on Badawi’s case, others were easily able to adapt attention on current events to shame the Saudi government in a vulnerable time.  The nature of Badawi’s case, repeated flogging over a long period of time, means that Saudi Arabia will face continued criticism over the course of his punishment.  The postponement of Badawi’s second lashing because his wounds have not healed may be an attempt to outlast the international attention.  While his release is not secured by any means, this would suggest that Amnesty is making progress on their immediate goal of stopping his punishment.  The broader goal of shaming Saudi Arabia on its human rights record has already had success, and Saudi Arabia will only further damage its reputation each time they flog Badawi.