Former Amnesty International UK staff have called on its leadership to resign after a report found incidents of overt racism at its international secretariat, including senior staff using the P-word and the N-word.
Former AIUK staff spoke to Third Sector after it emerged that an internal review – commissioned following the Black Lives Matter protests last year – into Amnesty International, a separate body but also based in the UK, had recorded multiple examples of staff reporting incidents of racism.
It followed an email that was sent to AI staff in July, which acknowledged that racism was encoded into the “very organisational model” of Amnesty International, 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(...) has remained overwhelmingly in the hands of entities in and people from the white majority global north,” it said.
The consultancy Howlett Brown, which was asked to conduct the review, was given access to surveys of international secretariat staff and carried out six focus groups of 51 employees each, including two exclusively attended by black staff.
The 46-page report was published on the Amnesty International website last October, but not released to the press.
The organisation said today this was because it was an internal matter, but it was presented to all staff in the same month.
The report found multiple instances of overt racism that included senior staff using the N-word and P-word, with colleagues labelled over-sensitive if they complained.
In addition to systemic bias, where the capability of black staff was questioned consistently and without justification, minority ethnic staff felt disempowered and sidelined on projects.
The report highlighted a lack of awareness or sensitivity to religious practices resulting in problematic comments and behaviour, and aggressive and dismissive behaviour, particularly over email and often directed toward staff in offices in the global south.
In a statement, Amnesty International “wholeheartedly” apologised to any staff who had experienced discrimination or been hurt by individual, structural or systemic racism.
In a separate response, AIUK said: “These are serious and challenging concerns and, although I cannot discuss individual cases, we take allegations of discrimination seriously and investigate them thoroughly in line with our policies and procedures.”
But Kieran Aldred, who worked for AIUK as an advocacy officer for three years until 2018, alleged the organisation’s leadership was actively harmful to staff from minority ethnic backgrounds.
Aldred said racism was endemic both within AIUK and in the wider voluntary sector because of white saviour complexes and recruitment and promotion processes that favoured middle-class white backgrounds.
He described Amnesty as “institutionally racist” and said the response of the organisation's senior leadership was a PR stunt to protect themselves.
Aldred said the regulator, membership bodies and charity leaders needed to try much harder - and described attempts to diversify the sector as “comical at this point”.
Shoomi Chowdhury left her role on the human rights education team at AIUK about a month ago.
She was also the BAME staff organiser and part of the organisation’s diversity and inclusion group, but she said that as a brown Muslim woman and only person of clour on her team she never felt safe.
“I spent the last five years there trying to make the charity safe and was consistently being gaslit,” she said.
Zainab Asunramu started as a volunteer at AIUK in 2013 before becoming trusts and corporate fundraising co-ordinator. She reiterated her colleagues' claims that AIUK was an “incredibly unsafe place” and described her time there as overworked and underpaid.
“This is how white supremacy works – it makes you feel like you cannot speak out because it is so institutional,” she added.
Aldred, Chowdhury, and Asunramu all called for the AIUK leadership to resign.
Both the international secretariat and AIUK pledged to tackle the root causes of the issues identified to ensure the organisations were authentically and fully anti-racist.
Kate Allen, director of AIUK for the past two decades, last month announced plans to retire later this year.