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Can Amnesty International fix its toxic work culture?

Amnesty head Kumi Naidoo discusses bullying, discrimination and mismanagement affecting the organisation internally.

Amnesty International has worked to hold governments accountable for human rights violations for nearly 60 years, and it is now giving a critical look at its own organisation.

Following the suicide of a staff member, Amnesty commissioned an independent review of its company culture, which found that some of its staff have been victims of bullying, public humiliation, discrimination, and abuses of power, and that these issues threaten the organisation’s credibility.

The report surveyed hundreds of employees as part of its investigation and found widespread mismanagement and a “toxic” work environment.

According to the report, 39 percent of staff had developed mental or physical health issues because of working there, and 65 percent didn’t believe their well-being was a priority for Amnesty.

“I think this was a problem that was left festering for decades,” Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty’s secretary-general, told Al Jazeera.

While we are winning battles, we are losing the war. And that contributes to a very stressful environment because all the folks that work at Amnesty are passionate, committed ... and they also understand that while we are winning here and there and important battles, they can see that human rights is slipping away from us.

by Kumi Naidoo, secretary-general of Amnesty International

Naidoo, who began his role in August last year, is looking to address these issues quickly.

He said these problems, in part, come from the inherently stressful nature of their work, as well as from an outdated management structure and the company’s failure to prioritise its staff’s well-being.

“Our organisation, set up in 1961, has added one layer of complexity after the other as it’s evolved, and to be honest we need a complete reorganising because, in fact, the very structure of Amnesty right now is a source of certain conflicts and tensions that we need to fix urgently,” he said. 

He pointed out that Amnesty chose to make the report public, and that all seven members of its senior leadership team have accepted responsibility and offered to resign. To him, this transparency is a good first step.

“I am not saying it’s going to be easy for us to recalibrate and move forward with a healing approach, if you want, but the commitment is there from myself, the board, and all parts of the organisation and we are focused on acting on it,”  he said. “One year won’t sort everything out. But the term ‘toxic’ is quite a loaded word. I think within a year, I want that word off the table.”

Until then, he recognises how the report bears weight on Amnesty’s mission.

I take the approach as the leadership of Amnesty at the board level and so on that given our values, given what we stand for, one case or two cases of racism or sexism or bullying are one case too many.”