Can Amnesty recover from this tragic death?

Gaëtan Mootoo, Amnesty International's west Africa researcher, talking to those displaced by communal violence in Cote d'Ivoire.
Gaëtan Mootoo, Amnesty International's west Africa researcher, talking to those displaced by communal violence in Cote d'Ivoire. Amnesty International

One year ago, on 25 May 2018, the outstanding researcher Gaëtan Mootoo committed suicide in his office at the Paris branch of the global rights organisation Amnesty International. Why did he kill himself? Can Amnesty recover? A report on the life and work of a remarkable man.


One year on, the international rights body is still in shock.

On the evening of 25 May 2018, 65-year-old researcher Gaëtan Mootoo sat alone in his office on the second floor of the Amnesty International premises in Paris. He was writing a letter, half typed, half handwritten, to his wife Martyne and the couple’s son Robin.

The letter begins “I have asked for help, it has not been provided. I don’t think I can go on like this, hence my decision.” And then he killed himself.

A year later, in a letter to all his colleagues, Kumi Naidoo, the new secretary general of Amnesty, admits that “the results of the independent review . . . into staff well-being within the International Secretariat have brought forward troubling findings, tough conclusions and hard messages as to unacceptable failings and shortcomings.” Clearly, Amnesty has not yet come to terms with the death of its most emblematic worker on the African continent.

The story of Gaëtan Mootoo’s life is, in the first place, the story of a freedom fighter in a French-speaking Africa still very much under the influence of then French president Jacques Chirac, a man who drew his ideas from the neo-colonial thinker Jacques Foccart. Mootoo’s friends were those who suffered torture, the prisoners of conscience. His opponents were corrupt heads of state.

In February 1998, Amnesty published Terror in Casamance, one of the first exclusive investigations carried out by Mootoo, a native of Mauritius. The unforgiving report detailed the misdeeds of both the Senegalese army and of those fighting for the independence of the southern province of Senegal. “It’s a pack of lies and contradictions,” bellowed the president Abdou Diouf. “Amnesty International are a bunch of irresponsible gangsters.”

A guardian of freedom in French-speaking Africa

In May 1999, working with two other researchers, Gaëtan Mootoo was behind another incendiary report on the Togolese regime headed by Gnassingbé Eyadema. Mootoo revealed that, one year earlier, during the presidential election of June 1998, hundreds of handcuffed opponents had been thrown from airplanes into the sea. Jacques Chirac, a supporter of Gnassingbé Eyadema, condemned the report as an attempt at manipulation, while the authorities in Lomé threatened to take legal action against Amnesty.

Pierre Sané, the secretary general of the non-governmental organisation, stood firm.

“I supported Gaëtan,” he explains today, “because I knew that he was able to obtain information that was not accessible to anyone else. And I couldn’t let this pass. Otherwise, in the other states on the coast, other regimes would have started using the same method to get rid of their opposition figures.”

In February 2001 a joint commission of investigation by the United Nations and the African Union confirmed Amnesty’s accusations – expressing doubt only about the claim that “several hundred” victims had died.

Thanks to Gaëtan Mootoo and a handful of other researchers, Amnesty International came to be seen as a beacon of freedom in French-speaking Africa.

Gaëtan Mootoo had a troubled relationship with both Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, arch political rivals in Cote d’Ivoire. It was thanks to Mootoo and Salvatore Saguès, his faithful friend through two decades of investigation, that the truth was revealed about the massacre at Bouaké in October 2002 of dozens of pro-Gbagbo police officers.

In February 2013, two years after the election of Alassane Ouattara, Amnesty published a report on the law of the winners, lamenting that Ivorian justice was unbalanced and unfair to those in the Gbagbo camp.

Ouattara reacted by calling the NGO “biased”.

“In Cote d’Ivoire,” says Pierre Sané, “Gaëtan was one of the few defenders of human rights who was welcome in both camps, because everyone believed in his honesty.”

According to the well-known Senegalese human rights advocate, Alioune Tine, “Gaëtan had a political side, and his efforts have made a huge contribution to the process of democratic change in Africa.”

Humility, patience and tenacity

What techniques did Gaëtan Mootoo use to dig out dangerous evidence? Humility, patience and tenacity. “Human rights were in his genetic make-up,” says Pierre Sané. “He felt a real sympathy for the victims.”

“In Mauritania,” Alioune Tine remembers, “I watched him harass a justice minister until the man admitted that a certain opposition figure, missing for several months, was not dead. You can imagine the joy when Gaëtan was able to bring that news to the missing man’s family!”

Mootoo had an extraordinary relationship with time, according to a smiling Salvatore Saguès. “Under a tree, talking to a village chief, even when we had other witnesses to interview within the hour, he gave the impression of having all the time in the world. When I’d remind him that we had appointments to keep, he’d tell me I was the white man in a hurry. It worked every time!”

Another characteristic of Gaëtan Mootoo was his relationship of trust with certain heads of state whom he had defended when they were behind bars.

“Once,” according to Salvatore Saguès, “after Amnesty published a report on human rights in Guinea, he received a call in his office in Paris . . . I was standing beside him . . . from the new president, Alpha Condé. And Condé said ‘But Gaëtan, we know one another so well. Why didn’t you write to me directly?'”

Things started to go wrong for Gaëtan Mootoo in 2010. The new secretary general of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty, decided to return 250 posts that had been based in Europe to Africa, Asia and South America. The idea was to rid the organisation of any “colonialist” trappings, but Shetty’s approach was too brutal.

Gaëtan Mootoo, who had lived in Paris with his family for over thirty years, was faced with the choice of moving to Dakar, or being sacked. He fought to remain in France. Amnesty finally agreed to let him stay in 2014, but without his team, all of whom were dispatched to Dakar. Gaëtan Mootoo found himself alone in his office in the Paris headquarters of Amnesty, surrounded by colleagues few of whom knew anything about him.

His troubles were only beginning.

In June 2016, despite the efforts made on his behalf by Alioune Tine, who was then Amnesty’s regional director for West and Central Africa, Gaëtan Mootoo’s demands for support were rejected. Worse, in an internal memo sent to the London headquarters, Minar Pimple, managing director of operations, spoke of simply suppressing Mootoo’s job in Paris.

Less and less support

In October 2016 Gaëtan Mootoo went to see the organisation’s doctor who immediately wrote to the management of Amnesty France asking “for a rapid evaluation of Mootoo’s professional situation” and calling on his superiors to take steps to reduce the level of difficulty under which he was being forced to operate.

Because Mootoo was officially employed by the London headquarters of Amnesty, the doctor’s letter was mislaid between Paris and London and there was no follow-up.

Months passed, with the researcher feeling more and more abandoned by management in both Paris and London.

Later, five months after Mootoo’s suicide, in a report commissioned by Amnesty International from the London barrister, James Laddie, Laddie wrote that “I am stunned to note that Gaëtan was obliged to face a certain level of hostility at work. Specifically, relations between himself and the deputy director of the French section were poor. According to several witnesses, she did not make any effort at politeness, she encouraged his colleagues to ignore Gaëtan during the working day, and she referred to him in disparaging terms, notably calling him ‘the hobo’.”

On the tragic day, 25 May 2018, Gaëtan Mootoo continued his work as a researcher at Amnesty’s French headquarters, without showing any signs of the deep distress he was suffering.

Around midday, he spoke to his old friend Pierre Sané. Sané said Mootoo sounded normal. That evening, Mootoo answered the phone to his wife Martyne and told her in a calm voice not to wait for him for dinner.

Then he locked himself into his office, wrote his final letter and took his own life.

“I think it was a sudden decision,” suggests Pierre Sané. “He must have said to himself ‘Because they are giving me such a terrible time, I’ll give them a taste of their own medicine’.”

One of Gaëtan Mootoo’s colleagues told the investigators from Amnesty’s Health and Safety committee that the suicide “was a political gesture. He gave his life in the hope that things might change.”

A political gesture, perhaps? What is clear is that, since the tragedy, Amnesty is in deep crisis. After consecutive mandates and eight years at the helm, Salil Shetty, the secretary general with the muscular approach, was replaced last July by Kumi Naidoo.

In the wake of the initial report by James Laddie on Gaëtan Mootoo’s suicide, the new boss of Amnesty asked the US consultants KonTerra to investigate the much wider question of staff conditions at the NGO.

The results could hardly have been worse. “Harassment, over-work, public humiliation,” were the key findings in the KonTerra report, which described the “toxic environment” in which many employees were forced to work. Before concluding that “it is management failures that are the root cause of most of the staff welfare problems”.

An unprecedented shock

For the venerable NGO . . . Amnesty International was founded in London in July 1961 . . . this was an unprecedented shock. Last February, seven members of the management team wrote to the director general, tendering their resignations. Three months later, five of those resignations have been accepted, including that of Minar Pimple, the author of the anti-Mootoo internal mail of June 2016.

This exchange of letters shows a high degree of euphemism.

Gaëtan Mootoo’s name is never mentioned. In his 9 May reply to the collective resignation, Kumi Naidoo recognises the existence of “a general responsibility for the climate of mistrust,” adding that “in concordance with the findings of James Laddie, my own investigation has failed to identify any individual responsibility.”

In other words, the secretary general is prepared to wipe the slate clean, without punishing anyone.

The five who are leaving the organisation will all be generously compensated.

As for the departed secretary general, Salil Shetty, he has been working since last September at the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy, under the auspices of the Harvard Kennedy School.

Gaëtan Mootoo’s former colleagues are stunned by such a blatant denial of responsibility.

“It was the re-organisation of Amnesty which destroyed Gaëtan’s work environment,” says Paule Rigaud, “but, since his death, the international secretariat in London hasn’t accepted a shred of responsibility. Amnesty goes around the world demanding justice for others but is completely incapable of recognising its own internal crimes.”

According to Mootoo’s former collaborator, Salvatore Saguès, “Gaëtan’s case is merely the tip of the iceberg at Amnesty. A huge amount of suffering is caused to employees. Since the days of Salil Shetty, when top management were being paid fabulous salaries, Amnesty has become a multinational where the staff are seen as dispensable. Human resources management is a disaster and nobody is prepared to stand up and be counted. The level of impunity granted to Amnesty’s bosses is simply unacceptable.”

And what about Amnesty France?

One year on from the tragedy, the management team is still in place, completely unchanged.

In his report, James Laddie had underlined the “isolation” in which Gaëtan Mootoo had worked, as well as the “climate of antipathy” which surrounded him.

“What struck me most in reading the Laddie report,” says Reed Brody, the well-known lawyer-researcher with the organisation Human Rights Watch, “is the complete lack of hospitality on the part of these people at Amnesty France.”

Was Gaëtan Mootoo being boycotted by his colleagues?

“No, there was no boycott,” says Sylvie Brigot-Vilain, director general of Amnesty France. “He had his place, but he was part of a system which did not suit him. We in the French section did not realise the impact that decisions taken by the international branch in London were having on Gaëtan, specifically that he was left without any support team."

So was the transfer of 250 posts from Europe to other continents simply too fast and too brutal?

“It may indeed have been done too quickly,” says Sylvie Brigot-Vilain, in charge of Amnesty France since June 2016. “A certain number of measure were put in place to smooth the transition. But they were insufficient.”

On Monday 27 May 2019, Amnesty France will be joined by branches all over the world in a minute of silence in memory of Gaëtan Mootoo. A memorial plaque in his name will be unveiled in Paris.

But beyond all that?

In its February report, the consultancy KonTerra points to a problem inherent in non-governmental human rights organisations. Some of those who direct these bodies are prouder of their commitment than of their professionalism. Perhaps the business of defending the oppressed, always being on the moral high ground, leads some to forget the rights of their colleagues? Has Amnesty been the victim of the “we’re always right” syndrome?

What is clear is that Amnesty International urgently needs an overhaul, especially since the organisation’s financial situation is unfavourable. According to The Guardian newspaper in London, Amnesty’s budget for the year 2020 will show a shortfall of 20 million euros. At least 70 jobs from a total workforce of 650 will have to be lost.

“Since Gaëtan’s suicide, donations have diminished,” says one observer.

Amnesty would do well to take fully to heart the tragic “political gesture” of one of its most outstanding researchers.

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