Claudio Cordone: Amnesty International

Claudio Cordone, Amnesty International’s senior lawyer, is a softly-spoken intellectual with a demeanour that could almost be described as monkish. It is hardly the image of the fashionable human rights crusader. But, on the paper-laden shelves, beside the Paul Klee prints adorning his Rosebery Avenue office, is a book entitled Torture in the 1980s. It is a blunt reminder of what Amnesty does and what Cordone’s work entails.

Cordone joined Amnesty in 1985 as a researcher in the Middle East region before being appointed head of the policy unit in 1994. In 2002, after an internal restructure, he was offered the job of head of legal at the International Secretariat.

In the past 20 years, Cordone has witnessed a transformation in the human rights landscape. “When we started we were only one of a few human rights organisations. We’re still the largest, and we’re the only one with an active membership and virtually global reach,” he says, adding that the difference now is that Amnesty is “part of a large human rights movement and a movement for social change”.

Amnesty has evolved too. Cordone says it has “become more flexible”. One rule that is being slowly lifted is the restriction on staff from working on their own countries.

When Cordone started in 1985, the legal programme had just a handful of lawyers. Today, there are 30 staff spread across offices in London, Geneva and New York, plus five unpaid interns. Another key change was to make the senior director of the legal department part of senior management. Cordone says that move, which happened during the management restructure of 2002, is a statement of the importance of the legal team.

The work of the International Secretariat is undertaken by two UK companies, Amnesty International Charity and Amnesty International Limited, each with different directors. The division enables Amnesty to fund and undertake its research into human rights and to publish country reports – activities that might otherwise be excluded by charity laws. The charity arm funds the work of Amnesty Limited.

Cordone, the child of Italian diplomats, was born in Egypt and had a nomadic upbringing, growing up in Lebanon, Morocco, Syria and Saudi Arabia. A Catholic school education, combined with a childhood spent in countries where state violence was a part of life, helped spark Cordone’s interest in human rights. In Lebanon in particular he witnessed two years of the brutal civil war. “I developed a strong ethical sense that came from seeing violence and injustice in the streets,” he says.

Keen to give academic validity to his instincts, Cordone went on to study the philosophy of law at Rome University before taking a Masters degree in Middle East Studies in the US. “I wanted to justify to myself why it’s worth working in human rights,” he says. “One I’d done that, I’d convinced myself that it was worth doing and I began to look for something practical.” That something practical was to be a career in either law, diplomacy or politics, and Amnesty won out. “It provided clout and a job that is pure, to the extent that any job can be. You don’t have to compromise with national politics or other things,” he says.

While Amnesty is still best known for its campaigns against torture, the organisation is also becoming active in promoting economic, social and cultural rights. The right to vote is, after all, not a great deal of use when you are starving. As Cordone puts it: “To have a proper health system is no more or less expensive or complicated than to have a proper judicial system.”

The organisation is also increasingly concerned with women’s rights, with the introduction this month of a new programme targeting violence against women. Cordone’s challenge for now is to translate this new focus into action. “We’re still coming to grips with how to operationalise economic, social and cultural rights and how to show why they’re rights like any others,” he says. It is a challenge that involves some rethinking at Amnesty as well as in the world at large.

But despite its reputation as a human rights crusader, Amnesty has traditionally shied away from launching lawsuits or joining litigation as an interested party. It is a question the organisation is pondering at the moment. “We’ve had a debate, and we’re still having it, as to what extent we should consider becoming more proactive, including starting legal action ourselves,” says Cordone. He adds that the restraint thus far has been driven in part by the organisation’s desire to protect its sources, many of whom risk their lives by speaking to Amnesty’s researchers.

More fundamentally, the idea of pursuing human rights violators goes against the very nature of Amnesty. “Our work is to do enough research to show that there are violations occurring and that something ought to be done about it,” he says. “It’s not aimed at establishing individual criminal responsibility. That requires more of a prosecutorial approach.”

Increasingly, though, Amnesty’s status as a bank of information is making it the unwitting target of subpoenas in litigation. How to respond is a major concern for the human rights organisation. “As an organisation that aims at ending impunity, if there’s a situation where we’re the only ones that have first-hand evidence that would make a crucial difference in an important case and would not endanger people, we may consider testifying or otherwise providing evidence,” he says. But such decisions come at a cost and, not surprisingly, Cordone has reservations about closing doors that are currently open. “People may not want to talk to you if they think that the information will end up in a court of law,” he stresses.

Amnesty’s legal team, then, performs an unusual role and one which is a long way from the adversarial instincts by which most lawyers define themselves. For Amnesty’s legal team, everything is subsumed by the overriding principles of the institution. In this regard, perhaps Cordone’s civil law heritage has helped. When I ask him if he is frustrated by his inability to pursue offenders, and by what some might view as the impotence of his role at Amnesty, he replies with characteristic equanimity: “You learn to sublimate the anger.”

But he is quick to defend the legal team against charges that its role is purely academic. “Everything is aimed at action for change,” he argues. “We’re not an academic organisation, and although many of us have academic interests, we need to be disciplined and concentrate on change.”

It will shock no one to learn that Amnesty’s legal programme is stretched. “It is, and always will be, under-resourced,” admits Cordone. “More and more, we cannot afford to have the expertise we need within a programme, with only a few legal advisers.”

To make its limited resources stretch further, Cordone says the legal team is keen to work on a pro bono basis with specialists in the core areas in which Amnesty needs advice – namely, discrimination, libel and drafting or reviewing amicus briefs. He is considering other options too, including offering secondments to private practitioners or academics. “What we can give them is access to global information and the opportunity to be involved in developing
and implementing actions by Amnesty,” he enthuses.

In his 20-year career at Amnesty, Cordone is best known for his role in the pursuit of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Pinochet’s release on the grounds of ill-health outraged many. So, after 14 years of work, does the outcome of the case gall him?
Again, Cordone is characteristically philosophical. “Everyone’s entitled to their human rights, even Pinochet,” he replies.

When asked about his proudest achievements, Cordone pauses for what seems like an age. Eventually he says: “You work for the principle. I was always realistic – and maybe more cynical – than others about the ability to make rapid and spectacular change.” He admits that Amnesty’s credibility is something he enjoys. “When you show up and say you’re with Amnesty, that carries a certain clout,” he says.

Indeed, there is no denying that it is Amnesty’s status as an almost unimpeachable international institution that helps its human rights goals. Cordone tells a story of a Jordanian prisoner who was unaware that Amnesty was campaigning for his freedom. Only upon his release, when the authorities asked him how Amnesty became involved, did he learn of the international community of strangers who had lobbied for his freedom. “He was thankful,” says Cordone.
“Sometimes, when it doesn’t seem like you’ve had an impact, you learn of stories like this. It helps you recognise that our credibility translates into making a difference.”

After our interview Cordone visited Libya, where he issued an Amnesty report – the first in 15 years – criticising its human rights record. The following day, Libya released more than 1,000 prisoners.
Despite such successes, Cordone is the last person to languish in glory and self-righteousness. “There’s a danger of complacency against which we need to guard,” he says. “The numbers of those you can actually affect are limited and there are many more who will die and be tortured. But the work we do is nevertheless something to be proud of and it’s a motivation to continue.”

Claudio Cordone
Senior director, international law and organisations
Amnesty International International Secretariat

Organisation Amnesty International International Secretariat
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Senior director, international law and organisations Claudio Cordone
Reporting to Secretary general, international secretariat
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