FLASHBACK: October 7, 1978Amnesty International Hires Communist for Key Post

[Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the pages of HUMAN EVENTS on October 7, 1978.]

Amnesty International, the most influential group monitoring human rights conditions in various parts of the globe, has set off a storm of criticism within its own organization.  The reason: In August of this year, AI’s nine-man international executive committee selected a prominent Communist party member in Australia to head its research division.

Named to the post was Prof. Derek Roebuck, dean of law at the University of Tasmania.  A Christian for most of his life, but a Communist for “the last seven or eight years,” the 43-year old professor plans to move to AI’s international headquarters in London at the end of the academic year. 

When asked why a Communist was chosen for this strategic position within the organization, an AI press spokesman in London suggested to HUMAN EVENTS that Roebuck had the best credentials from “a strong field of applicants.”

What makes this appointment so critical is that AI – which has been supported by conservatives despite a left-wing bias – has had a powerful impact on how various pro-Western governments, including the United States, decide to deal with various nations of the globe.  When AI criticizes a country for violating human rights, this rebuke is generally accepted as valid and can become a critical component of U.S. and Western foreign policy.

AI’s findings can help determine whether the U.S. frowns or smiles on another nation, whether the U.S. extends or withdraws economic and military support.  Since the media frequently depend on AI research material, the organization also has great impact on the “global image” that nations present to the world. 

A recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and boasting 168,000 members, AI has gained influence partly because of its size.  It has national sections in 33 countries and individual members in 107.  In America, Amnesty International U.S.A. has chapters in 32 states and last year had a budget of three-quarters of a million dollars.

There is no question as to Roebuck’s Communist beliefs.  In the September 6 edition of the Hobart Mercury, a Tasmanian newspaper, Roebuck was quoted as saying: “I joined the Communist party of Australia because it was the only party to me that seemed to be speaking honestly and with intelligent conviction about Vietnam at the time.”

When Independent Tasmania Sen. Brian Harradine, a member of the Federal Parliamentary group of Amnesty International, threatened to resign from AI because he said a Communist could not be impartial, Roebuck responded: “I’m not going to allow my research to be affected by any external factor.  But I will still be as much a Communist.”

Prof. Roebuck quite readily expanded on his beliefs when we telephoned him at his university office.  He acknowledged his CP membership, insisting he had been drawn to it through his anti-Vietnam War activities and had been “impressed by the party’s program.”

He also tried to put some distance between him self and the Soviet Union.  He said he joined the party after it had condemned the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, remarking: “I don’t’ know whether I would have joined had it not made its independence and its Australian thrust so clear.”  He said “Oh, of course,” when asked if he had ever criticized the Soviet Union.  Such criticism, he stated, had been contained in letters written on behalf of Amnesty.

But the split between Roebuck and the USSR is not nearly so great as his initial statements would indicate.  He also admitted that he had never written any articles under his own name, which were critical of the Soviets.  “I haven’t written articles attacking the Soviet Union,” he finally acknowledged.  “I can’t remember writing an article attacking the Soviet Union, no.”  Because of the bias of the media, he added, “It’s not surprising that I’ve written most of these things [articles critical of the U.S.] apparently one way . . . .”

Indeed, he has bitterly assailed the U.S. In the July 12 Tribune, an Australian Communist party publication, Prof. Roebuck wrote a column titled “Between the Lines” In which he said:

“It is not the remote Pentagon that we have to defeat, but our own government.  Australia’s alliance with the U.S.A. makes us responsible.  Bases in Australia are the monster antennae.  They swim in Australia’s seas and feed in Australia’s ports.  The people of Australia must seek stronger allies.  We must not be sidetracked from recognizing the foremost and consistent initiatives of the Soviet Union and other Socialist countries, with the sad exception of China.”

Was the U.S. the monster? We asked.  He danced around the question a bit, but then said flatly, that what he meant was: “We won’t get peace in Australia by increasing our involvement with the United States’ war machine.”

Prof. Roebuck repeatedly stressed that his main goal was “peace” for the world, but his view appears to totally coincide with the Soviet view.  He has co-authored a book Whores of War – which takes the Soviet view on Angola – with Communist writer Wilfred Burchett (though Prof. Roebuck says Burchett has” never been a Communist . . . I can vouch for it.”  He does admit however, that Burchett has written “from a Socialist point of view about the Korean War and Vietnam War.”).  He thinks South Korea – not North Korea – is responsible for the dangerous situation on the Korean peninsula, he aligns himself with the Soviets on Vietnam, and he repeatedly denounces the U.S. “war machine.”  In short, it is difficult to believe that he will be an objective chief of research for Amnesty.

So hot has the dispute become over his appointment that several Australian members of AI have vigorously protested his selection and threatened resignation.  Sen. Brian Harradine of Tasmania, for instance, has written to Amnesty members:

“I find it incredible that a most prominent member of the Communist party of Australia (CPA) in Tasmania . . . has been appointed Head of Research in AI’s London headquarters.  An organization such as AI depends for its effectiveness and acceptance on a balanced approach to the question of political prisoners.

“Indeed, one of the duties of AI’s head of Research is to ‘ensure that the highest standards of accuracy, impartiality and judgment are maintained in Amnesty’s actions for the protection of specific human rights’ . . . .

“So far as I am concerned, I would place very little credence on the value of political research prepared by Prof. Derek Roebuck who surprisingly welcomed being called a political propagandist . . . and who has for some years been very closely associated with partisan Marxist activities . . . .

“The Head of AI’s Research at times accompanies AI’s Director in visits to countries to gain information.  Can you imagine that Prof. Roebuck’s presence would instill confidence in or elicit information vital to the work of AI from the victims of regimes which have received his active recent support?”

Australian Sen. Alan Missen, chairman, Australian Parliamentary Group, Amnesty International, wrote a stinging letter on September 18 to Martin Ennals, AI’s secretary general, in London.

Said Missen: “Along with many of my Parliamentary colleagues, I am personally appalled at the likely effect of the appointment on the future acceptability of Amnesty findings, particularly by governments.  We are conscious of certain criticism of bias made against Amnesty from time to time and complaints that left-wing regimes are treated too gently.  Those criticisms, can, I believe, be effectively answered.  However, the appointment as head of research (with all that involves) will no doubt lead to an increase in such criticisms since the appointment has gone to a political partisan who is the holder of an extremist philosophy.

“We are not speaking of a researcher, but the Head of Research, a vital aspect of AI. After all, Prof. Roebuck is the best-known and most active Communist in Tasmania and his recent article in the Communist Tribune (copy of which I enclose) shows such support for the Soviet Union and in similar countries.”

Ennals had not replied as of this writing, but both the London headquarters and Roebuck himself insisted that the Australian Communist professor will be safely ensconced in his new AI position sometime early next year.