News and analysis
December 15, 2015

Amnesty USA Leader Departs Abruptly Following Controversial Moves

John Lamparski, Getty Images

Steven Hawkins resigned last week as executive director of Amnesty International.

Updated Tuesday at 3:22 p.m.

Steven Hawkins, whose two-and-a-half-year tenure as executive director of Amnesty International USA was marked by disagreements with the group’s board and some of its longtime members, resigned as executive director last week.

A tersely worded news release announcing Mr. Hawkins’s departure gives no reason for it, and AmnestyUSA leaders said they can’t comment on why he left. "It’s a personnel issue," said Margaret Huang, now the interim executive director.

During Mr. Hawkins’s tenure, the organization improved its finances, attracted younger supporters, and stabilized its membership levels. But the main thrust of his leadership — a stronger focus on civil-rights abuses in the United States to "bring human rights home," as he put it — wasn’t well received by many in the organization who wanted it to continue to emphasize fighting abuses abroad.

Still, Ms. Huang said in her statement that the group will continue to place an emphasis on advocacy campaigns in the United States.

"Our executive team, all of whom were hired by Steve, has made a commitment to stay the course," said Ms. Huang. "We’ve seen a lot of progress in the last two years."

In some ways, the organization’s board will stay the course, too, she adds, by embracing a plan conceived largely by Mr. Hawkins.

"Under Steven’s leadership, Amnesty International USA made steady progress toward its mission of protecting human rights both at home and abroad and is a stronger organization today than it was before his tenure," said the group’s board chair, Ann Burroughs, in the group’s statement. "For that, the organization as a whole is very grateful and wishes him only great things in the future."

Leadership Clashes

As Mr. Hawkins dispatched Amnesty teams to sites of civil unrest in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., many members worried that he was taking the organization away from its original mission, though it had undertaken many campaigns in the United States in the past.

Those new campaigns enticed younger people to join the group, but integrating them into the organization hasn’t been easy. Many want to have a voice in the organization, a role that has traditionally been reserved for longtime members.

"Our work on police violence has brought in a lot of new members," Rafia Zakaria a former Amnesty board member told The Chronicle in October. "The challenge those new members pose is that they are passionate and want the organization to change."

While in the top post, Mr. Hawkins — who had previously worked for several organizations, including the NAACP — said that he remained undeterred in his desire to shift more of the group’s advocacy work toward the United States.

"There are individuals within Amnesty who believe we’re becoming too domestically focused," he said. "I don’t expect to win everyone over, but as long as I can expand the pie and increase our level of support, I’ll be taking the organization in the right direction, and not just financially."

Ms. Huang, a longtime Amnesty employee and most recently its chief of staff, will head the organization into 2016. "We’re a democratically organized group, so we’ll be talking to a lot of members about what they want to see in a new director," she said.

After the turn of the year, the organization’s board and executive team will mount a search to find his permanent replacement.