The respected human rights NGO researcher killed himself on the 25th of May. He had been gradually marginalised since the radical restructuring of 2014-2015, when approximately 250 employees were deployed in the field. Gaëtan Mootoo’s act highlights dysfunctions and a strong sense of unease among employees, as revealed by an internal report.
The tragedy took place almost six months before this was written, but the shock wave is far from being extinguished for Amnesty International. On the night of the 25th to the 26th of May, Gaëtan Mootoo killed himself, aged 65, in the Paris premises of the famous human rights NGO. This researcher specialising in French-speaking Africa, unanimously respected, has spent his entire career, started 32 years earlier, there.
Gaëtan Mootoo loved his work, which represented a "secular priesthood" to him according to his family. He wanted to do it the best he could. To the point of ending his days when he felt that this was impossible for him, due to the profound transformations at work at Amnesty since 2011 and the meagre position he had been alloted in recent years.
Specialist field investigator in West Africa, Gaëtan Mootoo was the author of innumerable reports on the situation of human rights in Mali, Chad, Togo, Ivory Coast, Guinea and a dozen of countries considered altogether. The tributes that were paid to him, for example in Libération or by Alioune Tine, the former head of the Dakar office, do not hide the admiration he provoked among the connoisseurs of French-speaking Africa. "On his field, Gaëtan Mootoo spoke with everyone and knew everyone: all leaders, all opponents, all advisers, all prisons, secret or not...", an employee of Amnesty France testifies today.
Gaëtan Mootoo on a mission for Amnesty International. © DR
The researcher had never concealed his disapproval of the great upheaval that agitated the NGO in 2014 and 2015, when 250 of its London-based positions (and in a small part elsewhere in Europe, including Paris) were relocated in the field, in Africa, Asia and Latin America. With very little consideration for how teams should adapt to this radical professional and personal change.
He was also increasingly out of step with the priorities of the organisation, which many described as now more interested in the instantaneous communication of social networks than in the quasi-academic reports he used to meticulously produce.
However, the tragic event had not been anticipated by anyone. As Mediapart President Edwy Plenel - one of his friends - said on 7 June, Gaëtan Mootoo was due to go on a mission to Mali from 29 May to 12 June, then to the Ivory Coast. And just before reaching the point of no return, he had told several colleagues, his wife Martyne Perrot and his son Robin, of his plans for the following days and weeks.
While all suicides are rooted in a variety of causes, Gaëtan Mootoo's is inevitably linked to the working conditions within Amnesty International. By the choice of location, first. Next, by the letter that the researcher left. A handwritten part was addressed to his relatives. The typewritten part, on the other hand, insisted on the bitter report made by the researcher: he loved his work, but felt that he no longer had the means to conduct it satisfactorily.
Social Security made no mistake. At the end of August, it recognised this suicide to be an occupational accident thatmeans it must be linked to the professional sphere. This is a rare decision, which concerns only ten to thirty cases per year, according to the Health Insurance itself. As a result, Gaëtan Mootoo's widow should receive an annual pension equal to 60% of his salary.
A similar observation can be drawn from the report, distributed internally on the 1st of October, of the Health, Safety and Working Conditions Committee (CHSCT) of Amnesty International France, which Mediapart was able to consult. The preparation of this report, also partially circulated by the British dailies The Times and The Guardian, was made mandatory in France by the conditions of death of the researcher.
Certainly this document, developed by representatives of employees and management, helped by an outside consultant, is cautious. It refuses to draw peremptory conclusions and assign explicit responsibilities to this tragedy. It is none the less enlightening to read, while the NGO faces a second suicide, that of Roz McGregor, a 28-year-old intern based in Geneva, which occurred five weeks after that of Gaëtan Mootoo.
The document, which compiles many anonymous testimonies and sketches only some elements of liaison or synthesis, describes the inexorable marginalisation of Gaëtan Mootoo and the isolation he tried to undo, in vain, despite several requests for help. It also mentions, sometimes indirectly, the dysfunctions of Amnesty and the significant unease which today affects some of its employees. Whether in the French section, which housed Gaëtan Mootoo among its 90 employees, or in its international secretariat, based in London and with more than 650 employees, to which he was officially attached.
The International Secretariat (IS) is the equivalent of the headquarters of the NGO, headed by a Secretary General. The latter is elected for a four-year term and reports to the Amnesty Global Assembly, composed of representatives of more than 70 national "sections". In addition to the French report, the IS has also ordered, under pressure from a petition initiated by "friends and colleagues" of Gaëtan Mootoo, an independent review by a British lawyer, James Laddie. His work, which will be made public Monday, 19 November, must determine whether the duties imposed on the employer ("duty of charge" according to British law, close to l’obligation de sécurité (safety obligation) in French law) have been respected. (See Laddie’s review here)
Asked by Mediapart, the IS recognises that "the French report raises serious concerns" and gives "a binding assurance" to treat "this tragedy with the gravity and priority it deserves". "We are committed to evaluating the results and applying the lessons learned from the surveys once they are all completed,"says the organisation, which refuses to speak further for the time being (read its full response, in English, below*). The president of the French section, Cécile Coudriou, is also waiting for the publication of the second report before speaking. For their part, the family of Gaëtan Mootoo did not wish, at this stage, to make comments.
Given the tension surrounding the death of the researcher, none of his former colleagues or friends wanted to speak publicly. But in Dakar, the office he attended at least twice a year during his travels, the twenty employees of the NGO do not hide feeling "a lot of anger over the management of this tragedy": "We did not feel any empathy expressed by the organisation when Gaëtan's death was announced, but rather efforts to save the Amnesty brand, one of the employees let slip. In our view, the first press release was insulting.”
The statement, released on 28 May, did not speak of suicide, merely lamenting the loss of one of the organisation's "most dedicated and committed human rights experts". The second press release mentioning suicide was only released on 8 June after an AFP dispatch and Edwy Plenel's ticket revealed the circumstances of the employee's death on 7 June.
A doctor's letter lost between Paris and London
Reading the CHSCT report, and while waiting for the work of James Laddie, it appears that the NGO will have to act visibly and strongly if it wishes to ease the tensions caused by the suicide of its researcher. But it will also have to work on the underlying tensions revealed by the drama. "It's a political act, he gave us his death so that things would change" one of the employees quoted went as far as asserting.
Conducted on the basis of 34 interviews and a questionnaire sent to all French employees, the work of the CHSCT establishes that a "conflict of values" and a lack of professional recognition heavily contributed to the feeling of malaise experienced by Gaëtan Mootoo. His weakening “was at the height of his strong professional investment and his unfailing loyalty to Amnesty International." According to the document, the international secretariat "did not do enough support work that would have allowed him to find his place in this new organisation".
The researcher had "however sought help on many occasions without receiving the answers to meet his needs": in 2015, he had requested the British union Unite, which represents NGO employees, before changing his mind. And in July 2016, Autumn 2017 and January 2018, several employees had alerted their various officials about his fragility or his state of health regarded as worrying. Without a real answer.
Above all, in October 2016, Gaëtan Mootoo requested the services of an occupational doctor, who then paid a visit to his office and sent a letter of warning to Amnesty France management. "For those who knew Gaëtan, his reservation regarding his personal life and his disinclination to visit doctors, this initiative on his behalf was a real alarm signal", says one of his former colleagues.
The letter from the occupational doctor stated that the employee was complaining of a "professional situation [that] had deteriorated" and urged the NGO to "proceed as soon as possible to the assessment of Mr Mootoo's work situation" and to "take all steps required to reduce and prevent occupational hazards".
Gaëtan Mootoo during an investigation. © DR
This request was never followed up since the letter was not taken into account. A failure that symbolises the loneliness faced by the researcher, accommodated in Paris but officially attached to London. The CHSCT report describes the event in a diplomatic tone, which despite that is no less startling to read: "The HR department asked Gaëtan Mootoo to indicate the person to whom to send this letter and/or to forward this letter to anyone who should read it in London. Some confusion followed. This letter and the business form did not reach the IS in due time.”
"Neither in London, nor in Paris, were the operation, the procedures concerning Gaëtan Mootoo clearly verbalised, expressed or notified", the report notes. This is due to his situation being exceptional: "Of all those involved in the African programme, he is the only one to have remained in Europe after 2015," one of his colleagues emphasised.
A massive relocation, carried out quickly and brutally
This describes the extent of the restructuring carried out by the NGO and the radicality with which this project was conducted. Its goal: to move from a team of researchers based mainly in London and a few decentralised offices to 17 regional offices "closer to the field", spread over all the continents. Africa now has three offices in Nairobi (Kenya), Johannesburg (South Africa) and Dakar (Senegal), which centralise work for West and Central Africa.
This massive relocation was the work of Indian Secretary General Salil Shetty from 2010 to August 2018 (he was replaced this summer by South African Kumi Naidoo). When launching the project in 2011, he never concealed that his goal was to "decolonise" the NGO and promised the southern sections, in Africa in particular, that they would have more resources and weight against the historical European structures (Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, etc.).
The conditions under which this "global transition programme" have been conducted are still being criticised throughout the organisation. They instigated many departures and led to a strike in October 2012, very rare in the history of Amnesty. In March 2016, an article in LaChronique, the French section's newspaper, entitled "Cap au Sud", went as far as to evoke a transformation process that "was often conducted painfully", leaving "still gaping wounds". The article noted the departure of "many valuable talents" and "methods of management of the International Secretariat (IS) of London [that] have not always been glorious".
The CHSCT report bears the traces of these rifts. "The restructuring has created tremendous tension. The reorganisation, conducted technocratically, was completely meaningless", denounced an employee questioned on the matter. "People who refused to leave on the ground were accused of racism or being passionless and wanting to stay nice and warm in Europe", another expressed regretfully.
"On paper, the international secretariat did of course want to retain experienced employees. But in fact, what was proposed did not show such a desire. The contracts of the new regional offices depend on local law and wages are close to the local level. There was no willingness to pay salaries to the standards prevailing in international NGOs", an employee who left the company during this process explained to Mediapart.
Dozens and dozens of experienced employees made the same choice as him, judging that nothing had been designed to support them. "It had to be decided whether to move to a new country or leave the position without many administrative issues being resolved," said the resigned member. “And not least, like the tax system, pensions and insurance... Human resources did not measure up to the project at all." A second is even less indulgent: "The goal was also to get rid of experienced people, who might express doubts about the project. A large number of people were pushed to the exit, without paying them compensation.”
Gaëtan Mootoo was hostile to the planned move to Dakar for him and his three colleagues. He denounced the danger of corruption and the lack of objectivity possible when Amnesty employees would be directly under the watchful eye of the African authorities. He also did not want to leave Paris where, he argued, he could more easily weigh on the French authorities, the Francophonie and some European organisations.
Due to the strength of his arguments, because of his seniority - and probably his aura in the organisation - he finally got to stay in Paris. A concession experienced by many in the NGO, including at its head, as a privilege. But he paid the price: an increasingly affirmed solitude and a long series of rebuffs, experienced as humiliations over a period of many years. "For the people in charge in London, after this "gift", he could not ask for anything more. In fact, they were expecting him to retire, one of his friends told us. He suffered under a very cold management, worthy of the most ultra-liberal capitalism.”
Increasing erasure, symbolic refusals
The researcher, who though of his work only in terms of exchange and collaboration with others, found himself isolated. His colleague for 22 years, Salvatore Saguès, resigned in 2014, as well as the campaign manager and the team's assistant. Gaëtan Mootoo was able to benefit from an assistant until the end of 2015, then after that he worked alone.
His multiple requests to be entitled to an assistant, even part-time, or to work with a trainee, fell on deaf ears. And this despite the fact that this accomplished professional was very uncomfortable, despite his best efforts, with the computer tools and procedures which were assuming an increasing importance in his work.
At the end of 2014, he was also asked to leave his large office, which he had occupied for 18 years and in which he had housed many personal belongings, to settle in the one next door, a little smaller. The French section was growing rapidly, from 70 to 90 employees in a few years, four people set themselves up in his old office. As a symbol of Amnesty's evolution, they all worked to collect donations.
"This change was very difficult for Gaëtan Mootoo to live through, for him it felt as if he was being sidelined. It is as if he were made to feel that he was superflous, testifies an employee in the CHSCT report. For him, it was a downgrade and above all the symbol of the end of an era he had loved so much.”
Especially since this change of office was accompanied by the phasing out, little by little, of a ritual to which he attached a lot of importance: his small conferences held after returning from a mission, to present his conclusions in front of his colleagues. These presentations "made it possible to link his work as a researcher to the employees of Amnesty International France. It also gave him a real place and visibility in the structure", says the report. After their removal, "he became increasingly invisible to employees".
A growing erasure, aggravated by a series of symbolic refusals. During his move, the NGO did not want to refresh the office that would now host the researcher. So it was the latter, with his assistant, who repainted the walls, which he did not take at all well. For years, he also did not have a printer. "He had to ask his neighbours on the second floor to print his documents when they were bulky. Not wishing to disturb anyone too much, he asked for the help of different acquaintances, in turn", says the report. The IS finally authorised him to buy a printer. It was installed on the 25th of May, 2018, the day of his suicide.
These logistical constraints are only the tip of the iceberg of what Gaëtan Mootoo experienced in terms of impediments and a continuous deterioration of his professional practice. The way Amnesty International works has changed dramatically in a few years, especially for researchers. While before 2014 his team covered nine countries, he was asked to follow only five and abandon the work on Chad, which he had been following for some 30 years.
Researchers also had to adapt to "shorter production time", the writing of "more synthetic reports" and the "increase of the communication element in research work". But Gaëtan Mootoo considered reducing the size of his reports to be "an ethical constraint," says the CHSCT. Indeed, he was careful to name as many people as possible in his reports, so that all, activists or opponents, could be protected from possible abuses in their country.
The culture of faster, more reactive work, came into conflict with the very values of Gaëtan Mootoo, who very often worked in the field, took the time to gather information and listen, and liked to nurture relationships with his contacts. "There was a very significant conflict of values. He did serious, high quality work. The IS wanted to go faster and be more present in the media", says an employee interviewed for the CHSCT report.
The drafters of the document diplomatically acknowledged that within the NGO, the emphasis was gradually placed more on "external communication" and on "raising awareness". They explained it by the fact that "the movement has democratically decided to strongly develop its impact on human rights" and therefore had to beef up "its mobilisation of members and supporters and its financial means via fundraising".
Otherwise said, more brutally, by a French employee interviewed by Mediapart: "We went from an activist organisation to a donor organisation. " As a result, says another, "our organisation is more and more results-oriented and this means, if possible, visible results that can be communicated. We are far from Gaëtan's way of working...” “Regarding donations, and the number of members, Amnesty International is constantly being sold", laments yet another employee in the report. For Gaëtan Mootoo it was the worst thing that could happen.”
"We ask Amnesty what we ask the States"
This profound discomfort that can be felt in the testimonies collected by the CHSCT is equally discernible when asking the employees, at all levels of the organisation. In Dakar, one of them considered that "the excellent reputation of Amnesty hides everything else" and pointed out that "the turn-over of African employees is always significant, as wages and benefits granted are not very competitive in the NGO sector, and the workload is huge".
In Paris, others describe "a very pyramidal structure, and at the same time, a management that has lost sight of the real meaning of the project, people who are not working in the same direction." The French section seems to be experiencing a growth crisis, with the premature departure of Camille Blanc, elected president in June 2016 and replaced in early 2018, a dozen departures currently in the pipelines, sick leave and the scheduled arrival of a human resources director to restore order.
An appendix to the CHSCT report also takes stock of the responses to the questionnaire sent to employees, who were asked for their opinion on their working conditions. The results are worrying: although there is a very broad consensus on the autonomy and freedom left to the employees, as well as the pride of working at Amnesty, 71% say they "work intensively" and 60% have "the impression that they do not have the time they need to do their job properly". 35% of respondents say they “cannot afford to do quality work” and 40% do not feel they “receive the respect and esteem” they deserve considering their efforts...
In London, the situation does not appear to be any better. Interviewed by the Times, researcher Elizabeth Griffin, who has studied the working conditions at headquarters, describes employees referring to a "toxic environment", marked by "sharp conflicts and divisions at the management level", as well as" an almost complete failure of the organisation to meet its obligations to staff, volunteers and trainees".
Unite, which represents Amnesty's employees around the world, is equally harsh. After reading the CHSCT report, the union denounced a "negative style of vertical management" and called for Amnesty "to apply the human rights standards we defend outside the organisation". One of its African members supports the statement: "We are asking of Amnesty what we are asking of the States: to recognise that they have responsibilities, that they have missed something. Someone is dead now, it's the worst thing that could have happened. The organisation needs to be able to challenge itself.”
I interviewed many employees and former employees of Amnesty in Paris, London and Dakar. None of them wanted their name to appear in this article. The press office of the international secretariat did not wish to answer me beyond a few sentences, pending the report of the lawyer James Laddie, which will be published on 19 November on the organisation's website. Martyne Perrot-Mootoo and Robin Mootoo also did not want to comment on the work of the CHSCT.
* “The Amnesty International movement is deeply saddened by the tragic death of our colleague Gaëtan Mootoo, Researcher for West Africa, who had been with the organization for more than 30 years. His death came as a huge shock and our thoughts and deep condolences are with his family, friends and close colleagues.
The French review raises serious concerns and we give an absolute assurance that we are treating this tragedy with the gravity and priority it deserves.
We are also awaiting the results of a comprehensive targeted independent external inquiry led by James Laddie QC and a separate wellbeing review. We are committed to assessing the findings and applying the learnings arising from the inquiries once they have all been completed”.