Are Your Humanitarian Heartstrings Being Tugged in the Name of Empire?

Editor's Note: Open up a newspaper, go online, watch cable news, and it won't take long to see reporting on human rights tragedies across the planet.

The stories can tug on your heartstrings, they can recount spectacular and tragic atrocities and bizarre ones as well. Take Africa -- Western media is blanketed with the plight of Tanzanian albinos, the persecution of gays by church and state in Uganda, the staggering rate of 48 rapes per hour in the Congo, or the potential for mass Christian genocide in South Sudan. Those stories touch us. And that's the whole point, as I've learned from James Peck's new book, Ideal Illusions.

These stories of human rights tragedies exploit our best aspirations in the name of the American imperial project, and the US has been funding this approach since the dawn of the Cold War. The media effect of filling a newspaper with human rights atrocities from the developing world functions to distract the audience from strategic and mineral designs the US and its allies have going in those countries, and to dilute the news coverage when their true aims come to light. The takeaway is that empire is the domain of storytellers as much as it is of Air Force generals.

In the case of Tanzania, it's notable that there has been very little attention to an ongoing violent struggle over a gold mine operated by a Canadian company called Barrick Gold while the plight of Tanzanian albinos, killed out of local superstition, made it into thousands of media venues. It's also notable that there has been practically zero coverage that the US has instituted a regional policy for the Congo and its neighbors ostensibly over so-called conflict minerals that finance  violence "in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or an adjoining country (Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo Republic [a different nation than the DRC], Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia." Western mining companies are opening offices in these countries at a staggering pace.

Celebrities are tugged by their humanitarian heartstrings just like the rest of the public. Hollywood superstars like George Clooney and others teach American audiences how to hang their heads upon learning about the looming tragedy in Sudan, while the planners at the National Security Council scheme how to thwart Chinese designs for control of its oil resources. Clooney's human rights organization has just found evidence of three mass graves in Sudan. Are you sobbing yet? 

How to react once you learn the history of why human rights stories from across the planet are thrust before your eyes in the pages of Newsweek, The New Yorker and countless other media outlets for the most cynical reasons imaginable? That's the question I was left with after finishing Peck's book. The following excerpt from Ideal Illusions takes us to the former Soviet Republics and the color revolutions that "liberated" them. It is well worth the read. -- Jan Frel, AlterNet Senior Editor


The folowing is an excerpt from IDEAL ILLUSIONS: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights by James Peck, published in March by Metropolitan Books.

National security managers and human rights leaders often call for the rule of law—yet what is it? A legal regime can implement a wide diversity of policies, after all. Laws do not just protect against unreasonable search and seizure or cruel and unusual punishment; they support markets, corporate rights, and, often, astronomical profits. They can also stipulate what can be privatized and how—not to mention ways of controlling local resources, mandates for wide-ranging health programs, the implementation of taxes to redistribute wealth, and so on.

In the human rights world, though, rule-of-law rhetoric often increases as interest in social transformation wanes. The words seldom appear in the same paragraph with “redistribution.” A focus on law suggests a calmer, gentler sense of change and transformation—of rules followed, bills enacted, and bitter political and economic debates diminished. As law prevails, radical economic change recedes; in the words of one observer, “political choices fade from view—as do choices among different economic ideas about how development happens or what it implies for social, political, or economic life.”

To assert that legal formalities increase rights, an argument is required—as to how, for example, assets in the hands of a foreigner rather than a local investor will encourage growth, or how property under the control of the title holder rather than the squatter will lead to economic growth or justice. Is due process served when interpretations of law stress the rights of those with inordinate power in a society? Is clarity of law always a benefit? Max Weber’s account of the English exception—the puzzle that industrial development arrived first in the nation with the most confusing and least formal system of property law and judicial procedure—comes to mind.

Along with a focus on the rule of law, groups like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch also began to adopt language similar to that of national security managers and World Bank publicists on “corruption,” “good governance,” and “transparency.” For example, in 2001 the executive director of Amnesty USA declared, “When it comes to business interests, the ‘rule of law’ encompasses three things: combating corruption, providing transparent regulations for the conduct of business, and guaranteeing the fair enforcement of contracts.”The policy of privatization and liberalization was embedded in the overlapping discourses. A human rights approach, explained one report, does not seek “to shut down global trade and investment, only to invoke broadly accepted rights to define the limits within which commerce should proceed.” Moreover, added another, “far-sighted companies” were coming to understand “that the same strong judiciary and rule of law needed to protect dissidents also safeguard their own commercial interests.” They were increasingly aware that human rights problems are “bad for business,” that a “healthy civil society and democratic society are the best guarantor of the long-term stability that business needs to thrive.” “Rogue” companies might still be a problem, but “for hard headed businesspeople, the smart move is to face up to global human rights standards early and make them work by making them stick.”Human Rights Watch pointed out that companies would “want something better than a kangaroo court” to deal with business issues. Amnesty International created a “corporate responsibility project.” “The observation that human rights are actually good for business,” the leader of Amnesty USA noted, fell into the category of “startling but true.” Washington agreed.

Major foundations espoused similarly rosy visions of NGOs, corporations, and the market coming together, with “NGO’s influencing economic forces (which means private forces) for the better—working with and within corporate structures in order to bring pressure for less exploitative ways of operating.” Former NGO officials were “becoming advisers to multinational corporations (MNCs), with MNCs approaching NGOs for ‘certification,’ and campaigns for fairer trading and better terms for producer groups.” In 1998, the director of the Governance and Civil Society Unit of the Ford Foundation said, “I think the foreseeable future will be dominated by attempts to reshape capitalist processes to reduce their social and environmental costs while not killing incentives to growth.”

In all these areas, human rights organizations typically ended up once again judging specific situations, not the general organization and operation of American power. They came to accept transnational corporations, arguing that their operations could be infused with a rightsbased ethos; they insisted that the World Bank and the IMF could be turned from obstacles to indigenous democratic struggles into organizations relevant to human rights pursuits. Such institutions were criticized, often strongly, for “not factoring in human rights concerns” and for focusing on “narrow economic considerations.” What was talked about far less was whether these institutions could really adopt the changes human rights groups were advocating without altering their basic modes of operation.

The Color Revolutions 

By the end of the 1990s, in Eastern Europe and in the Newly Independent States (NIS) of the former Soviet Union, an influx of NGOs and of nongovernmental financial support for opposition groups, selected media, and democratization programs signaled a quiet but obvious shift: the involvement of an increasing number of human rights activists in attempted “regime change.” George Soros, with his enormous funding, promoted this process throughout the region. The Soros Foundation in Ukraine stated it hoped through its programs “to distinguish the brightest minds in Ukraine and to promote the formation of an indigenous elite that will act as the critical mass in effecting the country’s transformation into a fully democratic, highly-developed state.” For much of the decade, Soros argued, the groups he supported “offered the only alternative vision to repressive state governments fomenting ethnic hostilities.” Unlike USAID, he had no need to be diplomatic: “If this isn’t meddling in the affairs of a foreign nation, I don’t know what is!” Soros’s role might not be “identical to the foreign policy of the U.S. government,” Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott commented, “but it’s compatible with it.”

Elsewhere, the National Democratic Institute (part of the NED) organized a briefing in October 1999 for some twenty Serbian opposition leaders in Budapest to persuade them that data provided by Bill Clinton’s polling firm showed Milosevic could be defeated in the coming election. United States–funded consultants played a crucial behind-the-scenes role in virtually every facet of the anti-Milosevic drive over the ensuing year, running tracking polls, training thousands of opposition activists, and helping to organize a vitally important parallel vote count. The United States also paid for the five thousand cans of spray paint student activists used to scrawl anti-Milosevic graffiti on walls across Serbia and the 2.5 million stickers with the slogan “He’s Finished” that became the revolution’s catchphrase. Ukrainian journalists were trained by American-supported groups to deliver “balanced fair reports” on the need to privatize—which of course meant advocacy of market reforms. Later, in Georgia, the United States brought in “democracy trainers” from Serbia, Croatia, Slovakia, and Russia to offer a rich assortment of lessons from the developing color revolutions—Serbia’s pro-democracy innovations of 2000, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004, Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution of March 2005.

If public money fed into the color revolutions is not hard to trace, neither is the involvement of past and present national security managers. When Freedom House trained some one thousand poll observers in Ukraine (funded through NED), its chairman was James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA. U.S. Ambassador Richard Miles was deeply involved in anti-Milosevic operations; later, in Georgia, he worked to bring down Eduard Shevardnadze. Ten months after the success in Belgrade, the U.S. ambassador in Minsk, a veteran of comparable operations in Nicaragua, was involved in a similar campaign against Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader of Belarus. Washington’s public diplomacy in these and other instances was pervasive and impressive: “Overt democratic support where we can, covert activities where we must” might well be the slogan.

Washington, in brief, was democracy’s friend. “We saw them marching for democracy through the streets of former capitals such as Kiev and Tbilisi,” recounts a glowing USAID account. “A vast outpouring of people reaching for democracy stunned the world. One picture summed it up: in the cold dark night of Tbilisi, Georgia, as people marched toward the seats of government to protest a fraudulent election, one firm hand held up a model of the Statue of Liberty. Millions are asking for the rights that statue represents: elections to choose their leaders and freedom of speech, press, and religion.”

“There is a conspiracy theory—that what happened was planned in D.C.,” USAID quotes a former mayor in Georgia. “It’s not true. What this assistance did, it made civil actors [come] alive, and when the critical moment came, we understood each other like a well-prepared soccer team.” The United States did not “cause” the color revolutions, argued another Ukrainian activist. Fallen rulers may blame “outside interference” for their defeats, but U.S. aid “only serves as a source of ideas and inspiration”—and funding. Or as USAID puts it: “It is only when citizens and local leaders in each country decide to change things that countries move from authoritarian rule towards democracy.”

The United States had a more subtle view of its role. The task, a USAID study said, was to keep the “donor assistance package” from looking like it had been externally imposed. “Legitimating means getting a buy-in from the appropriate people in the country to push the reform process forward.” The aim is to foster “the emergence of a well regarded ‘policy champion’ (an individual or group who believes in the policy) to take on leadership for the subsequent implementation tasks.” For intervention “to be smoothly implemented and successful,” the assistance to “stakeholders” must be “welcomed or ‘owned’ by those receiving it.” Of course, this is not always possible, the study conceded. Those on the “receiving end” may not actually have proposed the ideas in the first place.

Publicly, human rights organizations greeted the color revolutions with enthusiasm, supporting NGOs, advocating for a free media, and demanding electoral transparency. They praised the Czech Republic’s Velvet Revolution as the glorious precursor of those that followed. When the Orange Revolution shook Ukraine, “U.S. pressure for reform and support for Ukrainian civil society and political pluralism played a positive role,” Human Rights Watch declared. Human rights organizations defended United States–funded groups when they were repressed in several Central Asian countries, though usually with little reference to where their money came from. And when such information did become public, it was contrasted with the imperial meddling of the Kremlin, its double-dealing support for repressive dictators. One Human Rights Watch report detailed Vladimir Putin’s moves against NGOs in Russia; yet even though it began with Putin’s assertion that for some NGOs, “the priority is to receive financing from influential foreign foundations,” it offered barely a word about foreign funding.

After a color revolution, human rights groups often issued detailed reports on signs of repression in the new government, calls for greater democratization, demands for further reforms. But Western funding or military assistance were seldom considered much of an issue. Human rights leaders rarely commented on Washington’s obvious geopolitical considerations in promoting the color revolutions. (The great powers are “competing not only for influence” in the region, Anthony Lake, Clinton’s national security advisor, wrote, “but for oil and potential control over the pipelines that will carry the ‘black gold’ to the west.”) Nor did they balk at the number of former national security people advising such operations: Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, John Sununu, and so on.

One might well argue that there is nothing wrong with an American ambassador’s and various U.S. and EU groups’ participating in, even orchestrating, such democratizing efforts. And if things need to be done covertly now and then, well—it’s for a good cause; one can’t be an innocent in a world of thuggish, murderous regimes. The same might be said of a billionaire like George Soros (though it rarely is)—that it’s quite okay for him to promote his vision of democracy by committing funds to certain groups in a foreign country he sees moving in the right direction, regardless of what critics in that country might think.

Occasional qualms over such interventions are assuaged by the conviction that the government in question shouldn’t be jailing citizens who are seeking to promote political change and greater freedom. Even if Washington has its own agenda, the outcomes are still worth it. Thus the conviction quietly grows that there is no conflict between self-determination on the one hand and external funding, advice, and training on the other. That some local advocates of change oppose intervention (“Let us find our own way”) and don’t like having local leaders picked out as “human rights heroes” by their patrons in the West is rarely acknowledged.

Consider, for a moment, the situation in reverse. Let’s suppose the “democratization” model of social change had been applied by other countries to the civil rights mobilizations in the South in the 1950s and 1960s. Hundreds of NGOs move in, funded by France, India, England, Sweden, Cuba, and Israel. Critics of such foreign involvement are roundly dismissed in the international press as provincial supporters of the status quo. Certain black leaders are picked out and advised on how to organize and how to fight in the courts against a corrupt nontransparent local government. Individuals deemed suitable for global television are highlighted. Funding proposals proliferate. Foreign governments and NGOs call for local officials who are obstructing justice to be indicted. Certain state governors are accused of crimes against humanity for their brutal and illegal use of state power to block integration and their tacit acceptance of violent, even murderous police tactics.

Let us further suppose that leading foreign figures are not inclined to favor black power advocates like Malcolm X, denouncing them as opponents of human rights. Nor is there much empathetic understanding of protest traditions in the mold of W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, John Henry Brown, or even of Ghandian civil disobedience if it ends in violence. And what of foreign funds coming from quasi-governmental groups abroad? In point of fact, the paranoia over Communist influence was still high in Washington during these years and was used to justify surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights groups.

The possibilities and the complexities in this analogy can be taken further, but the conclusion is clear. It is simply inconceivable that anything like this could take place, then or today, in the world’s most powerful country. American laws preclude it, the media would denounce foreign meddling, and Congress and the FBI would immediately investigate.

Excerpted from IDEAL ILLUSIONS: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights by James Peck, published in March by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright (c) 2011 by James Peck. All rights reserved.


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