How Human Rights Organizations are part of the problem
Who can we believe? Political parties and partisan organizations now present not only their own opinions but, as the old joke goes, their own facts as well. Are the Palestinians being shot at the Gaza fence trying to invade Israel, as the Israeli Army shooting them claims, or are they trying to protest their confinement in the open-air prison in which they are being slowly starved, as their spokespeople argue? Is Venezuela’s president Maduro a dictator, as Trump says, or did he win a fair election, as the country’s electoral council states?
The news reader faces diametrically opposed versions of truth, and on matters of life and death. A natural instinct would be to look for neutral, non-partisan voices—to find arbiters of truth that are not on one side or another, but seek only to adhere to matters of high principle. And what principle is higher than that of human rights, the idea that we all have rights solely because of our common humanity? Surely in the fog created by self-seeking politicians, armed groups that use deception as a weapon of war, and careerist journalists who climb the ladder by serving the powerful, organizations dedicated to human rights—like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch—can serve as beacons of light.
Sadly, they cannot. The very authority that human rights organizations own, their appearance of principle and neutrality, has become a commodity too valuable for the powerful to pass up. The result? Human rights organizations have sacrificed their credibility and become a sophisticated part of the U.S. foreign policy machine—or, to put it more bluntly, a part of the U.S. empire. Things have been this way for longer than most “people of conscience,” to use a human rights word, realize.
In his 2010 book Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights, author James Peck describes how Cold War U.S. officials searched for an ideological slogan that could rival the appeals to equality and anti-imperialism that were offered to the world’s downtrodden by communist revolutionaries. Anti-communism worked well enough at home, but it was a negative slogan—against communism, sure, but what would the U.S. be for? U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski argued in a letter to Carter that a U.S.-based, quasi-governmental human rights foundation could promote “a worldwide constituency for human rights,” while being “insulated from direct dependence” on the United States, providing a voice “independent from, and in some cases more credible than, the U.S. government.” A broad definition of human rights, Brzezinski argued, would “retain for us the desirable identification with a human cause whose time has come.”
Human Rights Watch (called Helsinki Watch at its founding) came to serve exactly this purpose. Peck writes that in the 1970s “as Helsinki Watch worked closely with dissidents in the USSR and Eastern Europe, it found itself emulating long-standing American government practices.”
Amnesty International took a more independent path, focusing on specific practices like torture, political prisoners, and genocide. In doing so, one of its founders argued, Amnesty appealed to those “tired of the polarized thinking which is the result of the Cold War... but who are deeply concerned with those who are suffering simply because they are suffering.” But despite this beginning of trying to find and appeal to universals and avoid contentious and partisan issues, Amnesty quickly found itself in the middle of just such a controversy: according to Amnesty’s definition, prisoners of conscience could not be advocates of violence; Nelson Mandela hadn’t renounced violence; therefore Mandela wasn’t a prisoner of conscience. In this way, Amnesty ended up on the wrong side of one of the most historic struggles of the time.
In practice, these human rights organizations consistently find themselves on the side of the empire, despite the contradictions and contortions that such a stance requires.
Amnesty failed to give Chelsea Manning the “prisoner of conscience” designation. Amnesty representatives told journalist Joe Emersberger in 2013 that its investigation was ongoing, and that it wasn’t sure if Manning had “released information in a ‘responsible manner,’” and wasn’t sure if the government was punishing her “in order to prevent public knowledge of human rights abuses.” By contrast, Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who led multiple violent coup attempts against the government, was quickly given prisoner of conscience status by Amnesty. Were Lopez’s violent coup attempts less violent than Mandela’s refusal to condemn anti-apartheid violence? Were his coup attempts conducted in a more “responsible manner” than Manning’s whistleblowing?
In 2006, Jonathan Cook pointed out how Human Rights Watch researcher Peter Bouckaert told the New York Times that “it’s perfectly clear that Hezbollah is directly targeting civilians, and that their aim is to kill Israeli civilians. We don’t accuse the Israeli army of deliberately trying to kill civilians... so there is a difference in intent between the two sides.” Cook pointed out that “just as Bouckaert is apparently sure that he can divine Israel’s intentions in the war, and that they were essentially benign, he is equally convinced that he knows Hizbullah’s intentions, and that they were malign. Whatever the evidence suggests—in a war in which Israel overwhelmingly killed Lebanese civilians and is still doing so, and in which Hizbullah overwhelmingly killed Israeli soldiers—Bouckaert knows better.”
This is an amazing two-step process: First, the human rights organization suggests that effects (vastly disproportionate civilian deaths) matter less than intent. Second, the human rights organization assigns bad intent to the weaker side and good intent to the stronger, claiming in essence the ability to read minds. The emphasis is on (presumably telepathically discovered) intent—which for the U.S. or its allies is always good and for its enemies is always bad. The emphasis is away from disproportion, since the casualty ratios of U.S. wars are monstrously disproportionate (that is, the United States and its allies kill many more civilians than their enemies).
Such an argument, Cook goes on to point out, “legitimises the use of military might by the stronger party, thereby making a nonsense of international law and the human rights standards HRW is supposed to uphold.”
It also legitimizes the stronger party to focus on individual cases and avoid discussing the numbers. When human rights organizations argue that every individual case of torture or violation of human rights is a crime, they are completely right. But by failing to note that one side is killing 10, 100, or 1,000 times more than the other, they fail to bring their readers to any conception of who is responsible for these conflicts and where to apply pressure that could save lives.
There are more biases in practice. As the U.S.-led coup against Venezuela continues to unfold, recall HRW’s performance last month when the organization endorsed the U.S. attempt to force entry into Venezuela with “humanitarian aid” (Venezuela has been accepting humanitarian aid from other countries the whole time, while refusing aid from the U.S., citing the coup attempt). Adam Johnson from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting noted on Twitter that HRW “never technically endorse regime change but pass along every misleading, distorted shred of propaganda required for regime change then, when pressed on this, insist they’re just calling balls & strikes.” HRW’s executive director Kenneth Roth justified the coup attempt directly, calling it, “sad testament to... Maduro’s destruction of Venezuelan democracy that the opposition leader must resort to appeals to the military.” Roth’s obsession with Venezuela has gone on for years, during which serious violations of human rights and democracy in other Latin American countries, notably Honduras, were neglected by HRW.
Amnesty performed little better. On its list of 10 elements of the Venezuelan crisis, Amnesty found it in its heart to include as the 10th and final element, the “Damaging US sanctions.” The sanctions, which a U.S. official likened unironically to Star Wars villain Darth Vader choking someone to death using the force, may have deserved top billing, given its effects, which now extend to the theft by the U.S. and UK of billions of dollars of funds belonging to Venezuelans—harming Venezuela’s oil production, its energy sector, and even its health system.
The U.S. campaign against Venezuela today echoes the campaign to overthrow Salvador Allende in 1973, when Nixon ordered the CIA director to “bring the Chilean economy under Allende to its knees,” and when the U.S. ambassador to Chile told Henry Kissinger, “Not a nut or bolt will be allowed to reach Chile under Allende. Once Allende comes to power we shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and the Chileans to the utmost deprivation and poverty, a policy designed for a long time to come to accelerate the hard features of a Communist society” (quoted on Peck p. 57).
Inconsistencies in practice are matched by problems of human rights theory, as Amnesty and HRW are not against aggressive war on principle. The post–World War II international legal framework defined aggressive war as the supreme crime from which all other crimes of the Nazi regime followed; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared social and economic rights to be human rights. But past executive director Aryeh Neier of HRW argued that “the concept of economic and social rights is profoundly undemocratic” and that HRW “has never labeled any party to any conflict as an aggressor, holding that the concept of aggression is poorly defined. As Israel and the United States argued at the Rome conference in 1998... it is impossible to come up with a definition of aggression that is not politically controversial” (quoted on Peck pp. 95 and 227, emphasis mine). But aggression is no more poorly defined (and no more disputed) than other human rights concepts—genocide, democracy, dictatorship, political prisoner, even torture. The refusal of human rights organizations to oppose aggression leaves them in a demeaning position of begging aggressors to try to conduct their bombing campaigns in a way that minimizes harm to civilians—as any reader who grimaced their way through HRW or Amnesty reports about the Saudi/U.S./UK war on Yemen, or Israel’s bombings of Gaza, knows.
This is no way to take a stand on principle. But what to do? Discovering the bias of human rights organizations is even more demoralizing than discovering the propaganda power of social media. It is impossible to find a democracy and critical-thinking nourishing set of globally connected social media, and it is impossible for a person of conscience to find an unbiased comprehensive global database of human rights violations. On the other hand, the solutions may be similar: the creation of real-world connections, contacts, and ultimately movements.
In Ideal Illusions, Peck contrasts the legalistic, bureaucratized, and ultimately co-opted human rights organizations to the peace movements that rose and fell over the same decades. The alternative to these captured organizations is just such a peace movement: one that’s against war on principle, against aggression, wants to dismantle the war economy, understands the difference between the powerful and those resisting, and uses people power and not legal arguments and pleas to the powerful.
This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.