The contradictions of human rights organizations

The International Human Rights Movement: A History

ARYEH NEIER may well be the single most important figure of the human rights movement in the United States. He is currently the president of George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. Before then he was the founder and executive director of Human Rights Watch, the successor of the Helsinki and Americas Watch, and before that, the national director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

In this book Neier presents an interesting, useful, and detailed history of the contemporary human rights movement. He traces the origins of this movement to the founding of Amnesty International in 1961, but he notes that it really took off in the mid- and late-seventies with the establishment in 1978 of Helsinki Watch, centered on Eastern Europe, and of the Americas Watch in 1981, centered on Latin America. According to Neier, the surge of human rights organizations in the seventies and eighties was propelled by a number of events, one coming on the heels of the other, such as the 1973 Pinochet coup in Chile and the bloody repression that followed it—with the complicity of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the Nixon administration; the Soweto riots in South Africa and the murder of Steve Biko in 1976 and the subsequent development of the campaign for divestment from that country; the dissident Democracy Wall movement that broke out in China in 1978; and the activities of the dissidents in the USSR and Eastern Europe that led, in the case of Poland, to the birth of Solidarnosc in 1980. Neier plays up the Carter administration’s (1977–1981) human rights policy, and especially Carter’s appointment of Patricia Derian as assistant secretary of state for human rights who, according to Neier, helped save many Argentinian lives from the hands of the military junta. It should be noted, however, that Neier ignores Carter’s policies in support of conservative forces in El Salvador, the dictatorial governments of South Korea and Indonesia, and his opening the road to the development of the Contras in Nicaragua, all of which give the lie to the Carter administration’s high-sounding rhetoric about its unequivocal support of human rights.

The achievements of mainstream human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, are beyond question. The huge number of denunciations and reports that these organizations have issued, with considerable publicity, detailing the gross violations of human rights in literally dozens of countries throughout the last several decades have been contributions that have made a difference. They have helped not only to save the lives and liberty of dissidents and oppositionists, but have also expanded and made more secure the social and political spaces for their activities. The work of these organizations was especially welcome during the Cold War, when as Neier points out, support for victims of repression was based on ideological and political grounds, exclusively focusing either on right-wing despotic regimes or on Communist tyranny. It is to the great credit of the new independent human rights organizations that, as Neier puts it, they “identified . . . with victims of rights abuses irrespective of the ideological character or the geopolitical alignment of the governments responsible for violations.”

A critical decision made by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch (and its predecessors) that made possible for them to play such a positive role in the defense of human rights, was to refuse any organizational or financial ties with Washington or for that matter, with any other government. This was an important advance that contrasted with older organizations, such as Freedom House, which were and continue to be financially dependent on the US government and have, not surprisingly, maintained a political line close to that of Washington’s, and at times even to the right of it. Amnesty International is financially supported by the contributions of its large international membership, while Human Rights Watch depends on the financial support of private foundations and wealthy individuals. The earliest funding of its predecessor, Helsinki Watch, came from the Ford and MacArthur Foundations. Undoubtedly, that lack of financial dependence on Washington has allowed these human rights organizations a substantial degree of freedom to engage in exposing the abuses by the US government and its allies.

However, direct financial dependence on governments is not the only factor that can prevent human rights organizations from carrying out their mandates in a fully principled and independent manner. There is a certain ambiguity about how the mainstream human rights organizations, especially Human Rights Watch, conceive of their relationships to governments. On one hand, as Neier explains, Human Rights Watch appropriately sees its principal means of promoting rights from the outside by “documenting abuses, calling attention to the discrepancies between the practices of a government and its commitments and obligations under international law; and publicizing its findings widely in order to embarrass the authorities responsible for the abuses and, thereby, to persuade them to change their ways.” On the other hand, as he explains elsewhere in the book, human rights organizations “must proceed by constant interactions with governments and intergovernmental agencies.” In some cases, this “interaction” has placed Human Rights Watch in the position of providing, perhaps unwittingly, a certain degree of legitimacy to institutions such as the Human Rights Council of the United Nations, and the Human Rights Commission that replaced it. These bodies consist of delegations representing the governments of the world that pretend to support human rights while, in fact, they vote for and against resolutions based primarily on considerations of realpolitik. Neier himself admits that, when he observes that China has been protected from criticism from most countries regarding its human rights abuses because of its economic power, and when he points out that at least until the Arab Spring of 2011, African and Middle Eastern countries refused to criticize each other’s human rights practices in these UN institutions. Even though the Special Rapporteurs appointed by these UN bodies may have, on occasion, carried out valuable work, the fundamental nature of the Human Rights Commission, and its predecessor, the Human Rights Council, is so politically corrupt that it makes one question why human rights organizations “interact” with them, thus endowing them with a credibility and legitimacy they don’t deserve.

Far more troubling than their relations with the UN human rights bodies is the “interaction” that they have with governments that wield the economic and political power in the world, such as the US government. “Interaction” is a slippery concept that can range from the indispensable task of presenting and delivering public and well publicized inquiries, demands, and protests to Homeland Security, the Pentagon, State Department, or other relevant government agencies, to becoming in practice volunteer advisers for the US government’s foreign policy. The adoption of this advisory role has led these human rights organizations to adopt the fundamental structural premises of the empire in order to be perceived as “acceptable” and thus be allowed to voice their proposals for improving the empire’s human rights policies. It is worth noting that Neier rejects Amnesty International’s foundational policy established in the sixties that was opposed to influencing the conduct of US foreign policy, because it “was so concerned to operate evenhandedly that it would only have turned its focus on American foreign policy if it could do the same with respect to the foreign policy of the Soviet Union, which was impossible.” 

The notion and the practice of interacting with and advising the US government is connected with the social milieus in which human rights organizations exist. Theirs is the world of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), with their close connections to the foundations that provide the means for their operations, and that in a variety of ways shape their worldview. It is a world with its own career paths and opportunities, and its own ideological assumptions as to what is considered to be acceptable and legitimate. And the world of the NGOs and their supporting foundations is not self-contained; there is traffic back and forth with Washington, much of it encouraged by the previously mentioned “interactions,” particularly when Democratic administrations are in office. People from these human rights groups and foundations get jobs in foreign policy-related government institutions, such as the State Department, and then return to the organizational world of human rights. A good example of this traffic was the appointment of Suzanne Nossel as executive director of Amnesty International USA, in January 2012. She had previously worked for Hillary Clinton as assistant secretary of state for international organizations in 2009, and before then was chief operating officer for Human Rights Watch. She coined the term “Smart Power” to describe a policy she supported for progressive policy makers to “turn to the great mainstay of twentieth-century US foreign policy: liberal internationalism, which posits that a global system of stable liberal democracies would be less prone to war.” It was thus that, according to Nossel, Washington could offer “assertive leadership—diplomatic, economic, and not least, military—to advance a broad array of goals: self-determination, human rights, free trade, the rule of law, economic development, and the quarantine and elimination of dictators and weapons of mass destruction (WMD).”1

It was based on this conception that, as head of Amnesty International USA, Nossel sponsored a campaign in support of US military intervention in Afghanistan in order to protect women’s rights in that country.2 In practice, the US intervention did not accomplish this: Afghan women have, by and large, continued to be oppressed by the anti-Taliban forces supported by the United States. But the point here is that Nossel brought into Amnesty International the assumption that the United States is the world’s policeman entitled to intervene anywhere.

The world of human rights organizations has an implicit liberal political ideology. Therefore, it has an “elective affinity” with liberals who become the main source of their membership and financial support (Amnesty International) and staff (Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch). These liberals are principled people, that is they adhere to a certain set of moral and political norms—among them taking rights seriously—rather than operating on the basis of merely conjunctural political considerations designed to opportunistically advance an immediate political agenda. This is why, as a general rule, the reports issued by human rights organizations are respectful of the facts and do not deliberately lie. However, their way of looking at the world blinds them to the political and socioeconomic context of the countries they report on, and to the relationship these countries have with the imperialist powers, with serious consequences for rights such as national self-determination.

Imperialism and human rights
Human rights organizations try to avoid partisan politics—in the sense of not explicitly favoring Democrats or Republicans for example—and, as part of their implicitly liberal politics, they tend to see democratic capitalist governments and their states as neutral entities that can be influenced towards benevolent human rights policies. They therefore avoid considerations regarding the interests that structure the state and the power that the state wields in favor of those interests, either internally or in relation to other imperial capitals and Third World countries. It is not that the mainstream human rights organizations are generally conscious apologists for imperialist politics, but in trying to influence “their” government in Washington (or London, or Paris, or the European Union) to adopt “benevolent” policies, their avoidance of the phenomenon of imperialism has led them to advocate policies that at the very minimum tacitly accept, and condone, its existence. For example, Human Rights Watch has endorsed what, for the purposes of this review, will be called the “exchange” approach with respect to the US economic blockade of Cuba: Washington will soften the economic blockade of the island if the Cuban government responds with liberalizing and democratizing measures of its own. In its 2009 report on Cuba, Human Rights Watch not only reiterated that approach but went a step further and demanded that “before changing its policy, the US should work to secure commitments from the EU, Canada and Latin American allies that they will join together to pressure Cuba to meet a single, concrete demand: the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners.”3 Ten years earlier, with a human rights situation in Cuba worse than in 2009, Human Rights Watch published another report proposing the same “exchange” approach. It is noticeable that unlike 2009, it placed far greater emphasis on the damage done by the US economic embargo on Cuba, and did not recommend that the United States obtain commitments from other countries before making changes in its embargo policies.4 Nonetheless, both reports endorsed a policy that violated the principle of self-determination of nations and that used imperialism—the economic power of the empire—to bring about “good things” as was undoubtedly the case with the liberation of Cuban political prisoners.5 The reports also lent credit, perhaps inadvertently, to the double notion that just as the US modification, if not elimination, of its blockade should ultimately depend on the Cuban government’s steps to liberalize and democratize Cuban society, the Cuban government could, in turn, claim that its elimination of internal repression in Cuba should depend on the abolition of the economic blockade. Left out of this double logic is the notion that the blockade and the internal political repression in Cuba should be abolished each for their own sake, independently of the actions of the adversary.6

For Neier, the right of nations to self-determination does not seem to play a role in any of these considerations, either conceptually or, more importantly, in its practical consequences. Thus, when he discusses the killing of Osama bin Laden, Neier argues that bringing bin Laden to trial was not the only appropriate solution, and that “given the acts in which he engaged, using military force to kill him and others who have committed such crimes is unquestionably legitimate.” For Neier, the assassination of bin Laden was part of a military conflict, and therefore not a violation of any human right. What for him is objectionable from a human rights point of view, “is the extension of war powers beyond what is required to engage in military conflict.” In a footnote, he explains that if bin Laden had surrendered, it would not have been legitimate to kill him, but the fact that he was unarmed when he was killed does not make the killing illegitimate because his previous actions made it reasonable to attack him as an enemy combatant. Putting aside the legal and ethical issues that arise from this argument, Neier neglects to even acknowledge the fact that bin Laden’s killing took place in a sovereign country, Pakistan, the leaders of which were not consulted or even notified about the attack. Not even the serious practical consequences that the assassination had for internal Pakistani politics, and for the country’s alliance with the United States, merited Neier’s attention.

This problem also affects his approach to anti-Muslim racism. Neier certainly advocates the integration and inclusion of Muslim minorities in Western Europe both for its own sake and because it may simultaneously serve the instrumental purpose of helping to prevent terrorism. But he also argues that, while during the Cold War, the human rights organizations policy to denounce abuses of rights by all sides had the double effect of undermining the legitimacy of Communist regimes on one hand, and, on the other hand, of embarrassing the United States and its allies over their support for anticommunist dictatorships, “after September 11, no such even-handed strategy could be pursued effectively.” This reasoning stems from his refusal to concede any validity to national self-determination and to the reality of imperialism and its consequences. In fact, human rights organizations could currently pursue, successfully, an “even-handed” strategy in places such as the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The actions of US imperialism in those areas have played a major role helping terrorist organizations in their recruitment efforts. After all, it was the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia, and not the mad fantasies about reestablishing the Caliphate, that played the most important role in the founding of al-Qaeda. Therefore, it would not be far-fetched to assume that a vigorous condemnation by human rights organizations, and other progressive forces in America, of US imperialist adventures could help undermine support for terrorism abroad.

A side point regarding Neier’s discussion on anti-Muslim racism: he rejects censorship as a means to combat Islamophobic expressions like the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, the film about Islam by the Dutch Theo Van Gogh, and others. He passes over, however, without even considering it, the possibility of a political alternative to censorship: a vigorous political and moral denunciation by Western government officials, the mainstream media, and public opinion of such racist behavior, which is exactly what would happen if similar attacks had been directed against Christians and/or Jews. This would counter the current climate where politicians and the mainstream media are afraid of defending Muslims against racist abuse. Some politicians have even accused each other of “apologizing to Muslims”—witness Romney criticizing Obama for supposedly “apologizing” for the anti-Muslim film released during the 2012 presidential campaign.

Violence and human rights organizations
When Amnesty International was founded in 1961, instead of defending political prisoners, it chose to protect “prisoners of conscience,” that is, people “who have been jailed because of their political, religious or other conscientiously-held beliefs, ethnic origin, sex, color, language, national or social origin, economic status, birth, sexual orientation or other status, provided that they have neither used nor advocated violence.”7 Although Amnesty has expanded the category of prisoners of conscience it still excludes some victims of state oppression where the advocacy or use of violence is not an issue. This is the case, for example, of the thousands of Cubans who for decades have been sent to jail for trying to leave their country illegally, that is, without government permission, because it does not recognize, even after the reforms enacted in 2012, a citizen’s right to travel freely.8 Such people could be considered political prisoners, but Amnesty does not consider them “prisoners of conscience.” Amnesty International’s exclusion of those victims who advocate or condone violence or engage in efforts to overthrow their government has meant, for example, that Nelson Mandela, who was designated a “prisoner of conscience” in 1962, when he was accused of leading a labor strike, was no longer considered eligible for that status because he had justified the use of violence against apartheid in a speech to the court in 1964, even though he was convicted of sabotage, for which he ended spending twenty-seven years in prison. In sum, Amnesty International’s category of “prisoner of conscience” is inadequate and often begs the question of the situation faced by victims of state oppression worldwide.

The category of “political prisoner,” counterposed to the one of “prisoner of conscience” and rejected by Amnesty International, refers to victims of the state, and defined broadly, includes those who are persecuted or discriminated against for a variety of reasons including religion, race, and gender orientation. In contrast with “prisoner of conscience,” a “political prisoner” approach would require attention to the overall social and political context in which these individuals live and, particularly, an evaluation of the democratic credentials and human rights records of the government and an analysis of whether resistance and opposition to that government, including armed resistance, is politically and morally justified.

Attention to context, and to political morality, would also lead to the conclusion that the violence of the oppressor and the violence of the oppressed cannot be put on the same plane, even if we may strongly disapprove of some of the specific forms the latter may take, like terrorist attacks that deliberately target civilian bystanders. Mainstream human rights organizations refuse to engage in these considerations and with the same moral force condemn the oppressor and the oppressed as in their reports that often symmetrically condemn the Israeli army and Palestinian activists in the West Bank and Gaza.

Neier’s discussion of Amnesty International (in chapter 8) suggests that the organization’s stance on the issue of violence does not necessarily stem from a commitment of its founders to a moral, nonpolitical dedication to pacifism, but from their liberal political judgment about what would make their campaigns viable and acceptable to their broad liberal base and to a broader and less liberal audience. In fact, Amnesty’s leadership was far more political than surface appearances may suggest, as indicated by the statement made by Joshua Rubenstein, one of its longtime staff members, that Amnesty was not a pacifist organization, and that it did not judge the revolutionary’s use of violence, but simply would not adopt those using it as prisoners of conscience. It may well be, he added, that South African Blacks had no choice but to engage in violent revolutionary activities, but if they were caught, Amnesty could not define them as “prisoners of conscience”; they were, he said, something else. That Amnesty engaged in clear political judgments is illustrated by its decision to ensure that its local campaign groups included, in the cases of prisoners of conscience they worked on, one prisoner from a Communist, one from an anticommunist, and another from a nonaligned country.

It would have been better if Amnesty had admitted frankly to the political character of its approach, but then, again, this might have contradicted the high moral, if not moralistic, posture that Amnesty and other mainstream human rights organizations often like to assume.

The achievements of the human rights organizations are considerable, not least because they have facilitated the work of dissidents and opponents of oppressive political systems. But their work has been seriously affected by political problems and contradictions that are deeply rooted in their social relations with the foundations, with the powerful imperial centers of the world with which they interact, and in their own brand of liberal politics. As far as the hegemonic sectors of the Left are concerned, they have been part of the problem rather than the solution to the problems presented by the defense of human rights. While practically the entire Left recognizes the importance of the socioeconomic rights that are usually included under the conceptual umbrella of human rights, on the matter of civil and political liberties and rights it has been highly divided and has played less than a forthcoming role due to its ambivalence about endorsing individual political rights and civil liberties. While it has organized and participated in united front formations pressing against imperialist politics —a process made all the more difficult by the liberal and social democratic inclination toward “humanitarian interventions” and the problem that this presents to a principled anti-imperialist politics—that has not been the case for the defense of civil and political liberties abroad because it often disagrees on the fundamental question of which side they are on. 9 The justifications and rationalizations provided by the most important sections of the Left for the violation of civil and political rights by “progressive” governments abroad are many. Generally they stem from an anti-imperialist stand combined with the notion that the enemy of my enemy (the imperial USA) is my friend; or that the undemocratic practices of such anti-imperialist governments are entirely due to imperialist pressures, as if those rulers wouldn’t have their own political ideas hostile to civil and political liberties; or a false cultural and political relativism used to avoid criticizing the abuses by those “progressive” governments. It is no accident that they don’t apply cultural relativist arguments to apologize for governments such as Saudi Arabia’s. Cultural and political relativism stems from an attempt to understand the meaning of social practices within their own cultural and political contexts, but the predominant sections of the Left have used it as a thinly disguised form of tacit assent to oppression.

However, the development of a stronger movement on the Left would change the overall political climate and thus pressure the mainstream human rights organizations to rectify their course vis-à-vis Washington and other imperial capitals. Human rights organizations would have to address and worry not only about forces to their right, but also about forces to their left.

Beyond undertaking the defense of individual rights, human rights organizations have also played a vital role in improving the chances of survival for social and political minorities and in defending people who would otherwise have no access to any other form of legal and humanitarian assistance. In this country, well over 150 people are running the risk of sitting in prison at the Guantánamo Naval Base for the rest of their lives. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and especially the Center for Constitutional Rights—which is barely mentioned in Neier’s book—will need to continue playing an indispensable role in their defense.

But it is clear from this whole discussion that truly independent and effective human rights work requires an oppositional disposition. The 1937 Dewey Commission (officially the “Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made Against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials”) could provide some useful lessons in this respect, particularly in terms of its political composition and actions. Clearly, the commission could not be considered a human rights organization in the contemporary sense of the term. It was created to defend and clear Trotsky’s political honor and reputation against the slanders leveled against him at the Moscow Trials, not to protect his rights or his life. Its task was to expose, denounce, and publicize those slanders as a way of counteracting the “public opinion” shaped by Moscow and probably supported, or at least accepted, by a majority of “progressive” political people throughout the world.

Especially noteworthy for the purposes of this review is the relatively broad political composition of the commission. John Dewey, its chairman, was a prominent American philosopher and educator whose progressive politics did not prevent him from supporting US participation in the First World War and who explicitly rejected Trotsky’s views on morality, among other matters. The other members of the commission included liberals, anarchists, and Marxists. Broad in its composition, the commission had an “oppositional” disposition, even though it was not Marxist or a hard Left grouping: it worked by “interacting” with international public opinion in order to influence it, but “from the outside,” and not by trying to permeate the government policy-making hierarchies.

  1. Suzanne Nossel, Summary of article “Smart Power,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2004,
  2. Ashley Smith, “Amnesty for Occupation?” Socialist Worker, August 8, 2012.
  3. Human Rights Watch, Cuba: New Castro, Same Cuba: Political Prisoners in the Post-Fidel Era (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2009), 8–9.
  4. Human Rights Watch, Cuba’s Repressive Machinery: Human Rights Forty Years after the Revolution (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999), 204–13.
  5. Most long-term Cuban political prisoners were released in 2010 and 2011 not on account of US government intervention, but through negotiations between the Cuban Catholic Church and the Spanish and Cuban governments. For a fuller discussion, see Samuel Farber, Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011), 37–38.
  6. For a fuller discussion of this issue, see Farber, 231-233.
  7. According to Neier, Amnesty’s category of “prisoners of conscience” was expanded to include torture victims, victims of disappearances and extrajudicial killings, political prisoners denied fair trials, and those sentenced to death waiting for execution (194),
  8. Farber, “Greater Flexibility Yes, Free Movement of Citizens, No,”, October 22, 2012.
  9. It is truly tragic that left-wing organizations and individuals who have done very good and often heroic work on behalf of civil and political liberties in their own countries, look the other way and even apologize for the suppression of those rights in “socialist” countries like Cuba. Included among these are the Argentinian Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and the Guatemalan Rigoberta Menchú, recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize for the years 1980 and 1992. They have in various ways expressed support for the island’s political system without expressing the slightest concern for the violation of civil and political rights there. In the United States personalities on the Left such as Michael Moore and Oliver Stone have been notably insensitive to these matters. The US National Lawyers Guild’s left-wing lawyers, who would presumably be especially alert to the violations of civil and political liberties in any country, have on many occasions actively apologized for the legal practices of the Cuban regime, especially when under the leadership of the late Debra Evenson who ended up working as a legal representative of the Cuban government in New York. 

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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