Who Will Watch the Watchers II

by A. Jay Adler on November 19, 2009
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Since I posted my first installment of Who Will Watch the Watchers, Richard Landes over at The Augean Stables has very ably pursued the same focus on Human Rights Watch, and more deeply too, emphasizing two issues: the resistance to criticism and the increasing role of postcolonial ideology in driving the agenda, not just of HRW, but of other human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International.

I focused myself, earlier, on the resistance to criticism, and on the remarkable fact of it. HRW is an organization conceived as a professional watchdog group – its mission to investigate, evaluate, and publish reports that pass judgment on the human rights records of other entities. Yet when HRW is itself criticized, it responds with the same kind of dismissive, even hostile and accusatory language directed at its critics as might any authoritarian state – its Director Ken Roth, for instance, charging supporters of Israel of attacking HRW with “lies and deception.” HRW does not even substantively rebut charges against it: it simply rejects them, even when coming from its founder. As Landes points out, one would imagine that an organization with the professional mission of HRW would be institutionally constituted to accept and review criticism – even to engage in systematic self-review. Not HRW.

Pause for a moment: every significant figure in HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division has a history of sympathy for the Palestinian position, even a record of political advocacy for that position, or has, in one instance, a collector’s passion for Nazi military regalia – yet HRW is completely unable to comprehend why it has lost the trust of Israel or its supporters, unable to consider that it has gone astray in the application of its mission to Israel. It is simply astonishing.

The causes are several and related. At their root, is the influence of postcolonial ideology.

I want to be clear here. The postcolonial critique of the Western world is genuine, substantive, valuable, and necessary. However, like any other even good idea, it can be distorted and abused, applied both uncritically and excessively. A perfect, lunatic example is the characterization of the return to their homeland, after nearly two thousand years, of the most historically and intensively oppressed people in recorded history as a “neo” colonial project in the manner of the half-millennial enterprise of one of the very civilizations that played so long a role in oppressing them. The mind boggles.

But the nature of human rights organizations has changed. From what Ben Cohen at Z-Word Blog termed, in correspondence with me, as the” liberal internationalist principles of their founders” human rights NGOs have become turned in their perspective by anti-imperialism. And in many respects, they do not recognize this turn, and when they do, their sense of righteousness is sufficient that they do not acknowledge that anti-imperialism is, indeed, a perspective and not a vision of the full truth of political praxis. It is worthwhile to examine an example of how this actually happened.

I suggested last time that Amnesty International, too, has changed – actually, even more radically and visibly than has HRW. AI’s mission has long been based on the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but with a much narrower, self-determined “mandate,” the greatest focus of which, since its founding, has been work on behalf of the individual “prisoner of conscience.” Unlike Human Rights Watch, which is staff run, and which focuses on data gathering and reporting on human rights conditions all over the world, AI has been a “grassroots,” volunteer-guided organization. Primary among its activities, it’s thousands of local groups and student groups around the world have “adopted” prisoners of conscience (POCs), or other “action files” regarding individuals somewhere being detained in violation of accepted principles of human rights. These groups regularly write letters to appropriate government officials urging humane, legal treatment of the prisoner or advocating the prisoner’s release. This activity was the originating work of AI. In contrast, the paid staff of AI, using area specialists, performs investigations and issues reports, in the manner of HRW.

Beginning in earnest in the late 90s, a drive began within AI – within its membership, among its staff, and on its Board – to broaden the AI mandate. Given the organization’s broad and complex structure of volunteer government, the process of change was long, and involved lengthy debate. It was, in many respects, a model of the kind of non-hierarchical consensus building – person centered and self-actualizing empowerment, rather than power wielding – that such a grassroots organization should exhibit. A major argument by proponents of the expanded mandate was that under the historic mandate, AI was too limited in nature. It was voiceless and inactive in relation to significant contemporary human rights issues (social, economic, and cultural rights, for instance, in contrast to the traditionally considered civil and political rights) while other NGO’s were free to play a role.

AI suffered, as well, under a variety of self-imposed restrictions, against advocacy of economic boycotts, for instance, or against national sections of the organization, e.g. AIUSA, working on issues in their own country.

All of these conditions, proponents of change argued, endangered the size of the role AI would be able to take in the future of human rights advocacy; they limited AI’s role as a player. Given the broad interests of human rights supporters, AI’s limited mandate could diminish significantly its future fundraising prospects. In other words, to reduce the issues to their essential term without reducing their meaning, advocates of change within AI were concerned with the organization’s ability to exercise power (“influence” is a kinder, gentler term, but spades and roses and all that), not only in the world, but within – in relation to – the human rights NGO community, as well. It is known (pdf), too, that AI and other NGOs are influenced in their areas of focus and reporting by publicity considerations – not for themselves as such, but for their mission: what will draw public attention to the very issue of human rights and produce more wide-ranging effects. What this may mean for the subjects of imbalanced attention, with respect to developing political energies and forces, is undoubtedly too complex a calculus, so apparently it is not made. Below are tables from the link above. (Click on the image once, even twice, to zoom.) Note the disparities, as to the subject nations, between “violations of personal integrity rights” as well as “deadliest armed conflicts” and nations subject to press releases and reports. There is cause to posit even greater imbalances in more recent years.

AI Reporting

What the campaign to broaden Amnesty’s mandate fatefully disregarded was what had previously long been respected – the possibility of disagreeing about what exactly constitutes the full range of human rights. (This in contrast, say, to ideals, or what I choose to neologize as an “enlightenment,” as an alternative notion to that of an “entitlement.” One, even a nation, might be dull and unenlightened, but, presumably, this would be one’s right to remain – subjecting one to community censure, perhaps – and not an institutionalized and punishable crime.) Notions of civil and political rights are the product of centuries of evolving human debate and contestation. While some may be asserted as “self-evident,” our ability to promote them – even prosecute their absence – is likewise the product of an increasingly contracted, widely, socially agreed upon conception of human integrity. Whatever absolute truths there may be, our ability successfully, peacefully to incorporate them into social and political structures is dependent upon those truths being social constructs as well. Large numbers of well-meaning populations need to accept them as true. This is so of most civil and political rights; it is not so of many social, economic, and cultural rights. One might agree that all people should be free of hunger, or even have the civil right to obtain an abortion. It is another matter to agree on the economic system or policy that might free people from hunger and to claim that there have been human rights violations if a nation still has not ended hunger or conceives the moral issues of abortion differently. The campaign to expand AI’s mandate rejected the fundamental possibility of disagreeing over how to support those rights.

Along with having expanded the mandate, AI has ended the “work on own country” (WOOC) prohibition, as well. The idea behind the WOOC prohibition was recognition, in AI’s early and subsequent years, that AI members and supporters in closed and relatively unfree societies faced dire risks for their advocacy. Limiting AI national sections to working on the rights conditions in other nations reduced these risks. But there was a consequent and highly beneficial effect of the WOOC prohibition, particularly for open societies: it removed national members from engagement in the political, ideological disputes of their own nations, and thus advanced and reinforced the disinterested nature and objective practice of AI’s work. Now AIUSA regularly, prominently injects itself into matters of U.S. national policy. With the prohibition removed, just as AI, far beyond serving as a human rights watchdog, actually partners with governments in developing policy, AIUSA interjects itself, for instance, in United States-Mexican relations and offers policy recommendations for joint U.S.-Mexican initiatives in addressing human rights violations in Mexico. Completely gone is the once sage recognition that advocating specific policies along with the parties one critiques drops one into the same muck and mud, where policy often has uncontrollable consequences (like economic boycotts against Israel).

The unfortunate truth is that over time increasingly large numbers of AI members ceased to recognize any potential space between their ideological commitments and conceptions of human rights, sacrificing the organization’s long-sought and hard-earned  reputation as an objective advocate. It is not, anymore, only authoritarian despots who conceive of AI as a leftist organization, but large numbers of people simply to the right of it and the ideology that now clearly directs it. When AI calls the U.S. prison facility at Guantanamo, for all its flaws and failures, as it did in its 2005 annual report, “the gulag of our times,” when it promotes lectures by Noam Chomsky (infamous for his denials of the Cambodian killing fields and the Serbian concentration camps during the Bosnian war, and who claimed, shortly after the U.S. invasion to topple the Taliban, that the U.S. was perpetrating a “silent genocide”) when it participates, in whatever manner, in the degenerate enterprise of the Durban United Nations World Conference Against Racism, it loses the moral authority it earned over decades.

Human rights organizations are the intellectual and moral creations of the political left. That is not an accusation. It should be a point of pride for the left. But the hubris of some elements of the left is in the failure to situate themselves within a discourse and to proceed to view themselves, instead, as the conclusion of that discourse. It is these elements, ironically, who think so much of situatedness, who fail to situate themselves.

How else, then, in consideration of the role AI and HRW purport to play on the world scene – organizations representing, as well as humanly possible, non-partisan advocacy of commonly held principles of human rights, fairly and objectively reporting on and opposing violations of those rights – how else, then, account for the fact that HRW has a commentary section of its website. There one may find, for instance, shared blog posts from the Huffington Post, criticizing the U.S. Congress for rejecting the Goldstone Report. One may find, even, regular commentary, by Joe Stork, HRW’s controversial Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, unidentified as such, endorsing the Goldstone Report, which has been so comprehensively and substantively dismantled, and lamenting the “sadly predictable disparagement [of it] by the United States.” In a single tendentious comment a legitimate point of view and policy position is dismissed as if it were a Soviet propaganda release.

What blindness is this?

AJA


1 comment

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Scott Menter November 20, 2009 at 2:27 pm

Cogently argued and beautifully written.

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