The Future of the Human Rights Movement

Last week was a momentous one for the human rights movement. You may not have noticed it. The movement itself may not realize it. But it was. The New Republic published Benjamin Birnbaum’s Minority Report: Human Rights Watch fights a civil war over Israel. Birnbaum recounts with greater inside detail than we have had before, the behind the scenes efforts of Robert Bernstein, the founder of Human Rights Watch (HRW), and others on its board, to prevent HRW from going off course over Israel. The effort began with the 2000 vote of the HRW board to support the Palestinian “right of return.”

One must pause to consider this act. In a world of ideological and practical political contestation and dispute, an organization dedicated in principal to promoting certain universally acknowledged human rights – beyond the limiting bounds of interested partisanship that entrap all other parties – endorses one of the historically contestable demands of one party in a decades-long war. How does an organization so lose sight of its very identity?

And, of course, we know, again, that HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division (MENA) is almost entirely staffed by individuals who have in the past been assertive partisans of the Palestinian position, and who continue openly to express positions critical of Israel. Pause and consider this too. Ethics guidelines, if not laws themselves, governing conflicts of interest are premised on knowledge of human nature and the realities of systemic corruption. When news breaks of an office holder’s typical, even sometimes subtle violation of the usual strictures, and the official publicly states that the money, let’s say, had no influence on his vote – what do we all do, if only silently? We laugh. We laugh because we know, as the official knows, that it is not supposed to be about taking anyone’s word for his honesty. (Ah, if only we could.) The rules are intended to make that unnecessary. Recall how the Bush administration, in the wake of 9/11-inspired patriotic trust assured citizens the FBI would not abuse the use of National Security Letters unreviewed by the Justice Department. Of course, their use was abused. No checks: abuse. That is the nature of things.

Who should know better than a human rights organization – promoter of international laws and conventions – that when it comes to human rights, we don’t take people’s and nations’ word for their unconflicted integrity and fealty to ethical guidelines? We seek to require them to abide by the guidelines, and, when challenged, to present evidence of their doing so. And one standard guideline – please, stifle the laugh – is that people with partisan records and positions, advocates, cannot reasonably be watchdogs (Human Rights Watch) over disputes. It is so fundamental, one has to wonder at the level of self-deception.

The loss of bearings is not limited to Israel, though. Bernstein reaffirms what has already been well-established.

HRW officials acknowledge that a number of factors beyond the enormity of human rights abuses go into deciding how to divide up the organization’s attentions: access to a given country, possibility for redress, and general interest in the topic. “I think we tend to go where there’s action and where we’re going to get reaction,” rues one board member. “We seek the limelight—that’s part of what we do. And so, Israel’s sort of like low-hanging fruit.”

Bernstein, however, had started HRW primarily to reach for the high-hanging fruit—closed societies where human rights reporting was lacking.

So the focus is on seeking the “limelight,” and this is known to be for promotional purposes, to highlight, in the limelight, the presence, relevance, and effectiveness of the organization, which highlighting is aimed at generating further and increased financial support. The focus is on “low-hanging fruit,” places “where there’s action and where we’re going to get reaction”: in other words, any naturally flawed democracy that may be highly internationally engaged or party to a bitter dispute, which is to say Israel and, post 9/11, the United States. And this becomes HRW’s projected vision of the world human rights situation.

The same decision to highlight what’s in the limelight has motivated Amnesty International (AI) in recent years, for just the same reasons, and so we get AI’s inordinate focus on Guantanamo, and the debacle, now, of its cooperation with the radical Muslim Cage Prisoners organization. The latter led, after much public discourse, to the resignation from AI a bit more than a week ago of  Gita Sahgal, the whistleblower, until then suspended, who originally drew attention to AI’s sordid alliance with Moazzam Begg of Cage Prisoners. In A Statement By Gita Sahgal On Leaving Amnesty International, published in The New York Review of Books, Sahgal explained

The senior leadership of Amnesty International chose to answer the questions I posed about Amnesty International’s relationship with Moazzam Begg by affirming their links with him. Now they have also confirmed that the views of Begg, his associates, and his organization, Cageprisoners, do not trouble them. They have stated that the idea of jihad in self-defense is not antithetical to human rights; and have explained that they meant only the specific form of violent jihad that Moazzam Begg and others in Cageprisoners assert is the individual obligation of every Muslim….

Unfortunately, their stance has laid waste to every achievement on women’s equality by Amnesty International in recent years and made a mockery of the universality of rights. In fact, the leadership has effectively rejected a belief in universality as an essential basis for partnership.

The reference to jihad is to a statement by Claudio Cordone, AI secretary-general, who has resolutely defended the cooperation with Begg.

In the case of AI, what has transpired over the past decade has been the gradual, but systematic erasure in the minds of organization leaders, and many of the faithful, of the distinction between a variety of leftist ideology and Enlightenment-based human values. As Sahgal points out, and as is manifest among some on the Left, this erasure, in apologetics for Islamic radicalism, is now self-conscious, even to the point of rejecting the Enlightenment.

What we see in this are fissures on the left different from those between liberals and those further to the left. The ruptures are taking place among those to that farther left. In March, The Nation published the predictable obfuscatory excuse making article by D.D. Guttenplan & Maria Margaronis, which ended

The butterfly that set this particular tempest blowing beat its wing decades ago in some British inner city. Islamophobia, antifeminism, the mutual mistrust between Muslims and the secular left have all fanned the breeze. If successive governments had not encouraged minorities to define themselves by religion, if they had answered racism and poverty with justice instead of tokenism, Gita Sahgal and Moazzam Begg might not be on opposite sides of this destructive argument.

The mind could twist like a mobius strip at the varied inversions of reality contained in this brief, horrific presentation of an alternate universe, not least at the suggestion that there should be any natural alliance between Islam and the Left. Among the letters in response to the article were these comments

Nobody is saying Amnesty was wrong to defend Begg’s rights—that is a red herring. That is different from getting into bed with his organization by arranging European speaking tours, taking him to Downing Street and describing Cageprisoners as human rights defenders.

Then because I think that many left organizations (in Italy as well as in other European countries)—fearing to be seen as racist and in the effort to respond to the racist attacks of the extreme right—have lost an autonomous, critical, secular point of view and “are spending much time and energy echoing and romanticising the fundamentalists as their allies against imperialism” (as Harsh Kapoor said).

First of all, Amnesty International seems to continue having difficulties in positioning itself in relation to the global problematic of political manipulation and terror in the name of religion. Secondly, Amnesty International’s endemic hesitation to deal with criticism is questionable for an organization of its stature and reputation.

To choose a currently popular term, AI is so misguided in its concern to avoid epistemic closure that it has lost its epistemic foundation. Or, as Oliver Kamm recently put it, more practically

Someone who has suffered the restriction of liberty does not become thereby the friend of liberty. Disastrously for itself and those who depend on its support, Amnesty is no longer the friend of liberty either.

The losses in all this – the going astray of both HRW and AI – begin with the loss to human rights in themselves. The relevance and effectiveness the two organizations sought, in order to more successfully promote human rights, are destroyed by the very methods by which they pursued them. The integrity and commitment to disinterested principle that founders and longtime supporters worked with such idealistic energy to establish, for the sake of a credibility that might save those crushed beneath the wheel of state power – that is gone. Now the Right, and worse, the tyrants, when they do not use these organizations, may justifiably discredit them as merely additional self-interested and ideologically-directed parties to the fray. Which is now what they are.

If these two once noble organizations are ever to recover, the recovery must come under new leadership, reconsidered mandates, and much self-reflection on their decline. In that reflection, last week will be a significant marker to note.

For more, see

Who Will Watch the Watchers I

Who Will Watch the Watchers II


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