From Z NET:
Hijacking Human Rights By Michael Barker August 3, 2007
In our increasingly public relations-driven world, it is of little surprise that cynical political elites regularly use the rhetoric of democracy, peace, and human rights to disguise their overtly anti-humanist policies. Why should we expect less of our leaders in a world where the corporate media wages a relentless war to manufacture our consent for ruling demagogues? Thus it seems a logical assumption that budding mind managers will attempt to pervert the very concepts that their voters/targets hold most dearly. That this doublespeak is rendered invisible in the mainstream media is a given, but the lack of debate about this process in the alternative media is more worrisome.
Writers in the alternative press, of course, regularly question the rhetoric of our anti-democratic leaders, but the number of researchers investigating their cunningly misnamed (imperial) organizations – like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) – are few, and the number examining the democratic credentials of what are taken to be progressive organizations are even less still. This is disturbing in many ways, because if say for example I was a neoconservative and had identified this void of critical inquiry, then I would see the obvious utility of infiltrating and hijacking (or even creating) such unaccountable organizations so that I could use them for my own political purposes. Thus if we are truly interested in creating progressive democratically run group’s within society, then it seems like a no-brainer that we should ensure their accountability through undertaking ongoing critiques of their work. While such activities are less necessary for organisations that invite a high degree of local participatory control, it is vital for national or internationally orientated groups that for the most part are privately run, with public involvement usually limited to monetary support.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) is one of the latter such organizations, and as a highly regarded and influential international nongovernmental organization (NGO), it is vital that its global work be regularly examined to ensure that it remains true to it’s stated humanitarian mission. Simply put, this is because as Jonathan Cook writes:
“The measure of a human rights organisation is to be found not just in the strides it takes to seek justice for the oppressed and victimised but also in the compromises it makes to keep itself out of trouble. Because of the business that human rights defenders are in, they must be held to a standard higher than we demand of others.”
Unfortunately, it seems that for the most part HRW has evaded such critical commentary from the Left, only coming under scrutiny from a handful of activists at a relatively late stage in their institutional history. So although this article aims to contribute towards what is hoped will be an ongoing critique of HRW’s work, the author recognises that in HRW’s case the following critical examination may be coming to late to help them resolve their democratic failures. That said, at the very least it is hoped that this article will encourage other like-minded readers to begin to think more critically about the work of global NGOs with a mind towards promoting and developing a world order based on participatory principles. Initially, this article will provide an overview of the recent critiques of HRW, however, the bulk of the article will interrogate the ‘democratic’ ties of some of the key people affiliated with HRW by focusing on their Americas Advisory Committee (work analysing their other advisory boards is currently in progress). Finally, HRW’s role as a leading proponent of ‘humanitarian’ interventions will be discussed, and recommendations made for how concerned activists may best counter the antidemocratic developments exposed in this study.
Abusing the Principles of Human Rights
In an instructive article dealing with human rights abuses in China, Ralph McGehee (1999) draws attention to the links between HRW’s Asia branch and the imperial ambitions of the NED and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He notes that: “US corporate-owned media, in league with government agencies, orchestrate media coverage to demonize states in conflict with corporate plans”. He observed that in China’s case many of those stories “seem to be generated by the ‘privately funded’ US-based Human Rights Watch/Asia” and that this:
“…reveal[s] the current US policy of using (rightly or wrongly) the theme of human rights violations to alter or overthrow non-US-favored governments. In those countries emerging from the once Soviet Bloc that is forming new governmental systems; or where emerging or Third World governments resist US influence or control, the US uses ‘human rights violations,’ as an excuse for political action operations. ‘Human Rights’ replaces ‘Communist Conspiracy’ as the justification for overthrowing governments.”
In a similar vein, Sara Flounders (2002) illustrates how HRW provided the global media with information that enabled them to claim that in the West Bank “no massacre had taken place in Jenin” when in fact much other evidence suggested that a massacre had taken place. She notes how HRW claims that “its reports are objective, balanced and evenhanded”, however:
“When it comes to Palestine this has meant equating the violence of the illegal Israeli occupation with the resistance of Palestinians to overwhelming military force. Once Human Rights Watch declared that ‘no massacre’ had occurred in Jenin, the demand for an inquiry and international action against Israeli crimes virtually disappeared. Media coverage shifted sharply. The Bush administration made a new round of demands on the Palestinians to condemn violence while calling Ariel Sharon ‘a man of peace’ and expressing sympathy for Israeli ‘self-defense’ measures. HRW statements echoed these shifts.”
More recently, HRW’s work in Palestine has come under fire from Jonathan Cook (2006) for seemingly “distorting its findings to placate the Israel lobby”. This provoked HRW’s Middle East policy director, Sarah Leah Whitson, to respond to Cook’s critique whereupon she misrepresented his argument, which in turn invited a reply from Cook who observed that:
“If this is how one of the directors of HRW distorts my arguments and evidence when I carefully set out my case in black and white on the page, one has to wonder how faithfully she and her organisation sift the evidence in the far trickier cases relating to human rights, where things are rarely so black and white.”
Crucially Cook clarifies his observations in his initial article by noting that he was “not challenging HRW’s research, which appears to show unequivocally that Israel did commit major war crimes; I am contesting its distorted presentation of the facts it unearthed to suit what looks suspiciously like a political agenda.”
Just over a month later in November 2006, Cook again highlighted HRW’s hypocrisy and doublespeak in Palestine, drawing attention to their press release Civilians Must Not Be Used to Shield Homes Against Military Attacks; which he observed was a travesty for it “denounce[ed] the Palestinians for choosing collectively and peacefully to resist house demolitions, while not concentrating on the violations committed by Israel in destroying the houses and using military forms of intimidation and punishment against civilians”. Others likeNorman Finkelstein (2006) also called upon HRW to retract this press release, which was subsequentlywithdrawn by HRW just over 2 weeks later.
In a similar vein to HRW’s controversial actions in Palestine, Heather Cottin (2002) questioned the way HRW “equates the actions of the Colombian guerrilla fighters struggling to free themselves from the oppression of state terror, poverty and exploitation with the repression of the U.S-sponsored armed forces and paramilitary death squads”. Taken together these recent examples clearly illustrate that there is more to HRW than first meets the eye. However, it is their promotion of foreign interventions in the name of ‘human rights’ that is potentially their most dangerous activity – as revealed by Edward S. Herman, David Peterson and George Szamuely (2007) in a devastating critique, titled Human Rights Watch in Service to the War Party, which examines HRW’s role in supporting the dismantlement of Yugoslavia. They conclude that:
“Sadly, HRW has… been an important contributor to human rights violations in the former Yugoslavia. HRW helped stir up passions in the demonization process from 1992 onward and actively and proudly contributed to preparing the ground for NATO’s ‘supreme international crime’ in March 1999.”
The first full-length investigation of the people working behind the scenes at HRW was undertaken by Paul Treanor (2004), in which he methodically worked through the elite linkages of their Europe and Central Asia Advisory Committee. Treanor noted that:
“…human-rights interventionism became a consensus among the ‘foreign policy elite’ even before September 11. Human Rights Watch itself is part of that elite, which includes government departments, foundations, NGO’s and academics. It is certainly not an association of ‘concerned private citizens’. HRW board members include present and past government employees, and overlapping directorates link it to the major foreign policy lobbies in the US.”
Indeed, HRW was created in 1978 as the Helsinki Watch (which later became HRW’s Europe and Central Asia Advisory Committee) “at the instigation of [ambassador-at-large for President Carter] Arthur Goldberg” with the start-up costs covered by a $400,000 from the Ford Foundation. Furthermore, as Bruce Montgomery (2002) observes their establishment credentials were fortified by Robert L. Bernstein (the founder of HRW) who “began by recruiting the establishment elite to give the cause clout and visibility.” Kirsten Sellars (2002) also points out that:
“The Ford Foundation played a crucial part in the development of the human rights movement in the seventies and eighties. A graph based on The Foundation Grants Index shows that Ford provided the lion’s share of US foundation grants for international human rights work in the years 1977 to 1991, especially in the first five years. (Kathryn Sikkink, ‘Human Rights, Principled Issue-Networks, and Sovereignty in Latin America’,International Organization, 47(3), Summer 1993, 421.) In particular, Ford was responsible for financially kick-starting many new human rights NGOs in the late seventies, including Helsinki Watch and the other Watch committees, the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights, and the International Human Rights Law Group [now known as Global Rights. It also revived older groups such as the International League for Human Rights.”
For activists and researchers familiar with the Ford Foundation’s elitist and anti-democratic history, this in itself should start alarm bells ringing as to the political motivations guiding the financial support which helped bring about HRW’s existence. This is because the Ford Foundation’s backing of HRW is consistent with ‘democratic’ changes occurring within the US foreign policy elites thinking in the 1970s, which was beginning to recognise the importance of soft-power in promoting American hegemony. These changes were no doubt informed by the political experiences gained by the political elites running liberal philanthropic foundations (like the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations’), which in 1984 eventually led to the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the United States Institute for Peace (USIP). Ironically, these groups carry out the same disruptive work that the CIA and USAID are well known for, yet under the protective rhetoric of democracy and peace. However, the type of democracy promoted by these organisations is best referred to as low-intensity democracy, or polyarchy.
While only one study has exposed the anti-democratic orientation of the USIP, far more studies (especially more recently) have laid bare the ‘democracy’ promoting practices of the NED and its cohorts – it’s four primary grantees being the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the Center for International Private Enterprise, and the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center. The seminal study examining the NED is Professor Robinson’s Promoting Polyarchy: he notes that:
“[T]he NED was created in the highest echelons of the US national security state, as part of the same project that led to the illegal operations of the Iran-Contra scandal. It is organically integrated into the overall execution of US national security and foreign policy. In structure, organization, and operation, it is closer to clandestine and national security organs such as the CIA than apolitical or humanitarian endowments as its name would suggest. The NED has operated in tandem with all major interventionist undertakings in the 1980s and 1990s.”
As the latter part of this study will illustrate, some of HRW’s Americas Advisory Board are directly promoting the agenda of the NED-linked ‘democracy’ establishment, while many others are closely linked to its most influential proponents. For reasons of concision, however, the author has chosen to focus predominantly on the ‘democratic’ affiliations of HRW’s Americas Advisory Board members, and so does not concentrate on each individual’s links to what appear to be genuinely democratic organizations. This decision has been taken because the primary purpose of this essay is to draw attention to the close interlocks that exist between the human rights and the ‘democracy promoting’ communities. That many of the people working with HRW are also invited to work with progressive groups’ is a given (especially considering the lack of attention paid to their activities), but this should surely also indicate the depth of the problem facing progressive activists who endeavour to promote a democracy based on participatory principles, not imperialism. (In most cases progressive links are not highlighted, although many of them can be found at SourceWatch.)
Before launching into the investigation of HRW Americas Advisors, it is important to clarify a few methodological details to help make the article easier to read. For a start, all the HRW advisors for which biographical information was available online (40 of 43 – biographical information was not available for Mark Kaplan, Andy Kaufman, and Tony White) have been examined in alphabetical order, that is, bar George Soros who is introduced first due to the exceptionally important role he has played in a number of ‘democratic’ organizations. Secondly, due to the paucity of critical research on many of the ‘democratic’ organizations introduced in this article, a short summary of their ‘democratic’ links has been provided in the appendix: however, where a ‘democratic’ group’s work is directly relevant to the HRW advisor being examined this information is sometimes provided in the main body of the text. Finally, to make the article easier to read many of the articles internet references have been omitted, thus a complete version of this essay with all references included can be obtained from the author on request.
Introducing HRW’s Americas Advisors: A Truly ‘Democratic’ Board
Lloyd Axworthy – Chair