The human rights movement - by which I mean such organizations as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International - has earned a lot of respect among activists and perhaps even some world leaders. Its reputation rests on the idea that, somehow, it does good work, it advances some cause. I was among the many who firmly believed this. It seemed entirely reasonable. As the years roll into decades, it is reasonable no longer. A hard look at the movement's achievements and prospects indicates it has very little to show for its dedicated efforts. Given its present activities and overall approach, it has virtually no chance of doing more. Yet a change in strategy might, after all, bring important results.
Anyone who cares more about human rights than about human rights pieties might ask the following questions. What has the human rights movement achieved? How has its approach helped or hurt the cause of human rights? How can the movement improve its performance? What follows offers some answers.
What has the human rights movement achieved?
The realities are suggested by the statement of a Human Rights Watch official on the death of Ariel Sharon:
“It’s a shame that Sharon has gone to his grave without facing justice for his role in Sabra and Shatilla and other abuses,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “His passing is another grim reminder that years of virtual impunity for rights abuses have done nothing to bring Israeli-Palestinian peace any closer.”
Sarah Whitson's comment is telling: something similar could have been said of thousands and thousands of murderers and torturers, great and small. I don't mean over the course of history; I mean among those who've attracted the attention of human rights organizations.
Though there has been progress towards respecting human rights in some countries, usually this hasn't been the doing of the human rights movement. In Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina, not to mention Cambodia, South Africa, and Libya, change came with the fall of oppressive régimes. The new governments instituted their own tribunals which had little or nothing to do with international human rights organizations. The most substantial achievement of these organizations has been the war crimes trials in ("the former") Yugoslavia, which (a) convicted some offenders, (b) did so partly on evidence collected by human rights investigators, (c) did so in tribunals such as human rights organizations have consistently and persistently promoted. The fairness of these tribunals is not at issue here: it's hard to be sure if there was bias and it's also hard to object to at least some of the verdicts. But this success nevertheless has more influence than it deserves. It's not because processes were flawed. It's because the anomaly of the success hasn't been appreciated. The circumstances are not just unusual. They are also increasingly unlikely to repeat themselves.
The case of Yugoslavia is anomalous because Western democracies were not really intervening in an ongoing crisis; they were there almost at its birth. They took a particular interest in and assumed unusual responsibility for the course of events. The West was politically involved in the initial dissolution of the country, when the EEC attempted to arbitrate the dispute. Soon thereafter Germany, at first over UK and French objections, pushed recognition of Croatia by the EEC. Moreover the West encountered no effective opposition to its pro-dissolution agenda. Serbia's ally on the UN Security council, Russia, was on the brink of collapse and dependent on the West for financial support. (In the 90s, Russia's GDP fell by a catastrophic 50%.) China, another ally, was not yet ready to take the world stage on its own.
However substantial the success of the UN and human rights movement in Yugoslavia, it did not mark an advance towards a world order that respected human rights. On the contrary, it was a symptom of a radical and very temporary great power imbalance. This became clear in the late 1990s, when Russia began to reassert itself in Chechnya and Kosovo. Subsequent years have shown increasing movement away from an international consensus on human rights. Libya's uprising confirmed the change in direction: Russia and China, outmanoeuvred, committed themselves to frustrate any further efforts to enforce human rights according to the West's and the NGOs' agendas. Important secondary powers like India and Brazil have more discretely adopted a similar stance.
The issue of prospects aside for a moment, what have human rights organizations achieved since their inception in the 1960s? Part of the answer, but only part, has to do with perpetrators brought to justice. In the special case of Yugoslavia there have been 67 convictions in the last twenty years. Perhaps this is a lesson to those who lack powerful backers and commit crimes in Western Europe's back yard. It must be set against the rest of the record.
This record can be evaluated in terms of justice, of deterrence, and of protecting human rights.
Has justice been served? Only a tiny, tiny proportion of offenders have been convicted of any crime as a (partial) result of human rights activity. In this narrow sense, justice has not been served. Thousands guilty of horrible crimes, far far more than those convicted, have not met with any judicial sanction at all.
A multitude of failures cast a dark shadow over the movement's modest, anomalous Yugoslav success. Elsewhere, after all the atrocities committed in all these years, the human rights movement has managed to help convict only one leader, Charles Taylor of Liberia (as far as I know). Other Liberian monsters like General Butt Naked have gone scott free. The Cambodian genocide trials are barely functional, partly for lack of funding. Rios Mott in Guatemala has yet to meet justice, thirty years after he visited utter horror on his country. So have the mass murderers of Indonesia and the Congo. So have the torturers of Burma, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, the Gulf States, Algeria (including the French colonists), Morocco, El Salvador and many other places. Those who actually do the torturing have perhaps never been so much as charged, much less convicted. They enjoy even more impunity than the leadership. Justice has not been served.
No one would deny or be surprised by this. Presumably the point of all these investigations, accusations, and, in some rare cases, trials and convictions, is deterrence.
To see how tenuous the case for deterrence is, you probably only need to examine your own beliefs. Now, after half a century of human rights activism, few can seriously believe that the police torturers of the world are worried about the International Criminal Court. There certainly isn't the slightest evidence of it. Nor is it easier to imagine how rulers, typically impressed by their own power, are going to be frightened of some distant court that has on rare occasion, in special circumstances quite unlike those today, meted out rather gentlemanly punishment to a few ageing wrong-doers. Human rights violators will be far more concerned with their own domestic unrest, and rightly so. Someone bent on wreaking agony on human beings is unlikely to be scared off by far-off, theoretical considerations, by the idea that possibly someone, sometime, in circumstances that can't quite be imagined, might possibly bring them to justice.
If we believe in the importance of deterrence as justification for human rights activism, we believe in a remote ideal. Since the worst and most massive human rights violations normally occur within uncooperative sovereign states, effective enforcement of human rights conventions requires a supranational enforcing agency. The idea of judicial sanction as deterrence against human rights violations therefore implies something like world executive power, either through a world government or some utterly dominant nation. For a brief historical moment - with the unchallenged supremacy of the US in the 1990s - the second possibility seemed close to reality. The moment is emphatically past and the prospect of effective enforcement is now a mere dream. So, then, is notion that human rights activism can substantially contribute to the deterrence of human rights violations, now or in the foreseeable future.
How, then, does human rights activism protect human rights, presumably the point of it all? Amnesty has had success in the comparatively mild sort of cases that came to prominence in the 1960s. Amnesty's letter-writing campaigns have 'contributed' to the release nonviolent individual 'prisoners of conscience' - 40,000 by Amnesty's count, though no one knows whether the campaigns were crucial to the releases. But the concern for these sorts of cases, sadly, is almost outmoded - if it was ever appropriate. Just as Amnesty's letter-writing never addressed, for example, the massive human rights violations committed by the US in Vietnam or the slaughter in Indonesia, so it never touches the real horrors of today. The idea that such campaigns would ever do anything for the victims of the genocide in Rwanda or the victims of state torturers around the world is a non-starter.
Human rights organizations address these dreadful cases through the judicial model. They document. On extremely rare occasion that eventually leads to punishment. Never, not in a single case among all the hundreds of thousands, does it actually protect anyone. Once the illusion of deterrence is dispelled, once the actual protection of human rights is seen as the objective, the human rights movement has so far been an utter failure. Since the quasi-judicial approach addresses human rights violations only after the fact, this cannot change until these organizations change their fundamental approach.
How have the strategies of human rights organizations helped or hurt the cause of human rights?
Letter-writing and attempting to indict violators has done next to nothing to help the cause of human rights - if by that is meant actually protecting people from human rights violations. Human rights organizations realize this, so that for some time they have attempted to go further. They signal out massive human rights violations in well-documented reports, and call for action against them. (These reports are already obsolescent in the age of ubiquitous cell-phone videos. In contrast to even a decade ago, the reports rarely document what isn't already public knowledge.) But their allegiance to the model of world judicial sanctions undermines their efforts and perhaps has even hurt their cause.
This happens in two related ways. First, the quasi-judicial approach leads human rights organizations to treasure their reputation for impartiality. In Syria, for example, Human Rights Watch examines human rights violations; it has done so for decades. It now finds violations on both sides of the conflict. All parties, it seems, are bad. All should be hauled before the International Criminal Court. The idea of backing one against the other cannot so much as arise; one can only imagine opposing both. That Syrians should determine their own fate now seems out of the question: after all, apart from some utterly powerless do-gooders, they are divided into criminal factions! The only possible reaction is that 'the whole thing is a mess' and must remain so until some august outside authority takes matters in hand.
This first problem leads to a second. When human rights organizations step out of their quasi-judicial role and attempt to address political realities, their recommendations are feckless to the point of dishonesty. The meticulously documented reports of mass atrocities tacitly acknowledge the impotence of the judicial approach by demanding 'action'. But the action demanded is invariably known to be ludicrously insufficient.
Here are some examples.
In October 2013, HRW issued a major report documenting the torture and killing of political detainees. What to do? Their acting director for the Middle East and North Africa, Joe Stork, said that “All governments and especially Security Council member countries should put the plight of these thousands of political detainees high on their agenda for diplomatic discussions.” Their press release added that : "Concerned governments need to make clear that the Syrian government and those responsible for the abuse will ultimately face justice for their actions."
In January 2014, commenting on the release of 55,000 gruesome photographs of people who died under torture in Syrian prisons, HRW director Kenneth Roth reacted by demanding more of diplomacy:
“It is essential that the mass atrocities being committed in Syria be a parallel focus of any diplomatic effort,”... [Roth] called for an end to the indiscriminate killing of civilians and an opening of Syria’s borders for humanitarian aid. “We cannot afford to wait for the distant prospect of a peace accord before the killing of 5,000 Syrians a month comes to an end.”
On twitter, HRW complained that "Russia has protected Syrian govt from international action, whether explicit condemnation, an arms embargo, or referral to ICC".
Invariably, the reactions of human rights organizations are couched in these quasi-judicial terms. What does this amount to? Where Syria is concerned, a useless, pointless scolding of Russia and China. HRW knows very well that Russia and China will block any attempt by the West to "meet its responsibility to protect civilians." Such attempts would therefore be illegal, proscribed by the international law HRW holds so dear. HRW would never encourage the West to violate that law. It would therefore never suggest that, if civilians can't be protected legally, they must be protected illegally. But that means the movement can make no serious suggestion at all. Indeed the only real action mentioned, an arms embargo, suggests that HRW has no genuine interest even in recommending protective measures, because it knows full well that an arms embargo would do nothing to stop the régime's sadistic orgy.
HRW's recommendations are just as much a conscience-salving fig-leaf as the empty protestations of the Western powers. But no one would reproach HRW in these terms, because no one expects HRW to actually accomplish anything. The idea is to fight the good fight, that is, to gather up documents which won't matter now, but which are the sort which might matter sometime, decades down the road, in the unlikely event that a genuine international order takes root. Here HRW and its acolytes exhibit the great sense of leisure that discredits so many liberal, allegedly well-meaning initiatives. Decades, hundreds of thousands of victims? no problem. we have lots of time.
The basic ideological problem of the human rights movement is that it works towards two goals: the establishment of a just, rights-upholding international order, and the protection of real human beings who suffer horrible 'violations of their human rights'. By this I mean protecting people from torture and agonizing death. These goals are considered inseparable, even obviously so. In fact they are opposed.
You can work towards the vague possibility that, sometime in some unknowable future, the nations of the world will all get together and agree to enforce human rights, wherever and whenever they are violated, no matter whose interests are at stake. This is a very long-term goal and it requires, or is taken to require, scrupulous judicial procedure in respected international forums. The goal of protecting real human beings from grievous outrage is very different. It is a very short-term goal. It is the goal of people in a hurry, people who have a sense of urgency. Taken seriously, it very often requires disregard for international law, contempt for international institutions, and willingness to use 'illegal' violence, unauthorized by any world body. The human rights movement has chosen the former goal. That's why it has done virtually nothing to advance the latter.
How can the movement improve its performance?
If human rights organizations were locked into the quasi-judicial approach to protecting human rights, there would be no prospect of improvement. But they're not courts; they're not locked in. The reason their impotent complaints are so disappointing is that these organization may - we can't be sure - have some real political influence. Certainly they are widely and deeply respected and they raise their voices just at a time when, in the Syrian case, at least Western governments are apparently quite unsure how to act. Perhaps the right sort of activism from human rights organizations could move public opinion and even governments towards effective action. But to do that, the movement would have to recommend effective action, not rule it out.
For a start, human rights activists would have to be acknowledge that only force, only military intervention or arming an opposition, has any chance of preventing human rights violations in the worst and most massive cases. Acknowledging this means accepting that, here in the real world, effective action to halt mass torture and murder must be expected to be impure. It will involve other, lesser but still important violations of human rights. If there is intervention, there will very likely be war crimes. If an armed opposition is supported, the same - and concern for these violations might require calls to restrain the fighters, not calls to avoid arming impure saviours. In short, the human rights movement will go nowhere until it involves itself in real politics, not in prissy calls for international cooperation that everyone knows won't happen. Only then can the 'duty to protect' become more than a barren abstraction.