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James Peck

30 Mar '12 - 09:28 by houck021

Lecture by James Peck, Adjunct Professor New York University, History and East Asian Departments.

Author of ‘Ideal Illusions’, a critical study of how the US Government shaped human rights into a potent ideological weapon for purposes having little to do with rights, and everything to do with furthering America’s global reach.

Peck was one of the speakers at the International Symposium   Human Rights: Ideal Illusions?  on    26 March 2012 – The Hague, Netherlands

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Full text:

Ideal Illusions & Human Rights 


I’ve been asked to speak on just how serious governments really are about human rights and their relation to the human rights movement.  To do so, my comments will focus on one of the least understood aspects of the development of the human rights movement -- the central role Washington has played in defining the very conception of human rights itself. The end result has proved far more satisfactory to Washington than is generally understood in the West, while the cost to the human rights movement has been considerable.

I’ll start with four short quotations from thinkers that influence these remarks. The first is from the German philosopher, Edmund Husserl: “To establish a tradition,” he warned, “is to forget its origins.” The second is the often quoted line of Wittgenstein: “the limits of our language are the limits of our world.” The third is from the French thinker Simone Weil – “The spirit of justice …is nothing else but a certain kind of attention…” And the last is from the American writer, James Baldwin: “Ignorance, aligned with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”

So first to origins – various ones. My book Ideal Illusions sought to show how Washington shaped human rights into a potent ideological weapon after the Vietnam War for purposes having little to do with rights—and everything to do with furthering America’s global reach. The questions underlying the book were neither simply historical nor abstract ones for me. Quite the opposite; they came out of a rethinking of the 60s and 70s when human rights first become a publicly prominent language in the U.S. Before the Vietnam War, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was simply not part of any widespread debate. Only as the Cold War anti-communist consensus began to break down during the Vietnam War did human rights language began to emerge.

What is so notable about human rights in the US at its origins is what it turned away from – and why. There were two great movements in the 60s and 70s in the US (with different yet comparable trends worldwide) that questioned the basic structures of US wealth and power. One was the peace movement. And here the great underlying issues were war, aggression and crimes against peace (which after all is what Nuremburg was fundamentally about); issues of occupation, self-determination, disarmament (nuclear and otherwise), and the role of violence and non-violence in various kinds of struggle. By the late 1960s, the Vietnam War for a questioning minority had become a touchstone for a systemic critique of American power. The criticism came not just from radicals. Cold War anti-communism, noted Senator J. William Fulbright, cloaked a profoundly misguided drive for American global preeminence. How could we even discuss these issues if “we cannot face up to this arrogant sense of our own superiority, this assumption that it is our God-given role to be the dominant power in the world?” [i] Fulbright urged Americans to turn away from invocations of America as “a city on the hill,” a “beacon light,” the incarnation of “the self-evident truths of man” and “universal human rights.” Such rhetoric pointed toward “a superiority complex,” he warned.”[ii]

 As the human rights movement evolved it moved ever further from the concerns which had animated the peace movement.  It became concerned with the “laws of war,” but it took no stand on war itself. It took no stand on aggression, arguing it couldn’t really be defined. In the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq the firm refusal of human rights organizations to take such a stand was painfully evident: “First, on most military matters, we are neutral, because we see our principal job as monitoring the way a war is fought, and to do that effectively you can’t be seen as for or against a war. Human Rights Watch would have been much less effective in trying to shape the Pentagon’s approach in Iraq if we were viewed as confirmed opponents of the war.”[iii]  This is a long way from Nuremburg. And it is a long way from raising the question of how a “rights based nation” can democratically commit aggression—and who is then responsible.

Moreover, human rights took no stand against occupation (and when it turns into aggression); it focused on the “laws of occupation.”  It took no stand on the military-industrial complex. It had nothing to say about banning nuclear weaponry -- weapons described even in early 1950s US defense department memo’s as inherently “genocidal’ -- though admirable work to outlaw landmines and some on the trade in arms trafficking has been done. It took no stand on the challenge Vietnam posed to the notion of “nation building” and modernizing others. It took no stand on the pre-eminent global position of American power as it was reconstituted after the 1960s and again in the 1990s. As a former longtime leader of Amnesty International USA put it, “The right thing to do is not only not at odds with U.S. interests, but … a good deal of the time the two go hand in hand.”[iv] U.S. power was to be “redirected rather than resisted,”[v] whereas voices in the peace movement would surely have said--- no redirection without massive popular resistance.

The other great movement of the 1960s was civil rights, demands for racial justice, substantive equality, meeting basic needs -- and the mass mobilizations necessary to achieve such goals. Few people in the US brought the issues raised by the two movements more eloquently together than Martin Luther King Jr.  The peace movement needed the insights of the civil rights movement, he argued, and the civil rights movement needed the insights of the peace movement. Today when humanitarian interventionism is so quick to legitimize calls for military force and going to war, such insights have only a faint echo in human rights. But to King war and peace were intricately tied to questions about the distribution of wealth and power and the dangers of corporate power, militarism, and economic exploitation. When “machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people,” he warned, “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” A “radical revolution in values” was thus imperative, one rooted in collective, popular struggles for economic justice, equality, and freedom at home and abroad. This is not the language of corporate responsibility, transparency, corruption, or “human rights is good for business.” Rather it’s a far more sweeping effort to envision humane, significantly, non-market, often non-profit and less materialistic ways of promoting imperative global changes.[vi] Compare this with a statement by the Director of Amnesty USA in the 1990s: “Rail against capitalism as you will, but recognize that since we are stuck with it, the test now is to make it work for the largest number of people.” Times had indeed changed.[vii]

Why this turning away? Why such a different world of language and orientation? The answer lies, in part, in how human rights erupted into the mainstream of public debate as two quite distinct needs in the US came together. On one side, the profound revulsion over the Vietnam War led to the weakening of the anti-communist consensus. Appalled by Cold War rationales and tactics (overthrowing regimes, assassinating leaders, training torturers, supporting dictatorships), human rights advocates mobilized against both American “excesses” and Soviet “crimes,” documenting in particular the atrocities of American-backed military regimes throughout Latin America. On the other side, Washington was desperate for new ideological weapons to justify—both at home and abroad—its global strategies. Human rights advocates sought to infuse Washington’s policies with their high-minded ethos just as Washington was fashioning a rights-based vision of America to support its resurgent global aims.

The coincidence of the two versions is immediately apparent and widely recognized. The question is: who influenced whom? Human rights leaders are convinced they pressured Washington into taking up their cause. Yet their movement gained momentum largely because Washington found an advantage in promoting ideas they regarded as their own – and conceptualizing and defining them in ways that ensured this was the case.  Before the major American rights groups were created, Washington’s national security managers had been discussing the desirability in the Carter administration of a national organization to offset the “foreign” influence of the London-based Amnesty International. Before human rights leaders came to advocate extending the laws of war to non-combatants, Washington saw the utility of such laws to blacken and discredit insurgency movements. And before a new humanitarian ethos emerged in the 1990s to legitimize massive forms of intervention, including war, Washington was propagating such views in considerable detail.  The list of examples is long; the point a fundamental one. Washington was conceptually there first on most of these issues in ways that rarely have proved incompatible with its basic strategic objectives since the 1970s.

The Carter administration’s path-breaking efforts to develop an “international rights regime” show just how directly Washington sought to fashion and use human rights. In 1977, National Security Advisor Brzezinski wrote President Carter laying out the reasons for setting up a human rights regime. Human rights needed to develop a “solid intellectual base” (which Brzezinski and others felt it lacked); research needed to be encouraged on “the varieties of human rights” and their promotion in “diverse social and cultural contexts.” The government could not effectively do all this on its own. The overall strategy was to nourish and spread the concepts required by the national security bureaucracy via the “echo chamber” of foundations, academia, existing organizations, and international groups. Conferences, consultants, academic and university research centers and think tanks all had a role to play in Washington’s emerging human rights strategy. A non-government but government-funded foundation could develop ideas and provide “the central direction, support and motivation for a successful, and relevant, scholarly effort.” It could also “funnel money to international human rights organizations, as well as to national human rights organizations operating in other countries and in the US based on the value of their work.”[viii] Human rights groups could act where it would be “inappropriate” for the government. Of course, the NGO’s, while deserving support, had to be “insulated from direct dependence” on the US government to better promote “a worldwide constituency for human rights.”[ix] Annual prizes could be given, a “clearing house for information” established, annual reports on trends issued and international and national conferences supported.[x]

That Washington sought to fashion both the conceptual basis and the direction of the human rights movement is hardly surprising—which is not to say that Washington controlled the agenda, or that the national security establishment was not in constant competition with Congress, the media, and highly contentious interests abroad. Washington had to scramble, searching for ways to refine its strategies and bend ways of thinking to its own ends. Still, then as now, it has remained as adept as it was during the Cold War at molding concepts, ideas, and code words to its own ideological ends. It has channeled to a notable extent the rhetoric of the UN agencies, indeed much of the EU as well. Of course, when a government and its critics share the same language, they are not necessarily saying the same thing. But adept leaders, as Harold Lasswell noted in his classic 1938 study Propaganda Techniques in the World War, know that “more can be won by illusion than coercion.”[xi] And as the American political scientist Louis Hartz warned, “When people use the same words and mean different things by them, you have special problems. When they use different words, and you know by virtue of that verbal difference the distinctions involved, even though you may be separated by them more completely, you may be able to understand them better.”[xii]  

What is essential to grasp is that by and large Washington wanted US human rights organizations set up and their role expanded; they wanted to see reports published on human rights abuses and political prisoners. If the cost was sometimes accepting a range of often fierce (but narrowly focused) criticism, that was a burden they had to bear.  After all, it was President Ronald Reagan who lauded Amnesty International at the White House on its 25th anniversary as he proclaimed “Human Rights Week” in the US. [xiii]

In short, Washington well understands that who rules the words often fashions what is seen.

Take the word “democratization.” Who could oppose it? Yet there was much imbedded in the term that carries another quite specific agenda, one already evident amidst the initial invocations of democratization of the Reagan years. For “democratization” was never just about manipulating (or explaining away violations) to achieve US strategic aims; it was never really about getting rid of a host of thuggish, brutal regimes if they were useful to US power. But it certainly did entail a highly sophisticated program designed to discredit alternative visions of social and economic change.  That Reagan’s anti-big government ethos encountered so little resistance among human rights leaders was all the more impressive in an age when the weakening of state sovereignty around the globe masked a strategy for increasing key aspects of the power of the American state itself. Democratization sought to weaken the autonomy of states in both the Third World and the First, to force them open culturally, economically and ideologically by de-legitimizing the role of the state as the regulator of national economic, cultural and political affairs.  Reagan’s promotion of privatization - attacking the safety net, undercutting social programs, weakening unions, loosening regulations on capital flows and corporate practices -- was hardly welcome by many human rights activists. But in other ways Reagan’s view of the state as the enemy allowed Washington to neatly co-opt the anti-statist language of various rights organizations. The state as regulator of the domestic economy, controller of local resources, and distributor of wealth became less and less an issue.  While human rights activists often favored sweeping changes in poor countries, the movement’s leaders, by contrast, tended to decry any state role in distributive justice—or any sense of “economic democracy” at all.[xiv]

Or look at the changing meaning of “humanitarianism.” Before the Clinton years “humanitarianism” had almost always been associated with groups like the Red Cross. Its guiding ethos was compassion, charity, and a helping hand extended without taking sides. But starting in the 90s this shifted. Humanitarianism began to require taking sides – whether it was Yugoslavia or Afghanistan, or Libya, or Syria today. It often came to involve “regime change” – and war. “Human rights and humanitarianism are two sides of the same coin,” Washington argued from 1990 on. Human rights thus became for Washington part of a far more assertive ethos: an anti-state centric “nation building” committed to linking up markets, elites, corporations, and NGOs on a globe-spanning scale. The Red Cross’s view, complained a 2002 USAID report, “ignores the existence of predatory political actors in most complex emergencies… [Its] doctrine of discretion and silence …has shaded into complicity with war crimes.” The result was the “well-fed dead.”[xv]

 Both US government and human rights leaders began to use the same key words -- humanitarianism, humanitarian intervention, “rights-based development,” failed states, democratization, and human rights -- with notable results. If human rights organizations take no stand on war itself, for example, the invasion of Afghanistan shows how they can nevertheless end up rationalizing one. They may refuse to consider the issue of aggression while tacitly supporting counter-insurgency strategies– often  in the name of international law, the laws of war, and NATO’s “responsibilities.”[xvi] In Afghanistan after 2001, they talked about the limits and dangers of state power, yet their response to the war reveals their belief in the capacity – and the right – of foreign states to manage, guide, shape, and channel the most intricate affairs of other countries.  “Nation-building,” “humanitarian” and “counterterrorism” objectives, in short, became inseparable, and the misdeeds of abusive central governments beholden to foreign interests have locked much of the rights community into an unholy alliance.

Human rights leaders often appear baffled by suggestions that the regime in Kabul might be seen as foreign dominated, that resistance to foreigners has any public credibility except in fanatical fundamentalist minds, that some Afghans working with the “international community” are viewed as collaborators, and so on. They seem taken aback that a growing number of Afghans who detest the Taliban are so angered by the operations of NATO and the behavior of its troops that they are willing to take up arms against the quasi-occupation. In the politics of human rights that surround the war, there is simply no pervading sense of justice in the demands that the US and NATO leave.

Finally, take the word “terrorism.” It’s a brilliant propaganda word. Terrorism blinds even as it appears to illuminate. It energizes leaders, bureaucracies, and the media and cows critics. Who, after all, is for terrorists? The very notion is rife with ugliness: innocents murdered body parts in the marketplace, the burning twin towers.

Yet after a half century in which “communist” had been the most effective thought-stopping word in the American lexicon, some reflection about the consequences of embracing the term “terrorist” might have been in order. Amnesty’s uneasiness about using the word has been largely ignored as the global use of a word so useful to states of all sorts proliferated. Some human rights leaders privately object to how human rights groups are all lumped together, but the widespread use of the term by U.S. human rights groups ensured that this uneasiness about using the terrorist label was barely noticed. And note: this “lumping” together serves a range of U.S. interests, as Washington well knew it would, taking occasionally more fundamental challenges and blurring them into a much lauded “human rights ethos” where they were rather easy to ignore. It’s one reason Washington wanted a viable US-based rights group in the first place.

Over the decades, the focus of human rights had evolved -- from prisoners of conscience to the rights of non-combatants to democratization to humanitarian intervention and the “responsibility to protect.” Yet from Washington’s perspective, nothing quite so emphatically and so innocuously realized an individual centric vision of the world as did the fight against terrorism. By making the targeting of civilians the core of their own definition of terrorism, human rights groups ended up unwittingly adding fuel to Bush’s “war on terror.” What had been their mobilizing call – to protect the innocent civilian – has been subtly turned against them.

Washington works hard to define terrorism as the “killing of innocent civilians.” The utility of the definition is clear. To site one: US military operations may be “disproportionate” at times, but morally –and legally – it’s a question of “proportionality.”  The utter criminality of terrorism differs from military mistakes. Was the collateral damage justified? Were too many civilians killed? Was insufficient care taken?  Was a hospital targeted, or a radio station, or an electrical generator? Legal parsing inevitably follows. Didn’t clause X preclude attacks on Y targets under Z conditions? Terrorists posed no such complexities. The dividing line of civilized and uncivilized is drawn, and they are the other.

Up until the George W. Bush administration, the greatest advantage of Human Rights Watch, wrote its longtime former director, was its “identification with a country with a reputation for respecting rights.”[xvii] Of course, the movement’s leaders noted, Washington itself has committed some terrible human rights violations; indeed, they spent a good part of their time describing them. But when mistakes and even crimes occur, those who opposed such egregious acts saw their task as shaming Washington into changing its ways, to remind American leaders that the government’s power and the nation’s ideals achieved a more perfect union when dedicated to human rights.

At the same time, the willingness of US citizens to expose their own government’s brutalities was seen as offering further evidence of freedom at work. For the movement’s leaders and for many ordinary citizens, the ability to criticize was inextricably paired with the nation’s deeper virtue. No other country enjoyed such immunity. Indeed, where the countless human rights abuses committed by the Russia, China, and other nations exposed who they really were, those of the US were aberrant—a reflection of who it really wasn’t.

Some of this attitude towards the US has changed in the last decade. But it has been sustained in other ways by a pervasive sense of the difference between “democratic” nations and “the others.” It’s a dangerous rhetorical game, this labeling. If a Chinese prisoner’s mistreatment can “epitomize the state of human rights in China today,” in the words of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, why does no US prisoner “epitomize the state of human rights” in the US? When Bradley Manning’s treatment is approved by the President, well, that’s unfortunate and needs to be investigated, but it doesn’t represent in microcosm something the US is really all about. Imagine what the public response would be if China’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient was being treated like Bradley Manning.

The issues also go into less clear-cut, yet for all that, equally critical areas. When the US funds practically every dissident Chinese magazine published in the US (and many beyond) after Tiananmen, when its Nobel Peace Prize winner has been paid for several years by semi-official funding from Washington as head of the Chinese PEN Center, that’s not anything to mention (however much it is debated in China). If the US sends “democratization” workers into numerous countries – so public an issue of late because of Egypt—and local authoritarian regimes powers challenge their work, that suggests what’s wrong with that regime, nothing about how US operates. We are democratic in the end, they are not; and because of that how “we” act is to be interpreted differently from how “they” act.

Even the reiteration of the ways democracy can lead to social and political change may be less comforting than it looks.  As far back as the 1840s, the great American black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, looking at the unquestionably vibrant press in the US and all the freedoms which existed, asked how they could coexist with one of the cruelest systems of slavery the world had ever known. Why were a people so moral about some issues able to live face-to-face with such evil? And why, one might add, did segregation last another century after slavery? The issue is not absence of a free press or of the free flow of ideas or of criticism, or the importance of protecting them, but how and why blatant injustices are accepted and lived with as part of the commonweal. And that’s just as true of discussions of Guantanamo, torture, and Abu Ghraib, or drones and assassination today. What we call a “free press” and waxing so positive about our freedoms has certainly shown a remarkable ability to live with truly horrifying crimes and ugliness.

But there are ways to rethink why this is the case. We might more usefully look at human rights as composed of two sometimes complementary, sometimes conflicting currents. The first embodies the popular American view, which emphasizes civil and political rights and embraces a moderate, democratic, step-by-step incorporation of human needs into a kind of rights-based legalism. Such rights have more to do with individual freedom than with social or economic needs; they do more to liberate individuals from the deprivations of caste than of class, freeing them from archaic restraints and traditions but not from economic subjugation. It’s more about personal freedom than democratically controlling the state and private concentrations of power. And that‘s why standing by itself as the meaning of human rights the outcome often appears so paradoxical. Violations of women’s rights, gay rights, civil rights of all kinds are attacked while economic inequality grows. Diversity and multiculturalism are lauded even as the concentration of wealth and power reach historic levels. The “laws of war” are applauded and efforts to protect the rights of noncombatants flourish even as wars rage and the larger issues of aggression and occupation are ignored.

The second current has more to do with basic needs. It is associated with popular mass movements, revolutions by populations in desperate straits, and resistance – and a drive towards equality. Central to the second current are challenges to corporate power, state repression, foreign occupation, and global economic inequality, as well as labor unions and revolutions. To this current belongs the recognition that the human rights movement’s origins lie less in the savagery of World War II and the Holocaust than in the upheavals of de-colonialization and resistance that broke the grip of European colonialism. The drive for both freedom and equality (the language of equality is played down in the first current) is deeply embedded in this current’s struggles for emancipation and justice.

The first current tends to speak in terms of victims and perpetrators. The second judges a society by the way it treats the poor and the weak. It challenges power by asking why, in large areas of the world where civil liberties and the “rule of law” do hold sway, so little is done to meet the most basic economic, medical, and educational needs of the populace. The second current, then, is less about making respect for rights a part of the system than about altering the way power works; it is more about transforming the institutional apparatus and the military basis of political power than about invoking rights to control it.

The ideological utility of Washington essentially prioritizing the first current is manifest. For in the end it ensures that the second current is understandable only in a distorted, diminished, twisted version of itself. Long before human rights leaders called for “a broad concept” of rights to encompass economic and cultural issues, for example, key national security leaders had seized on the ideological utility of such an approach to reduce needs to the primacy of the first current. Human rights, Brzezinski wrote to Carter, “means also certain basic minimum standards of social and economic existence. In effect, human rights refer to all three (political, social, and economic)…” This broader definition was “highly advantageous” in that it would retain for us the desirable identification with a human cause whose time has come, and yet it would avoid some of the rigidities that are potential in the narrower political definition.”[xviii] With everything now becoming a question of rights, the old dichotomies between political rights and revolution, individual rights and economic needs – that between the first and the second current -- could be replaced by an all-encompassing, evolutionary vision of rights-based change through the first current alone. All these human needs were “rights,” all were codified in the United Nations covenants, and all could fit into the language of legal obligation and lawful process, reinforcing the underlying sense of step-by step, non-violent, non-radical change.

Let me put this point another way. The movement’s deep uneasiness with all forms of radical and revolutionary social change was already evident in 1961, when the newly founded Amnesty International pronounced that no prisoners who advocated violence could be considered prisoners of conscience: thus no revolutionaries—not Nelson Mandela in South Africa, nor even the Berrigan brothers (who had destroyed draft-board records) in the United States.[xix]  

Seeing two currents in human rights thought brings back into play the role of mass mobilizations, collective struggles, alternative visions -- the traditions of revolution and a multitude of other forms of violent and non-violent struggle.  Its heroes are Toussaint L’Ouverture leading the uprising against the French in Haiti in the name of the rights of man; the Mahdi uprising against General Gordon in Sudan in the name of universal equality before Allah; Simon Bolivar leading the struggle for independence in Latin America; Augusto Sandino’s rising up against US domination in Nicaragua; Ho Chi Minh’s long struggle for Vietnamese independence; Gandhi’s leading the struggle for freedom and dignity in India; Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership in the civil rights movement, Salvador Allende’s effort to build a more equitable Chile. Contrast this list with the ones that are the norm in Western human rights histories: John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Eleanor Roosevelt -- remarkable thinkers or leaders all, and very much part of a world of law, courts, charters, and covenants. The divide between the traditions is what gives pause, a divide that underlines, once again, the differences between the two currents of human rights and the depths of the problems we confront.

One fines a comparable divide in the legalistic language, treaties, conventions, and covenants so favored by human rights organizations. Much that is admirable—and more that simply sounds so—has come from efforts to codify rights and some semblance of law internationally. The parsing of lawyers, the blending of academic and legal styles of argumentation, have their place in human rights history. But the often noted bifurcation of uplifting covenants, on the one hand and gruesome atrocity stories on the other is part of what impels the ongoing legalization of rights. This is a very bleak – and very limited -- vision. Law has always had an intricate and at times contentious relationship with the power of the state. It is both an embodiment of and a constraint on that power. But, while central to a democratic life, the rule of law is neither the source of a nation’s moral uplift nor the inspiration for social justice.  Rather, it often reflects the outcome of those struggles. The legalizing of human rights language thus risks coming at a cost, finding itself swept into the machinations of states and detached all too quickly from the popular struggles and moral commitments needed to continually nourish justice.

The historian Arnold Toynbee warned that the greatest peril for any civilization flows from a “pathological insistence upon pushing to extremes its master institution.”[xx] A “rights-based” globalist ideology has pushed to extremes the United States own individual rights-based traditions. In reality, this vision is both propagandistic and ahistorical; it effectively erased any appreciation of America’s earlier, more contentious, sometimes quite radical uses of the phrase “human rights” rooted in challenges to the inequalities of American life, the power of corporations, and the dangers of uncontrolled capital. Fundamentally, the “idea of America,” the conviction that America ideals are “universal,” are in idealized form the first current striped from the second – shrewdly crafted to serve the ideological needs of US power. The very concept of human rights, what we think of as human rights today, is significantly a result of this.

For Washington, limiting debates to the first current (and insisting that the second be seen through the prism of the first) is evident once again in a 2004 Defense Department study of “strategic communication.”

“We must communicate what our definition for the future promises in individual terms, not national or pan-national religious terms.  We should personalize the benefits of our defined future. For example, personal control, choice and change, personal mobility, meritocracy, individual rights (and particularly women’s rights).  And we must draw a stark difference between support and opposition along these personal lines…”[xxi]

As another Defense analysis succinctly put it, Rights make Might.

So where does that leave us?

In one sense, we are back where we started. Torture has returned, though to be sure it never really went away. But back, too, are the issues human rights leaders turned away from – war, inequality, economic democracy, basic needs, disarmament, and the profoundly undemocratic nature of the global system. With this in mind, are there some perspectives to keep in mind about human rights today and their relation to power?

First, have no illusions about US power. To a European audience, such a cautionary tone may seem unnecessary. But it still needs to be stressed that Washington is no more committed to human rights than any other state; it all depends on which rights Washington can usefully link with US power, a very different matter. Yet there is still a pervasive belief, certainly in the US, that  “The whole idea of promoting democracy and human rights is so associated with the United States” and its “fall from grace has emboldened authoritarian governments to challenge the idea as never before.”[xxii] Such views are far more part of a morality play than historical insight.

Second is the need for humility. Human rights, as is true of humanity’s other struggles for justice, often lacks sufficient answers in a great many situations. Truth is an early casualty in all wars and interventions, though countless human rights reports too often suggest otherwise. Clausewitz’s warning that war tends towards the absolute – and absolutist language – is too often ignored. Partly because human rights groups are largely seen and heard of   mobilizing around atrocities, they rarely lead to reflection on the role of propaganda, the “war of ideas,” the history of mass hysteria and the labeling and the fear of “the other.” Public relations, marketing, and advertizing technique tend to be used rather than their consequences dissected in human rights literature.  This combination of mobilizing rhetoric and simplifying historical sound bites feeds ignorance in the end useful only to power. If we don’t have perspective we can’t keep focused on the basic questions. And as the American writer Thomas Pynchon said, “If you get people asking the wrong questions, it doesn’t matter what their answers are.”

Yet not having all the answers isn’t necessarily a weakness; it’s a reality, and one that can usefully be invoked to challenge the arrogance of power’s – hard or soft – insistence that it knows how to “change others” and wisely use force. Occasionally, Washington officials acknowledge that there are really no models for nation building, that the link between economic and political development is murky, that all sorts of compromises with the real world are necessary. “Nation building is at best an imperfect concept,” concedes one CIA-supported study, echoing decades of similar laments.[xxiii] “The accepted international practices to promote democracy...haven’t proved to be all that satisfactory,” warned the head of US Department of State’s office that oversees transitions in failed states. “The simple fact is that we do not know how to do democracy building.”[xxiv]  But this doesn’t stop Washington. Through the various policy fiascos of one sort or another over the last half century runs a common thread: the need to assert, reaffirm, or consolidate American globalism. The vision pushes toward involvement, deeper commitment, rarely toward pulling back. Failures simply demand that we “learn the lessons”—of how to do more, better, extending our helping hand once again.

It is precisely an awareness of the limits of power and force that must be tied to rights, not a Don Quixote like quest to moralize such power for its own ends.  “We have not the slightest intention of dabbling in the domestic affairs of other nations,” Peter Benenson wrote in June 1961 in the first Amnesty newsletter.[xxv] Nothing could be further from the present ethos.

Third, there is a risk is of self-idealization that comes with a denial of the deep conflicts between the two currents. Much of “humanitarian rights based developmentalism” exudes such self-idealization. Advocates of an international human rights regime maintain that political and civil rights are “not luxuries to be enjoyed only after a certain level of economic development has been reached.”[xxvi] A truth yes -- but the truth?  That’s less clear. Such a stance hardly obviates the need to envision civil and political rights concretely or relate them to economic development and social transformation in highly varied contexts.

Many of the fundamental arguments with and about China, for example, swirl contentiously around this issue. None of Beijing’s views refute the argument that civil freedoms improve economic development or that political repression may work against development. But some Chinese thinkers (and not just pro-government ones) suggest that such notions assume historically dubious propositions that idealize the West’s actual course of development. They point to the brutal, centralizing, and repressive methods used by Western states to develop their wealth and power as historic examples of human rights atrocities. They see Western development less as a triumphant evolution of human rights than as a process wherein high-sounding ideals were repeatedly invoked to legitimize a long series of horrors. They accuse human rights advocates of suggesting there are now far different and more humane ways to develop, though the West never practiced them in its own rise. Their intention is not to insist that they too should proceed like the West, with “colonies, genocide of the natives, expansionism, exploitative trade relations,” as one writer characterized that history. Rather they meant to call attention to a certain hypocrisy in the eagerness with which critics of China conveniently turned against the very methods the West itself had used to create the wealth, affluence, and power in which its vision of rights now flourishes.[xxvii] One reason that the market has been so widely accepted, I think, is to avoid thinking through the implications of such views.

Fourth, in the words of Frederick Douglass, “To understand you have to stand under.”  Today we live in a world of such inequality and global injustice that to live in favored regions is to be virtually cut off from the experience, let along the reactions, of people outside those regions. We are separate even if our computers pour forth masses of information and detail; for they do not provide empathy, and without empathy there is no basis for genuine understanding or knowledge of others.  A recent study done by an economist who had worked at the World Bank, pointed out that roughly 70% of the planet lives less well off than the bottom 5% of the United States.[xxviii]  Now if we lived in a human rights world where in a way this floor suddenly became glass and everybody who was at 70% was underneath, and you had to live seeing them every hour of your life, we’d be getting close to what Simone Weil meant by a certain kind of “attention.” We don’t know how to get there, but it is this kind of radical empathy we need.

Understandably calls for immediate action tend to be impatient with the past.  Yet we live in the remains of a world where US intervention over the last 65 years has repeatedly had dreadful consequences: not only the millions of deaths caused by direct and indirect wars, but also the lost opportunities, the “killing of hope” for hundreds of millions of people who might have benefited from progressive social policies initiated by leaders such as Arbenz in Guatemala, Goulart in Brazil, Allende in Chile, Lumumba in the Congo, Mossadegh in Iran, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, to cite a few, who have been systematically subverted, overthrown or killed with full Western support.[xxix] US hostility towards almost all potentially  emancipatory movements explains a great deal. But you wouldn’t know it from reading most human rights reports.

All this underlines why a focus on “crimes against peace,” aggression, and the threat of force are critical to any human rights ethos. Advocating the “laws of war” can be a worthwhile undertaking, but it risks deflecting attention from the ways wars, occupations, and aggressive interventions are responsible for so much of the violence in the world today. If anything, the main failure of the United Nations since its creation has not been failing to stop murderous assaults by leaders against their own people, horrible and ghastly as these are, but the failure to prevent powerful countries, particularly the U.S., from acts of aggression, invasion, and war – overt and covert – which often leads to more violence that ends up demanding more intervention.

To be sure, the human rights movement has raised a mountain of legislation to prevent crimes against humanity, but it is almost always the weak leaders, not the strong, who face charges. Thousands of dossiers have been produced describing in meticulous detail the death squads and torture and extra-judicial executions carried out by brutal regimes and pathological dictators around the world. When people with black or yellow or brown skin, with Islamic or Communist or nationalist credentials murder their prisoners or bomb their villagers, they are condemned—often quite selectively, to be sure --by the “civilized” world. And they should be condemned. But the American leaders who launched a war on Vietnam, who ordered the free fire zones in Vietnam and the Phoenix program, or directed the contras against the Sandinistas, or were complicit in Saddam Hussein’s gas warfare against the Kurds (and then the Iranians),[xxx] or set up and operated  Guantánamo are not taken to court. They face no trials. On any human rights website you will find a growing number of leaders indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Few are American or Western European or Israeli.

Human rights groups argue that they cannot address all crimes, that their resources are limited. They do what they can; justice is selective. Yet when justice is consistently inconsistent rather than merely inadequate, other issues arise. Justice that unceasingly fails to confront the powerful is not only selective, it has become a weapon of the powerful. Immunity for the prominent is a deeply corrupt basis for an international criminal court, and it points to one of the major challenges confronting the human rights movement. Refusing to deal with “crimes against peace” leaves human rights unable to fundamentally grapple with so many of the atrocities of recent years. One of the outcomes of Nuremburg was the idea that war is “an evil thing” and aggressive war “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” Aggressive war is supreme because the “lesser crimes” -- crimes against “laws and customs of war,” against what we now speak of as “humanitarian laws” -- follow from it, as was true with Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, drones and assassinations.

Fifth, there is a need to empathize with the needs of peoples and governments seeking to be free from us.”  If human rights is often seen as courageously (and sometimes rightly) attacking claims of state sovereignty, that doesn’t refute the need of countries in the South to be genuinely independent. The issue is hardly a new one. Sean MacBride, a former head of Amnesty, chaired the UNESCO commission that led to the Many Voices, One World Report in 1979. Political and individual rights, the commission concluded, can neither theoretically nor practically be separated from protecting communities from aggression, safeguarding ecological and cultural integrity, basing models of development on a community’s definition of its own needs, or implementing economic and social justice.

In an age of increasingly powerful new communications technologies, the report continued,  satellites, instantaneous world-wide transmission—the “free flow” was turning into a “one-way flow”  -- reflecting the “life-styles, values and models of a few of the most advanced countries, and certain consumption and development patterns” that could not possibly provide sustainable models for others.[xxxi] Advertising and a commercialized mass culture were being disseminated via highly concentrated, profit-driven, corporately owned global communications that were extolling “acquisition and consumerism at the expense of other values.” Transnational corporations had become prisms for reality and a mechanism for commercializing human needs. These developments threatened to undercut popular cultures, leaving individuals “more cut off from the society in which they live as a result of media penetration into their lives,”[xxxii] and destroying their capacity to think in non-market, non-profit terms about human needs and human rights.

Today, you can’t Google without getting a commercial; you can’t investigate without finding vast corporate based advertizing permeating even what appears to be information; you can’t even read the news on line without having the life style of advertizing and consumerism descend upon you -- let alone how the web has left the world of privacy far in the distance. To try to grapple with the implication of all this, as the MacBride commission did in its era, is not cutting oneself off from the world or the latest technological advances. But it is close to Gandhi when he said: “I want the winds of all cultures to blow freely about my house, but not be swept off my feet by any.”

Who benefits from how democratization, the rights of NGOs, the color revolutions, regime change, humanitarian war and rights based, (and corporate driven) developmentalism are now all mixed up with one another? The answer is Washington. And yet human rights leaders proceed as though Washington’s “war of ideas” has nothing to do with such developments. They continue to call for Washington to live up to its rhetoric, as though such rhetoric was not crafted for purposes of propaganda -- or as its now said, “strategic communications.”  To understand US policy apart from this “war of ideas” is to obfuscate what is going on, yet for over six decades few have called for Washington to end its “war of ideas” – and this is just as true the human rights community. Notably, Senator Fulbright, warning of the pervasive and corrupting influence of such propaganda, demanded that Washington’s “war of ideas” be shutdown. Have we not, he asked, created “a Frankenstein – a monster that may not be very good at telling the rest of the world the facts about America, but which is superb in propagandizing the American people?”[xxxiii]  There is little echo of this, let alone awareness of the consequences of Washington’s “war of ideas” for human rights – either on others or themselves.      

Often, I suspect, individuals conclude that even if Washington has its own agenda, the outcomes are still worth it. One might argue that there is nothing wrong with the involvement of a U.S. ambassador and various US and EU groups participating in, even orchestrating, “democratizing” efforts. And if things need to be done covertly now and then, well -- it’s for a good cause; one can’t be an innocent in a world of thuggish, murderous regimes. The same might be said —though rarely is—that it’s alright for a billionaire such as George Soros to promote his vision of rights and democracy by committing funds to certain groups in a foreign country he sees moving in the right direction, regardless of what local critics in that country might think. Occasional qualms over such interventions are assuaged by the conviction that the government in question shouldn’t be jailing citizens who are seeking to promote political change and greater freedom. Thus the conviction quietly grows that there is no conflict between self-determination on the one hand and external funding, advice, and training on the other. That some local advocates of change oppose intervention (“Let us find our own way”) and don’t like having local leaders picked out as “human rights heroes” by their patrons in the West is rarely acknowledged.

Being “free from” also points to an immediate challenge for human rights groups. They are often seen by many in the South and elsewhere as indirectly linked with Washington. The issue has been directly brought to the fore by Georges Soros’ grant of 100 million dollars to Human Rights Watch – with a matching grant that could bring this to $200 million. “To be more effective” Soros said, Human Rights Watch “has to be seen as more international, less an American organization.” Why? Because “we lost the moral high ground during the Bush administration.”[xxxiv] And the organization’s Executive Director adds, “We need to be able to shape the foreign policies of these emerging powers” – Brazil, South Africa, India. Soros himself is not unknown to regime change, having been involved for some time in Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States (NIS).[xxxv] Human Rights Watch also has a new Chairman – the former President of the Council of Foreign Relations, and the longtime editor of its journal Foreign Affairs. Several leaders of Human Rights Watch, and  members of its board of directors, have come from national security circles and the Council of Foreign Relations. From this perspective, some leading US human rights groups often do seem very much part of Washington’s semi-official world. And the trend continues: the longstanding Executive Director of the Human Rights First Committee joined the Obama administration as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Labor, and Human Rights. The Executive Director of Amnesty USA came to his position after working for more than a decade in the Ford Foundation’s Human Rights Unit.

The media don’t really distinguish one “human rights group” from another. When Freedom House, once headed by a former CIA director, is labeled a human rights organization in the New York Times; or when the arrest of individuals working for semi-official US “democratizing NGOs” in Egypt is criticized as a violation of “human rights” by Human Rights Watch we have entered into the blurring together of quasi-official, governmental, and non-governmental groups in ways again so useful to power, but not to   human rights. And we have, usually unknowingly, stepped into Washington’s “war of ideas” which thrives by lumping together the positions of diverse groups in ways that provide a cover for the pursuit of its own particular interests. This is just one example of how the human rights movement has not been “free from” Washington’s influence – not nearly free enough, that is, if it is to have a viable global presence and a truly impartial critical stance.

The world is changing profoundly. In this new era, the two currents of rights will inevitably be buffeted and challenged; demands for equality and alternative ways to organize societies will raise tumultuous and wide-ranging challenges to all the established orders. Human rights groups would do well to stand apart from all states, drawing out of diverse traditions whatever can illuminate rights and address the painful conflicts among different kinds of rights in a world of staggering inequality and injustice. As we move towards the decline of a U.S.-centered world, remaining open to a far more diverse world of contending rights largely ignored at the beginnings of human rights rise to prominence is not a hope to be lightly dismissed.

And nothing stands more in the way of this task than the human rights community’s close, if often unknowing, link to Washington. Without some sense of the positive possibilities in the ending of an American centric world, the human rights movement may well continue to be enmeshed with Washington’s ideological needs. In the end, the challenge for the human rights movement is whether it can come to truly confront the abusive operations of wealth and power in all their multiple forms or whether it will succumb to being a weapon of privileged powers seeking to protect their interests – and their conscience.

[i] Interviews with J. William Fulbright, June-July 1988. Also, See William J. Fulbright, The Price of Empire, (Pantheon: New York, 1989), 87,148.  And J. William Fulbright, “The War and its Effects: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex,” in Herbert Schiller, Super-state: Readings in the Military Industrial Complex (Urbana, University of Illinois, 1970).

[ii] Ibid., p. 13.

[iii] Kenneth Roth, Philanthropy News Digest, Foundation Service, June 16, 2003, http://foundationcenter.org/pnd/newsmakers/nwsmkr.jhtml?id=36500031.

[iv] William F. Schultz, In Our Own Best Interest: How Defending Human Rights Benefits us all (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), p. 9.

[v] Stephen Hopgood, Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), p. 211.

[vi] Martin Luther King Jr, “A Time to Break Silence,” Riverside Church Speech, April 4, 1967, icujp.org/king.html.


[vii] William F. Schulz, In Our Own Best Interest: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All (Beacon Press, Boston, 2001), p.


[viii] President Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski discuss creation of a human rights foundation. Miscellaneous. White House. Confidential. December 3, 1977, DDRS: Declassified Documents Reference System.

[ix] Such institutions, along with a growing number of NGO’s, could “provide direct help and psychological support for dissidents within their own societies…helping to finance the publication and distribution of suppressed works.” American foundations and NGOs could energize the UN Human Rights Commission, promote regional human rights groups in Africa, provide a voice “independent from, and in some cases more credible than, the U.S. government” in the Third World. Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Harold D. Lasswell, Propaganda Technique in the World War (Peter Smith: New York, 1938), p. 222.


[xii] Louis Hartz, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, February 26, 1968, “The Nature of Revolution,” p. 131. Also for the text of Hart remarks, http://www.jhfc.duke.edu/icuss/pdfs/hartz1.pdf

[xiii] Ronald> http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=36797&st=amnesty+international&st1=#ixzz1o4UINyP0

[xiv] . “The concept of economic and social rights is profoundly undemocratic,” warned a long time Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. “Rejection of the idea of economic and social rights reflects a commitment to democracy not only for its own sake but also because it is preferable in substance to what we can expect from platonic guardians.” Aryeh Neier, Taking Liberties, xxi.

[xv]USAID, Providing Humanitarian Aid, Chapter 5, 120.


[xvi] . Iain Levin, Program Director Human Rights Watch, “NGOs in a Changing World Order: Dilemmas and Challenges,” ICVA Conference on NGOs in a Changing World Order: Dilemmas and Challenges, Geneva, 14-15 February 2003. http://www.icva.ch/doc00000934.html.

[xvii] Aryeh Neier, “With Friends Like This,” International Herald Tribune, June 214, 2005.

[xviii] Zbigniew Brzezinski provides President Jimmy Carter with weekly national security report no. 9. Memo. White House, April 16, 1977, DDRS: Declassified Documents Reference System.

[xix] By and large, the human rights leadership has preferred not to dwell on what might compel populations, (as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights pointed out), “to rebellion against tyranny and oppression.” The often agonizing issues involved in such “rebellion” were central to the 1960s; they have largely disappeared in human rights discussions. Such agonizing questioning has not vanished, to be sure, as a reading of Arundhati Roy’s moving account of the Maoists in Indian today suggests.(Walking with the Comrades (New York: Penguin, 1911). It’s just that such empathy is not part of human rights reporting.

[xx] Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Vol.XII.

[xxi] Report of the Defense Department Science Board ask Force on Strategic Communications, September 2004, www.fas.org/irp/agency/dod/dsb/commun.pdf

[xxii], Human Rights Watch,  “Extraordinary Rendition, Extraterritorial Detention and Treatment of Detainees: Restoring Our Moral Credibility and Strengthening our Influence,” July 26, 2007 www.hrw.org/.../extraordinary-rendition-extraterritorial-detention-and-treatment-detainees

[xxiii] National Intelligence Council, Mapping the Global Future, Report of the National Intelligence Council’s 2020 Project, December 2004, p.104.

[xxiv] See Department of State, Description of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization, http://www.state,gov/s/crs/c12936.htm.

[xxv] Peter Benenson quoted in Stephen Hopgood, Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), p. 24.

[xxvi] Aryeh Neier (quoting Human Rights Watch), “Asia’s Unacceptable Double Standard,” Foreign Policy, Fall 1993, p. 45.

[xxvii] China Society for Human Rights Studies, China: Comparison: Human Rights Report: "Human Rights in Name, Swaying Power in Reality -- On the China Section of the 1997 Human Rights Report of the US State Department, Xinhua Domestic Service, March 2, 1998, World News Connection data base.

[xxviii] Branko Milanovic, The Haves and Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Inequality (Basic Books: New York 2010).

[xxix] “‘Responsibility to Protect’ as Imperial Tool; The Case for a Non-Interventionist Foreign Policy,” by Jean Bricomont, Counterpunch, February 20, 2012, http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/02/20/the-case-for-a-non-interventionist-foreign-policy/


[xxx] Joost R. Hiltermann, A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[xxxi] The MacBride Report, Many Voices, One World: Towards a new more just and more efficient world information and communication order, Abridged version, (New York: UNESCO, 1980), p. 45.

[xxxii] MacBride, p. 160. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0004/000400/040066eb.pdf

[xxxiii] Senator J. William Fulbright, Congressional Record, Senate, May 27, 1957.

[xxxiv] New York Times, Soros to Donate $100 million to Rights Group, 9/6/2010.

[xxxv] Washington post September 12, 2010, “With 100 million Soros gift, Human rights Watch looks to expand global reach.”  

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