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Human Rights Work and Political Advocacy

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A long-time human rights worker, who has written reports for Human Rights Watch, focusing primarily on Africa, takes to the Boston Review to revisit his own sins, mistakes, and regrets, ultimately questioning the role of the human rights worker entirely.

On-the-ground humanitarians learned tough lessons in Somalia, Sudan, and central Africa in the 1990s. Relief agencies adapted to the emerging sociological critique of humanitarian action. But human rights organizations and their practices of documentation and advocacy were not compelled to change, even though they had faced similar dilemmas and made similar mistakes. But, rather than reflecting on where they had succeeded and where they had failed, human rights organizations turned their agendas into the philanthropic version of a Jurassic Park sequel: bigger, louder, more teeth. They consolidated as a kind of Global Ethics, Inc., accommodating their own critique to power, especially American power. Too often, their concern has been to influence U.S. government power at the margin. Achieving that goal has blunted their political principles. The ascent of Samantha Power—whose 2002 book A Problem from Hell excoriated American inaction in Rwanda and elsewhere—from critical journalist to senior member of the Obama administration speaks to the rise of this liberal interventionism.

The fundamental tensions of human rights activism have not changed. The moral cogency of a human rights narrative is compelling but partial: it is incomplete and it takes sides. Making the human rights counternarrative into a dominant agenda is a dangerous success, whether it involves endorsing authoritarianism in Rwanda or advocating American military intervention as a remedy for mass atrocity. Human rights advocacy is a critique of power, not a directive for exercising it; humility is not only a necessary character trait but also an ideal. I now believe that a fully emancipatory human rights practice must be based on an agenda set by the affected people. This requires challenging the iniquitous structures of power that too often stand in the way of emancipation or co-opt narratives of human rights for their own ends.

I don’t know; certainly the trajectory of Samantha Power is one that should make us cautious. But there are many aspects to interventionism and in the modern world, there are really no isolated peoples or population that already lack western interventions, even without the human rights community getting involved. The internet of course is a huge propagandistic force for whoever can use it. The arms manufacturers seek to sell their wares to horrible people abroad who will use those weapons to kill. Disney and Nike are everywhere in some form or other. When I was on a small island off the coast of Sumatra in 1997, where indigenous people still dressed in traditional dress and lived in traditional homes, their sons were wearing Michael Jordan t-shirts, even though they had probably never watched television. American companies seek to intervene all over the world, seeking cheap labor and new frontiers in their supply chains.

So the principles of this essay are good. Human rights workers should show humility and admit their mistakes. They should try to learn from their mistakes. Co-opting narratives for their own political aims is less than optimal. Absolutely, an emancipatory human rights practice should be generated from the agenda of affected people. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s useful to become so cautious as to back away from doing the best you can in the moment. Responding to horrific violence is hard to do at the moment. It’s hardly surprising that in raising awareness in the West to try and get someone to do something about this awful event, like the Rwandan genocide, that human rights workers would screw some of it up. But it’s still almost certainly better than doing nothing at all.

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  • AdamPShort

    Indeed. If it were a choice between “send well-meaning people who make mistakes, soldiers, and evil greedheads to poor countries” and “stay out of it” there is a case for staying out of it. But if the choice is between “send well-meaning people who make mistakes, soldiers and evil greedheads” or “send only the soldiers and evil greedheads” that is not much of a choice.

    That said, the way I read this article, it’s not really a call for pulling back or even becoming “cautious” but mostly a reminder that human rights organizations shouldn’t be fooled into supporting American power just because American power learns the language of human rights.

  • Murc

    This:

    Human rights advocacy is a critique of power, not a directive for exercising it

    Seems wrongheaded. Enforcing human rights is like enforcing any other right; it requires the exercise of power. Indeed, this is the only way rights are ever enforced; a necessary component of the end of Jim Crow was the use of naked force, deploying soldiers in uniform and having them be fully prepared to use force against angry mobs.

    • MikeJake

      I took the point of the essay to be that you can’t always be sure if you are “enforcing human rights,” or butting your way into a conflict that may have good reasons for breaking out into violence.

      It’s difficult for human rights advocates to detach themselves from violence and try to piece together everything that’s led to that point, because it’s shocking and upsetting and hurts people they personally know.

    • Yankee

      You are confusing “advocacy” with “enforcement”. Many do.

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  • shah8

    He was working for Human Rights Watch…

    They were definitely…problematic in reporting about Syria

    • Pseudonym

      How so?

      • shah8

        Hmmm, was it Human Rights Observatory?

        Anyways, I was remembering a pattern of reporting things from “the moderate rebels” uncritically, and generally acting as anti-Assad propagandist with faint regard for the truth.

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