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Who is behind Human Rights Watch?

By Paul Treanor, [February 2003]

No US citizen, and no US organisation, has any right to impose US values on Europe. No concentration camps or mass graves can justify that imposition. But Human Rights Watch finds it self-evident, that the United States may legitimately restructure any society, where a mass grave is found. That is a dangerous belief for a superpower: European colonialism shows how easily a 'civilising mission' produces its own atrocities. Sooner or later, more people will die in crusades to prevent a new Holocaust, than died in the Holocaust itself.

For a century there has been a strong interventionist belief in the United States—although it competes with widespread isolationism. In recent years attitudes hardened: 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. Cynically summarised, Human Rights Watch is a joint venture of George Soros and the State Department.

The September 11 attacks will intensify the interventionist mood among the foreign policy elite. Paradoxically, they might also lead to an isolationist mood among the general public in the USA. After a war of retaliation in Afghanistan (and Iraq), Americans might want to retreat inside a Fortress America—certainly if the war in Afghanistan begins to look like another Vietnam. In any case, the public response to the September 11 attacks, illustrates the almost absolute identification of Americans with their own value system, and their inability to accept that any ethical criticism can be valid. Without any embarrassment (or public criticism), President Bush declared, that a war between good and evil was in progress. Ironically, that mirrors the language of the Islamic fundamentalists. It implies a Crusader mentality, rather than the usual pseudo-neutrality of liberal-democratic political philosophy. Obviously a society which believes in its own absolute goodness, and the absolute and universal nature of its own values, is a fertile ground for interventionism.

HRW itself is an almost exclusively US-American organisation. Its version of human rights is the Anglo-American tradition. It too is 'mono-ethical'—recognising no legitimate ethical values outside its own. Attitudes to redistribution of wealth illustrate the limited nature of human rights ethics. In the Anglo-American human-rights tradition, seizure and redistribution of the property of the rich is unethical. The human-rights tradition recognises no inherent value in equality itself, and does not recognise many other ethical values. The human-rights tradition is not, and can never be, a substitute for a general morality.

I do not believe that ethical values are culturally specific. However, it is true that one ethical tradition has become associated with the United States. It has been absorbed in the national culture, it is symbolised by the flag, and it is capable of generating intense national emotion. That tradition has emphasis on rights, especially the universal rights set out in the American Declaration of Independence and its Constitution. In a sense the US was 'designed' or 'pre-programmed' as an interventionist power. Universal human rights, by their nature, tend to justify military intervention to protect them.

If the United States was inhabited by pacifist relativists, then probably it would not go to war so often. However, most US-Americans believe in the universality and superiority of their ethical tradition. Interventionist human-rights organisations are, in a sense, a logical result. Human Rights Watch is not formally an 'association for the promotion of the American Way of Life' - but it tends to behave like one.

Human Rights Watch operates a number of discriminatory exclusions, to maintain its character.

Human Rights Watch can therefore claim no ethical superiority. It is itself involved in practices it condemns elsewhere, such as discrimination in employment, and exclusion from social structures. It can also claim no neutrality. An organisation which will not allow a Serb or Somali to be a board member, can give no neutral assessment of a Serbian or Somali state. It would probably be impossible for an all-American, English-only elite organisation, to be anything else but paternalistic and arrogant.

Why are human rights linked to interventionism?

Any modern society which wants to engage in a war of conquest would need an ideology of justification. If nation state is clearly the victim of an unprovoked attack by another state, then it can appeal to the idea of national self-defence. However, such unprovoked attacks are rare, and self-defence is inherently implausible for super-powers at war with small countries. A super-power can get involved in hostilities all over the planet, usually preceded by a complex chain of events. From its point of view, an ideology is needed to justify these wars, preferably all of them.

Such an ideology should ideally meet some criteria. First, it should not be a simple appeal to self-interest. Simply stating We own the world! or We are the master race, submit to us! is not good propaganda. An appeal to higher values is preferable.

Second, these higher values should be universal. This is why Islamism would probably fail as an interventionist ideology: it is specific to Islam. A geopolitical claim to intervene in support of Islamic values can be answered simply by saying: We are not Muslims here. The doctrine of universal human rights is, by definition, universal and cross-cultural.

Third, the ideology should appeal to the population of the super-power. In the United States, for historical reasons, rights doctrines have become part of its national culture. It would be pointless for a US President to justify a war by appealing to Islam, or royal legitimacy, because very few Americans hold these beliefs. Most Americans believe in rights theories: very few know that these theories are disputed.

Fourth, if possible, the ideology should appeal to the 'enemy' population. It should ideally be part of their values. This is very difficult, but the doctrine of human rights has itself succeeded in acquiring cross-cultural legitimacy. This does not mean it is inherently right, but simply that no non-western cultures have an answer to the doctrine. The government of China, for instance, fully accepts the concept of human rights, and claims to uphold them. So when it is accused of human rights violations, it can do nothing but deny. It will be perpetually on the defensive. Even if the US bombs Beijing in support of human rights, the Chinese regime would be incapable of simply saying Human rights are wrong. This effect could be seen as the Holy Grail of war propaganda: if the enemy leadership is incapable of presenting an alternative value system, it will ultimately collapse. If the US was a devoutly Islamic country, what response would it offer to an invasion of Islamist purists? If they came to destroy Las Vegas for being un-Islamic what could the US Government do? Offer pathetic denials, that's all. That is all the Chinese government can offer to international public opinion, when facing claims of human rights violations.

Human rights are not the only possible option, for a general ideology of intervention. The 'civilising mission' which justified 19-th century colonisation is another example. However, it is important to note that human rights can serve a geopolitical purpose, which is unrelated to their moral content. It is not possible to show that 'human rights' exist, and most moral philosophers would not even try. It might not be a very important issue in ethics anyway - but it is important in politics and geopolitics. And that's what Human Rights Watch is about—not about ethics.