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Highjacking human rights

Part III:

Critical examinations of groups like the NED and the USIP have demonstrated that the discourse of democracy and peace serves as a brilliant rhetorical cover for promoting elite democracy - that is, low intensity democracy or polyarchy.

Thus although HRW may be promoting some form of human rights, it appears that like the NED and the USIP, their work may be undermining the efforts of other more progressive groups struggling to promote a more egalitarian and participatory world order.[20] Critically, Julie Mertus (2004) in her important study, Bait and Switch: Human Rights and US Foreign Policy, illustrates that in spite of all the work of human rights groups:

“The United States is in fact still leading the world on human rights, but in the wrong direction, promoting short-term instrumentalism over long-term ethical principles, double standards instead of fair dealing, and a fearful view of human nature over a more open one... Human rights talk has not been accompanied by human rights behaviors.”

Here it is instructive to turn to James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer’s (2005) incisive analysis regarding the mechanics of social change. In an attempt to understand why many NGOs may actually be exacerbating the very problems that they are aiming to fix, Petras and Veltmeyer explain that:

“In Latin America... the main concern [of the US government] in the 1960s and 1970s was to stave off pressures for revolutionary change - to prevent another Cuba. To this end, USAID promoted state-led reforms and the public provision of credit and technical assistance to the mass of small and peasant producers in the region.

A good part of ODA [Overseas Development Aid] took a bilateral form, but increasingly USAID turned to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as their executing arm, bypassing governments in the region and channelling funds more directly to the local communities.

The NGOs provided collateral ‘services’ or benefits to the donors, including strengthening local organizations opting for development and weakening class-based organizations with an anti-systemic orientation.

In this context, the NGOs were also used, almost incidentally - and somewhat ‘innocently’ from the perspective of many of their personnel - not only to promote economic and social development (rather than social change and revolution) but to promote the values of democratic forms of organization as well as capitalism (the use of the electoral mechanism in their politics and the market in their economics).”

Not being ones to mince their words, Petras and Veltmeyer go on to describe such NGOs as the “executing agents of US imperialism” which “helped turn local communities away from organizations seeking to mobilize for direct action against the system and instead promoted a reformist approach to social change.”[23] Likewise Joan Roelofs (2003) also suggests that many “[c]ivil society organizations are convenient instruments for imperialism” which are effectively “controlled by elites via funding, integration into coalitions, and overlapping personnel.”[24] As Ian Smillie (1995) observes, the irony of this situation is that “[d]espite frequently repeated reassurance that NGO independence is reasonably intact, the fact is that [since the 1960s] Northern NGOs have stumbled into a contracting era without appearing to have noticed it.”

Clearly HRW would rank among those NGOs that Petras, Veltmeyer and Roelofs would describe as a working in the service of imperialism, a diagnosis which I for one would agree with. But even if one were not inclined to go this far, it can be argued with certainty that (at the very least) by working so closely with the ‘democracy promoting’ community HRW is actively legitimizing the promotion of polyarchy, and thus undermining efforts to promote participatory democracy. Indeed, the presence of such extensive ‘democratic’ ties among HRW’s Americas advisory board alone should be irreconcilable for a group which aims to promote human rights, unless of course HRW sincerely believes that neoliberal economics coupled with political disengagement will provide the best protection for global human rights. However, given the evidence presented in this article, it seems more likely that rather than just being indirectly linked to the ‘democracy’ elites, HRW is in actual fact an integral member of the ‘democracy promoting’ community - albeit a liberally orientated member.

Unfortunately, the hegemonic position that HRW’s work has attained over the global promotion of human rights has negative consequences for democratic governance which are not immediately obvious. David Chandler (2006) observes that:

“While mainstream commentators conflate human rights with empowerment, self-determination and democracy, there are few critics who draw attention to the fact that the human rights discourse of moral and ethical policies is essentially an attack on the public political sphere and democratic practices.”

Indeed with the end of the Cold War ‘humanitarian’ interventions have grown to become a central pillar for justifying what should in a more honest world be called illegal wars of aggression. Problematically, for anyone interested in challenging such humanitarian doublespeak, Chandler points out that “it is perhaps even more concerning that many commentators argue that critical discussion of the human rights framework itself is unproductive and dangerous.”

This reasoning perhaps helps to explain why few commentators in even the alternative media have undertaken sustained criticisms of HRW and its ‘democratic’ affiliates. Talking about the rise of NGOs more generally, Petras and Voltmeyer (2001) suggest that:

“It is symptomatic of the pervasiveness of the NGOs and their economic and political power over the so-called ‘progressive world’ that there have been few systematic Left critiques of their negative impact. In a large part this failure is due to the success of the NGOs in displacing and destroying the organized leftist movements and co-opting their intellectual strategists and organizational leaders.”

To be continued


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