Saturday, January 8, 2011

Human rights imperialism?

On the last day of 2010, Stephen Kinzer offered a scathing attack on "human rights imperialism" in the Guardian. In this exceedingly odd piece, Kinzer criticizes Human Rights Watch and other organizations for "imposing western, 'universal' standards on developing countries."

Kinzer makes two key points, related but not identical. First, he believes that the human rights movement "has lost its way" and is using "human rights as [its] excuse" for undermining governments of poor countries and building support for American military interventions worldwide. In other words, the movement is lending itself to becoming used for foreign policy goals that are not driven by human rights considerations.

Second, he suggests that many of the most prominent human rights NGOs "promote an absolutist view of human rights permeated by modern western ideas that westerners mistakenly call 'universal'."

There is little or no evidence to support either of those points. Kinzer's claims are hardly novel — human rights activists have long struggled with the danger of succumbing to either of these risks. (Consider, for example, Michael Ignatieff's excellent Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, published in 2003, which, as the title deals with precisely these two issues.) As a result, it is silly to suggest that the leading human rights NGOs have now succumbed wholesale.

The key problem is this: in any given issue area, multiple human rights are at stake, and the United States is likely to have a strategic interest. Any HR organization will thus need to think carefully about the relative priority of different rights, and the risk of appearing to be pushing for change that — for different reasons — fits US strategic goals. Difficult choices are unavoidable.

Kinzer apparently disagrees with some of those choices, and translates this disagreement into a wholesale condemnation of the human rights movement. His two specific disagreements are very poorly chosen, however. First, he argues that human rights organizations in Darfur have served as "useful idiots" to extend a conflict by reacting to massacres strategically provoked by rebel groups.

This claim is pernicious for three reasons. First, Kinzer implies that massacres in Darfur were, from the very beginning, strategically provoked, which is a severe accusation for which I do not believe there is evidence (not only that — given the degree to which the world ignored the conflict in South Sudan, which festered for decades and cost about two million lives, Darfur rebel groups would have to have been rather stupid to count on useful involvement from the outside). Second, he suggests that massacres that have been "provoked" (he does not specify how) cannot constitute serious human rights violations worth monitoring and protesting. Third, he seems to believe that any group that cannot win on the battlefield cannot have a human rights complaint worth getting involved in — realpolitik at its worst.

Kinzer's second complaint is no less problematic: He takes issue with complaints about Paul Kagame's increasingly authoritarian rule in Rwanda, given that Kagame's government has brought peace, stability, and economic growth back to Rwanda far more successfully than anybody could have dared hope fifteen years ago.

Again, there are three serious problems here. First, I am not aware that any human rights organization denies Kagame's achievements. The "evidence" Kinzer's online article links to in support of the claim that "Human Rights Watch... portrays the Rwandan regime as brutally oppressive" simply documents official intimidation of opposition parties; it does not state nor imply that HRW thinks "giving people jobs, electricity, and above all security is not considered a human rights achievement." Second, the evidence is fairly straightforward, so Kinzer's opposition to publicizing it suggests that he feels Rwanda's economic and security achievements have earned it a free pass to commit a range of "minor" human rights violations. Third, Kinzer takes a primordial view about Rwandans and their "ethnic hatreds", suggesting, with no evidence whatsoever, that all opposition parties that are being intimidated by the Kagame regime a) are connected to genocidaires, and b) would, if they came to power, unleash another genocide.

Judging by his website, Kinzer seems like an interesting and fairly thoughtful guy. He must have been in a particularly sour mood around the holidays to pen such a profoundly misguided attack on the entire human rights movement. I hope he comes to his senses in the new year.

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