International human rights under attack
3 January 2011
Stephen Kinzer, a New York Times journalist and author, has written a scathing article on the efforts of international human rights groups on Guardian.co.uk. The article has generated controversy but in fact keys into a long-standing debate with important implications for the future of the international human rights movement.
The Kinzer article has predictably generated significant debate, with over 300 reader comments so far. Many of the commenters are critical, as is to be expected.
Kinzer’s basic argument is that Human Rights Watch in particular and international human rights groups in general should draw a sharp distinction between open and closed societies. A closed society must be encouraged to grant its population basic rights such as food, personal security and the rule of law. Only in open societies should groups campaign for “secondary” rights such as freedom of the press and freedom of information.
If the open/closed distinction is ignored, argues Kinzer, well-meaning campaigners risk playing into the hands of dictators and imposing the wrong standards upon societies which are not ready for them.
Some misunderstand Kinzer’s argument, assuming that he means closed (read: non-Western) societies and populations are too unsophisticated or simplistic for complex rights such as freedom of expression. In fact, he is arguing that “secondary” rights such as free expression which are central, for example, to our own Human Rights Act, can only sensibly exist once more basic rights such as food, water and the rule of law are secured.
For example, in Rwanda, “jobs, electricity, and above all security is not considered a human rights achievement; limiting political speech and arresting violators is considered unpardonable”. By transposing standards from an open society without mediation, human rights campaigners are both misguided and ultimately unsuccessful.
Going forward, Kinzer argues, the question “should not be whether a particular leader or regime violates western-conceived standards of human rights”, but rather “whether a leader or regime, in totality, is making life better or worse for ordinary people.”
As many of the commenters point out, Kinzer’s argument runs the risk itself of promoting dictators, who could argue that their curbs on freedom of expression are necessary in order to improve the basic situation of the people. The “benevolent dictatorship” – for example in China – works according to these principles. The danger is that the “secondary” rights may never appear, because primary rights may be a precondition to such rights but do not necessarily lead to more freedoms.
Kinzer’s argument is not new, and in fact keys into a debate which has been raging for a number of years: namely, the proper focus of international human rights movement. Similar criticisms of overstretch and well-meaning but destructive moralising were made in a notorious 2009 New York Times op-ed piece by the founder and former head of Human Rights Watch, Robert Bernstein. He argued that
When I stepped aside in 1998, Human Rights Watch was active in 70 countries, most of them closed societies. Now the organization, with increasing frequency, casts aside its important distinction between open and closed societies.
Whilst the organisation “always recognized that open, democratic societies have faults and commit abuses” they saw that those societies “have the ability to correct them — through vigorous public debate, an adversarial press”. By rejecting the open/closed distinction, said Bernstein, HRW was losing it’s legitimacy.
Similarly, in 2007 The Economist criticised Amnesty International – the world’s largest human rights organisation – for what it perceived as a drift from its original campaigns on freedom from judicial persecution to a broader mission for political and economic improvement. By moving away from its focus on prisoners on conscience, the organisation may have lost some of its legitimacy:
Some wonder if Ms Khan [Amnesty’ head – then and now] has been too keen to impress constituencies in what NGO-niks call the “global south”: code for developing countries, where opinion—at least among the elite—supposedly favours economic development over a “northern” concern for individual rights. She vigorously contests that. But an organisation which devotes more pages in its annual report to human-rights abuses in Britain and America than those in Belarus and Saudi Arabia cannot expect to escape doubters’ scrutiny.
More recently, I posted on Professor Samuel Moyn’s new book, The Last Utopia, in which he argues that the international human rights movement has lost its way since the end of the Cold War, when the former Soviet Union provided a simpler target for human rights activists. Now human rights have come to ” promise everything to everyone” meaning they “can end up meaning anything to anyone”. This has, he argues (quoting the late Tony Judt)
misled a generation of young activists into believing that, conventional avenues of change being hopelessly clogged, they should forsake political organization for single-issue, non-governmental groups unsullied by compromise.
So, whilst Stephen Kinzer’s argument may sound unattractive to those who champion universal human rights, on a charitable reading it does at least raise a legitimate challenge to the strategy of international human rights campaigners, and one which has been raised by others before him. This debate is neither new or particularly surprising, but it is certainly healthy and raises questions, not just for international human rights groups but also as to the proper application of human rights to foreign policy, which should not be ignored.
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