I’ve written over the years about how the partisan political agenda of human rights activists and groups erodes the legitimacy of many mainstream groups advocating human rights.
The American Friends Service Committee, the advocacy arm of the Quakers, for example, pay lip service to Quaker notions of non-violence Yet, in the 1970s, they somehow convinced themselves that the Khmer Rouge was a force for justice. Today, they see Hamas through rose-tinted glasses.
Former Irish President-turned-UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson’s “World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance” became an orgy of anti-Semitism and anti-Western polemic.
In 2009, Robert Bernstein, a founder of Human Rights Watch, took to the New York Times to lament how the organization over which he had presided for two decades had gone so far off the rails:
Human Rights Watch had as its original mission to pry open closed societies, advocate basic freedoms and support dissenters. But recently it has been issuing reports on the Israeli-Arab conflict that are helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state. At Human Rights Watch, we always recognized that open, democratic societies have faults and commit abuses. But we saw that they have the ability to correct them — through vigorous public debate, an adversarial press and many other mechanisms that encourage reform. That is why we sought to draw a sharp line between the democratic and nondemocratic worlds, in an effort to create clarity in human rights. We wanted to prevent the Soviet Union and its followers from playing a moral equivalence game with the West and to encourage liberalization by drawing attention to dissidents like Andrei Sakharov, Natan Sharansky and those in the Soviet gulag — and the millions in China’s laogai, or labor camps. 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.
More recently, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have gone so far as to incorporate material supplied to them by a front organization for a designated al-Qaeda financier. And, while the human rights situation in Egypt is bad, for example, the Human Rights Watch executive director seems to calculate the number of alleged rights violations based on personal pique rather than any objective standard. Of course, what private organizations may do is nothing compared to how the United National Human Rights Council has disgraced itself.
Aaron Rhodes, president of the Forum for Religious Freedom Europe, has penned a masterful academic article, “Human rights concepts in the OSCE region: changes since the Helsinki Final Act,” in the Central Asian Survey. He gives a broad overview of the evolution of human rights advocacy and traces its leap to “An expansive, ‘post-modern’ vision of human rights de-emphasized the protection of basic individual freedoms, while expanding global regulation.”
With the end of the Cold War, the international community more strongly embraced elements of the Soviet concept of human rights – a much broader human rights agenda than that suggested by the Helsinki Final Act. The 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights resulted in consensus – essentially a political compromise – on balancing the ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ versions of human rights, attempting to resolve contradictions between the social and economic rights propounded by socialist states and the individual liberties favoured in the West. While the post–Cold War Helsinki human rights community has generally focused on individual civil and political rights, the global human rights movement has moved towards collective, social and economic rights, embracing an expansive vision of freedom as dependent on positive state actions, not simply state restraint. There has also been a trend towards restricting fundamental freedoms in deference to the goals of tolerance and community values.
The whole article is worth reading. The granularity with which Rhodes deals with the evolution of human rights advocacy away from individual freedom and liberty and in conformity with greater political advocacy is impressive. Indeed, many young human rights activists may not consciously realize how much damage they now do to the legacy of the Helsinki Accords and traditional human rights work when they conflate their own political biases with causes of social or class justice.
If they truly hope to advance rather than damage the cause of university liberty and freedom, groups l like American Friends Service Committee, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International must engage in some serious introspection.