Amnesty International has a bee under its bonnet.

A human rights advocate, educator, and labor attorney, Dan Kovalik, mustered the audacity to challenge the world’s most prominent and highly regarded rights-based advocacy group.

Claiming over three million members since its birth in 1961, AI is the poster child for modern “non-governmental organizations” or NGOs, the hundreds of thousands of hazy entities that play an ever-growing, influential role in international affairs.

Despite AI’s sterling reputation among middle class liberals in the English-speaking world, Kovalik was troubled by AI’s stance on the war in Libya and its role in cheer leading US and NATO involvement. After his October 23 Counterpunch article “Libya and the West’s Human Rights Hypocrisy” appeared, AI launched a counter attack authored by AI official, Sunjeev Bery. Bery’s response circulated widely among the AI-friendly internet community as an example of “getting it wrong” on AI’s principles and goals.

Kovalik demonstrates that he is more than capable of answering Bery in a November 8 Counterpunch response. He shows with even greater clarity how AI helped crack open the door for outside intervention in Libya and, knowingly or unknowingly (it’s hard to imagine how anyone could not know), offered dubious but influential justification for that intervention.

AI and other advocates for a similarly narrow and myopic interpretation of human rights have a long and discreditable history of service to those on the wrong side of the struggle for justice. By ignoring material inequities, power imbalances, and class and ethnic oppressions, they dilute the question of justice to matters of individual conscience and a conservative set of negative rights.

That is not to say that these concerns are wrong, but that they touch on only a corner of the concerns of the vast majority of the world’s people. In fact, they loom largest for those least touched by the ravages of predatory capitalism and its military enforcers—those in the most developed countries and those most privileged within its middle and upper strata.

When AI was founded in 1961, much of the world was engaged in an intense struggle for independence from imperialism and neo-colonialism. From Algeria to Vietnam, from the Republic of the Congo to Cuba, from the segregated deep south of the US to South Africa and the Portuguese African colonies, millions of people were committed to resolute battles for self-determination. Under the yoke of the rich and powerful, the peoples of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the ghettos and barrios of the First World were rising against their oppressors.

The UN recognized this powerful movement, certified its authenticity, and attested to its legitimacy with the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples that declared the following:  

1. The subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and co-operation.
2. All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
3. Inadequacy of political, economic, social or educational preparedness should never serve as a pretext for delaying independence.
 4. All armed action or repressive measures of all kinds directed against dependent peoples shall cease in order to enable them to exercise peacefully and freely their right to complete independence, and the integrity of their national territory shall be respected.

Perhaps it was a coincidence, but just as these struggles took center stage, AI chose to take human rights questions in a different direction, away from the rights of subjugated people to the rights of individuals, vetted and dubbed “prisoners of conscience” by the AI establishment.

By the mid-sixties, internationally recognized leaders of anti-colonial independence movements like imprisoned Nelson Mandela were ruled out as “prisoners of conscience” because they advocated armed resistance against their oppressors.

At the same time, artists, writers, and other dissident intellectuals in the socialist and less developed countries seemed to be the most common candidates for AI’s attention, especially by its US and Western European affiliates.

Whether by collaboration or happenstance, the wrongs targeted by the AI leadership were readily embraced by the major capitalist media and fully congruent with the foreign policy positions of the US and its European Cold War allies. The few reports on alleged Western human rights violations gained no traction, while claims against governments in the East or South played a greater and greater role in Western diplomacy and intervention. Even AI’s founder, Peter Benenson, expressed concerns in the mid-sixties that the organization was unduly influenced by British intelligence.

In the Cold War battle of ideas, AI proved to be a great asset to the US and its allies, crafting issues that became pillars of policy and levers of negotiation. The narrow interpretation of the Final Act of the Helsinki Conference of 1975—an interpretation that elevated Article Seven over the other nine Articles and all other provisions—marked the most important collaborative victory of Western human rights organizations and Western governments in the Cold War. Most rights and social justice activists in Amnesty International’s areas of influence would be hard pressed to identify any other provision beyond the endorsement of an indistinct freedom of conscience.

Especially Article Six, the principle of non-intervention in the affairs of other governments, was neither acknowledged nor respected by Western rights groups or governments. Constructing their efforts around Article Seven, capitalist governments mounted a massive human rights offensive against socialist and anti-imperialist countries, overshadowing the national liberation, anti-nuclear, and anti-war movements of gravest concern to most of the less affluent world at that moment.

Much of the credit for shaping this agenda can be laid at the doorstep of the human rights organizations. Their narrow, facile approach to social justice baited them into a calculated campaign against the tide of socialism so apparent in the mid-seventies.

Of course the positive rights of equality, education, leisure, shelter, peace, etc. were swept aside as well before the celebration of individuality and self-expression—what Marx called “…the rights of egoistic man, of man separated from other men and from the community.”

After the Cold War

With the demise of the European socialist community and the establishment of a new balance of power favorable to Western capitalist powers, imperialism further co-opted the human rights cause, contorting it into a justification for wars of aggression. With no one to advocate or enforce the rights of nations to self-determination, the US and its NATO allies cynically crafted a predatory foreign policy around protecting or promoting human rights and democracy, a policy used to justify overt armed intervention in the Balkans and the Middle East and covertly in dozens of other countries. And the Western human rights community said nothing.

Emboldened by the efficacy of the human rights cover, the US and its allies sponsored hundreds of “human rights” and “democracy” NGOs claiming to promote higher values while subverting governments hostile to US and NATO goals. Funded by USAID and other government agencies and carrying innocuous names like “Republican” and “Democratic” Institutes, they meddle in elections, foment coups, and manipulate oppositions in countries like Ukraine, Lebanon, Venezuela, and many others.

Slipping into the human rights tent, these organizations exploited the Western regard for individual human rights against the rights guaranteed by the 1960 UN Declaration and other Declarations affirming the right of self-determination. And the Western human rights community said nothing.

If the leading lights in human rights circles—organizations like AI and Human Rights Watch— are to claim any moral legitimacy, they must resolutely dissociate their campaigns from those seeking to use them for predation and aggression. But they have not.

Kovalik and other critics of “humanitarian intervention” and the duplicity of human rights organizations are correct in perceiving an odor of hypocrisy. As Kovalik points out, the “even handedness” espoused by AI in regard to belligerent forces completely obscures ever-present power inequities.

Within the insular bubble of rights-based moral calculation, asymmetries of power, wealth, or development count for nothing. The rural guerrilla in sandals and armed with a rifle must respect the same etiquette of war as the foreign interloper astride a 70-ton tank. In the strange universe of the human rights industry, it doesn’t matter whether a regime’s opponents are paid by the CIA or patriotically motivated; their rights to dissent have equal legitimacy.

And the same respect for human rights is expected of a popular regime (for example, Cuba or Venezuela) under overt and covert threat from powerful foes as is expected of a country (like the US) devoid of any serious external or internal peril.

One would think that a serious “human rights” organization would hail the direction of civil rights in countries like Cuba and Venezuela that have improved the health and well being of the disadvantaged in order to fully enjoy rights while condemning a country like the US that has moved dramatically toward a police state. But that is not the case.

Nor does history extenuate the force of human rights standards as held by Western human rights organizations. Countries emerging from the civil distortions of colonial occupation, suffering the legacy of feudal social and economic relations, or holding to non-Western traditions are held to the same human rights standards by AI as the Euro-American countries that forged those standards over two centuries ago. This lack of understanding and tolerance too often reveals gross cultural and ethnic chauvinism.

With the US and its NATO allies hijacking its principles, human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have to answer for a lot. While millions of their members honestly want to help those deserving solace, they can no longer ignore the harm that comes from the coalescence of the institutional human rights agenda and the malignant foreign policy of the US and its allies.

And the naïve notion that the sins of the victim are no less grave than the sins of the bully is untenable and morally cynical.  

November 19. 2012