[On 12 May an open letter published on AlterNet to Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth urged the organization to close "what seems to be a revolving door" for US government officials, warning that the appointment and employment of such officials "call into question its independence". The more than 130 signatories included two Nobel Peace Prize laureates, senior current and former UN officials, and prominent lawyers, academics and journalists. Jadaliyya asked Keane Bhatt, the letter’s initiator, to explain his motives and objectives. Click here to read the letter and list of signatories.]
Jadaliyya (J): Why did you initiate this letter? Was there a specific incident that motivated you or was it an accumulation of evidence?
Keane Bhatt (KB): Thanks for the opportunity to speak with you. I would like to state at the outset that I am responding in my individual capacity and not on behalf of my fellow signatories. The letter arose in response to an accumulation of evidence, as well as an accumulation of failures to hold Human Rights Watch (HRW) accountable for its problematic advocacy and even faulty research. Before unveiling the letter, for example, I attempted but failed to obtain a correction to a New York Review of Books piece by HRW Americas` Managing Director Daniel Wilkinson. He falsely claimed that two Venezuelan television stations had "voluntarily dropped their critical coverage" of the government, so I sent him and his editors coverage from those stations which proved that they in fact have regularly given opposition leaders extensive airtime to criticize the Venezuelan government. Even though The New York Times had recently been forced to issue a retraction on the same issue, both HRW and NYRB editors remained silent, and the error still stands.
For years, many have rightfully focused on specific HRW actions (or inaction) due to the sometimes enormous stakes in question. In my opinion, little has been achieved so far. So the letter is a strategy focusing on a structural reason for HRW`s lack of responsiveness: its close relationships to US power, which insulate it from public pressure and accountability, and call into question its self-description as an "independent, international organization."
J: Given HRW`s reputation as the world`s leading independent human rights organisation, was it difficult to obtain the support of so many prominent signatories?
KB: It was a long process, and took a good deal of outreach—basically a lot of emails. There were a few prominent academics and leaders of non-governmental organizations who privately responded in support, but for strategic reasons chose not to sign. I encountered the greatest lack of response, unfortunately, from Middle East scholars, who I had assumed would be more enthusiastic about a campaign to distance HRW from the US government. In fact, I reached out to a couple of Jadaliyya co-editors but never heard back!
In general, though, I was optimistic that the common-sense demand of the letter to close HRW`s revolving door, coupled with disturbing evidence of double standards, would generate a relatively broad coalition of signatories. I also think that the letter tapped into longstanding (if generally subdued and private) criticisms of HRW from within the human-rights community, the legal community, and among scholars of many disciplines.
Although collecting signatures was a bit tedious, I think this letter shows how realizable such an action is for anyone with an internet connection and a willingness to invest the required time, so I would encourage other activists to do more of it. I often look for ways to operationalize my research in more direct ways, so the letter is actually a distillation of arguments from a previous article of mine, "The Hypocrisy of Human Rights Watch." Now I am promoting a sign-on petition based on the letter. I did this once before with an article on The New York Times` differing treatment of US ally Honduras and US enemy Venezuela, which I also adapted into a public letter and petition.
J: Some would respond to your concerns with the argument that the involvement of former government officials with an independent human rights organization is in fact desirable, since it reflects the commitment of such individuals to the organization`s agenda and increases its clout in the corridors of power.
KB: It is fine if HRW wants to try to increase its clout in the corridors of power by lobbying Members of Congress, organizing constituents, or even hiring powerful Washington lobbying firms (HRW has a lot of money). But when a revolving door exists, whereby people go from HRW into planning and executing US foreign policy (and vice versa), very bad incentives develop. People generally do not stay at HRW, or any such NGO, for their entire careers. What do we want HRW associates to be thinking about when they must embarrass the US government in order to protect human rights? Will such actions harm their professional aspirations? It is undeniable that the incentives and deterrents of a revolving door harm independent human-rights advocacy.
We should also look concretely at the real-world expressions of government participation in HRW. Could one seriously claim that an ex-official of the CIA—one of the greatest institutional violators of human rights in the western hemisphere over the last half-century—has any standing to advise on human rights in the Americas for an ostensibly independent organization? Is it beneficial for the cause of human rights that Miguel Díaz, the CIA analyst in question, gained eight years of experience as an HRW advisory committee member only to exploit his accumulated knowledge and relationships in his new role as the State Department`s "interlocutor between the intelligence community and nongovernment experts?
As I wrote in my article, what are we to make of former HRW Washington advocacy director Tom Malinowski`s new task of furthering human rights as a senior official for an administration that convenes weekly "Terror Tuesday" meetings to mete out extrajudicial drone-assassinations around the planet?
J: Are your concerns limited to the impropriety of HRW absorbing US government officials and the resulting threat to its reputation for independence, or do you additionally believe there is clear evidence HRW has been accommodating US foreign policy interests in its own policies?
KB: The letter suggests that there is a relationship between HRW`s inconsistent application of its advocacy and its close relationships with the US government, which "suffuse such instances with the appearance of a conflict of interest." Speaking for myself, HRW`s accommodation to US foreign policy objectives is so brazen that there is no question it exists.
Take the case of the 2004 overthrow of Haiti`s elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The United States literally kidnapped him and flew him to the Central African Republic. HRW could have used its large megaphone, which it has deployed regularly to denounce both real and imagined (but orders of magnitude smaller) human-rights violations in countries with left governments such as Venezuela or Ecuador. There were thousands of people killed under the post-coup government in Haiti, yet HRW did not hold any press conferences or write any op-eds in The Washington Post denouncing this, as they have in far less serious circumstances concerning governments that the US is against.
Aside from barely lifting a finger in the face of those atrocities, HRW did something astonishing: In a bizarre attempt at even-handedness, it actually sent a note to the Bush administration—the kidnapper—asking it to pressure the de-facto Haitian regime to prosecute both Haitian paramilitary leaders who precipitated the coup and officials of the deposed, constitutional government. An independent, principled human-rights group would not have pretended that the United States was an impartial arbiter, and would have instead demanded from Bush the immediate restitution of Haiti’s legitimate government.
I could list many other examples. But to my mind, the position most detrimental to the cause of human rights is HRW`s explicit eschewal of the United Nations Charter, which prohibits the "threat or use of force" in international affairs. Given that the world`s only military superpower, the United States, freely violates this ban, HRW`s supposed neutrality on this issue actually abets the predictable human-rights violations that follow from US wars of aggression. As the US invasion of Iraq loomed and other human-rights groups mobilized to prevent the war, HRW publicly stated: "we avoid judgments on the legality of war itself because they tend to compromise the neutrality needed to monitor most effectively how the war is waged . . . Human Rights Watch thus does not support or oppose the threatened war with Iraq."
If HRW`s concerns over "compromised neutrality" prevented it from taking a position on an act of aggression that would lead to the deaths of perhaps one million people—a human-rights catastrophe of incomprehensible proportions and perfectly foreseeable at the time—HRW`s mission is unjustifiably narrow. And this agnostic stance to war appears to be less than binding: HRW`s Malinowski publicly applauded Obama`s unconstitutional NATO bombing of Libya.
It is also remarkable that HRW cited the fear of "compromised neutrality" in order to abstain from judging an illegal war, but does not worry about the damage to neutrality that Javier Solana brings HRW as a member of its board of directors. As NATO`s secretary general in 1999, Solana presided over the bombing of Yugoslavia, which according to HRW itself resulted in "violations of international humanitarian law."
In contrast, in late 2012 HRW removed a signatory of our letter, international law scholar and UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories Richard Falk, from a position on HRW`s local support committee in Santa Barbara, California, where he lives. HRW appealed to a "longstanding policy" that "no official from any government or UN agency can serve on any Human Rights Watch committee or its Board." So within HRW, an indefatigable advocate for Palestinian rights is a liability, but an ex-CIA official and a NATO leader who is ultimately responsible for war crimes are both welcome
J: Some might argue that HRW has its origins in the Cold War and has consistently demonstrated special consideration towards US foreign policy interests, and that what you term the "revolving door" for US government officials is a symptom rather than cause of the problems the letter seeks to address.
KB: I do not have a good answer on the issue of causality. Whatever the reason, HRW`s revolving door exists and I am focused on generating broad action in order to close it. I do think there is a longstanding ideology at play here—namely, HRW`s adherence to US exceptionalism.
I see that exceptionalism coloring the whole enterprise. When a globally oriented human-rights organization decides to base itself in the United States and populate its board with members who boast of being "long-time friends" to its heads of state, these are extremely political acts from an international perspective. As a recent poll showed, the rest of the world sees the United States as "the greatest threat to peace in the world today" by a wide margin.
For an admittedly inexact parallel to the current situation, imagine the credibility of a 1970s-era global human-rights group based in Santiago, Chile. If its personnel had ties to the Pinochet regime, which, like the United States today, maintained an international assassination program, such an organization would be the world`s laughingstock—whatever the merits of its denunciations of human-rights abuses in Europe.
One can also argue that the Cold War-era defects of HRW`s philosophy that you mention have been updated in what fellow signatory Chase Madar describes as a "hawks-for-humanity" worldview. HRW`s Malinowski probably believes in the "bipartisan consensus for America’s defense of liberty around the world"—as divorced from reality as that idea may be. At his Senate confirmation hearing, he characterized as an "undeniable truth" the notion that "we"—the US government—"cannot be there for everyone every time," which in turn leads to "disappointment" that "sometimes morph[s] into resentment against the United States."
J: Do you expect the letter to have an impact on HRW?
KB: I suspect that it will. The letter has been publicized by WikiLeaks, Glenn Greenwald, Oliver Stone and others, and we are attempting to increase pressure on the organization through a sign-on petition at RootsAction.org, which has attracted 14,500 signatures so far. Filmmaker Michael Moore has shared the petition on Facebook, and I encourage Jadaliyya readers to sign and share it widely as well. The petition argues:
The credibility of a global human-rights organization depends on its independence. Human Rights Watch has done important, critical work, but it can do better. It should implement at least a five-year "cooling-off" period before and after its associates move between HRW and the U.S. government`s foreign-policy divisions. Human Rights Watch associates should concentrate on protecting human rights. They should not have conflicts of interest with past or future careers in branches of the U.S. government that may themselves be involved in human-rights violations.
A more independent HRW will be able to carry out its work much more effectively—particularly in countries like Venezuela, where HRW Americas director José Miguel Vivanco and Wilkinson wrote about Venezuelan officials denouncing them as "CIA stooges" and "mercenaries of the empire" before ejecting them both from the country.