Misunderstanding our mission

The founder of Human Rights Watch tells Stephen Hopgood and James Ron that this organisation is globalizing itself; though it has a long way to go, over time it will prove effective. But human rights and social justice are not the same thing.

Stephen Hopgood contends that we have outlived the era in which the promotion of universal human rights is meaningful and that "the inherent limitations of the global human rights model championed by organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch is becoming painfully apparent."

It is not apparent to me. I see a growing global human rights movement made up of thousands of organizations. While they suffer many defeats, they also help to constrain the abuses committed by authoritarian and despotic states like China and Russia; and, despite the savagery of the civil war under way in Syria, they help to mitigate the harm to noncombatants in armed conflicts in many other parts of the world. By now, thanks to the international human rights movement, scores of heads of state and heads of government in different parts of the world have been criminally prosecuted for violations of human rights, an unprecedented development.

In responding to Hopgood, I speak from the standpoint of one who had a hand in creating Human Rights Watch, establishing its agenda and developing its methodology. Hence, I will focus on that organization in my response. 

At the outset, some three-and-a-half decades ago, we thought we could influence human rights practices in other parts of the world by identifying ourselves as an American organization and by devoting a significant part of our time and efforts to attempts to alter the way the United States used its money, its power and its status in its relations with other countries. Since then, the capacity of the United States to affect human rights practices elsewhere has declined greatly. It has not disappeared. Sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, it is still a factor in a number of parts of the world. 

But, to retain and extend the organization's influence, it makes sense for the current leadership of Human Rights Watch to change this aspect of the way the organization identifies itself. It is doing so by globalizing itself; that is, it is enlisting leadership and financial support from different parts of the world and it is diversifying the geographical basis of its operations. Human Rights Watch hopes that this will help it to increase its influence over the way that other governments in different parts of the world deal with human rights internationally. There are signs that this strategy is working. Though it has a long way to go, over time I think it will prove effective. 

In other respects, Human Rights Watch has largely adhered to the modus operandi of its origins. Its work focuses on core human rights issues, appropriately embracing some concerns - such as the rights of the disabled - that deserve to be considered core human rights issues but were not widely thought about in that way when we founded the organization. 

HRW's methodology is recognizably the one we started using very early on. It consists in documenting thoroughly and with great care abuses of human rights by governments and those exercising the power of governments; pointing out the responsibilities of various international actors; comparing the practices that are documented to international standards; and generating pressure on those directly and indirectly culpable to end or alleviate abuses. 

What is different today is mainly that HRW has grown greatly in its sophistication and generally does a much better job in a much wider range of circumstances than we were capable of doing during the early years of the organization. 

Stephen Hopgood seems to suggest that Human Rights Watch (and others) should transform themselves in other ways. These include an argument that HRW should embrace a broad social justice agenda rather than focusing on core human rights issues and that its methodology should emphasize mass mobilization

Hopgood thereby implies that social justice is the same thing as human rights or an overlooked aspect of human rights. It is not. Each is important in itself, but they are different. It makes no more sense to ask a human rights organization to transform itself into a social justice organization than to ask it to become an environmental organization. 

Human rights, in my understanding of the concept, are a series of limits on the exercise of power. The state and those holding the power of states are forbidden to interfere with freedom of inquiry or expression. They may not deprive anyone of liberty arbitrarily. They are prohibited from denying each person the right to count equally and to obtain the equal protection of the laws. They are denied the power to inflict cruelty. And they must respect a zone of privacy. 

Social justice, on the other hand, is about the distribution, or redistribution of wealth and resources. It is often the case that those resisting social justice movements engage in abuses of human rights. Unfortunately, it is also frequently the case that partisans of social justice violate human rights when they have the power to do so. 

Achieving social justice often involves the exercise of power and not merely placing restraints on power. In the past century, both opponents and proponents of social justice have committed serious human rights violations against hundreds of millions of persons. I believe that an organization such as Human Rights Watch should call attention to abuses of human rights whenever and wherever they are committed either by opponents or proponents of social justice, as has been the case since the organization's founding. Recasting itself as a social justice organization would contradict this essential role.

As for mass mobilization, it is often one of the means whereby proponents of social justice seek power. Of course, it does not necessarily follow that such power will be used abusively. Yet it sometimes happens.

The methods traditionally used by HRW are less susceptible to abuses and, I believe, more in keeping with HRW's mission. Moreover, I doubt it is possible to use mass mobilization regularly as a means of preventing or limiting abuses of core human rights. Circumstances may arise from time to time in which mass mobilization may be effective in curbing such practices as arbitrary imprisonment or torture. Yet it is unlikely that an organization such as HRW could rely on mass mobilization as an ongoing means of advancing its agenda. It seems wiser to pursue the methodology that has helped the organization to achieve what it has accomplished up to now. 

It is healthy for the international human rights movement to be subjected to criticism and to have to think of new ways to pursue its goals. On the other hand, I don't think it makes much sense to ask it to alter its mission and to adopt methods that are unsuited to its mission.

The debate continues with a response from Margot Salomon.

About the author

Aryeh Neier is President Emeritus of the Open Society Foundations. He served as President from1993 to 2012. Before that, he was Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, of which he was a founder in 1978. Before that he was Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union. His most recent book is The International Human Rights Movement: A History (Princeton,2012).

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