Two Criticisms of Human Rights Organisations


Written for Generation C Magazine

I have seen a couple of very different criticisms of Western human rights organisations online recently. First, I read this article by The Independent Editor-in-Chief (and, full disclosure, my former boss). Here is a telling extract [HT @DAWNSDigest]:

Two governments in contemporary Africa have been very successful at an autonomous state building and economic reconstruction project – Rwanda under Paul Kagame and Ethiopia under the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. They have equally been victims of a near-jihad by the human rights police claiming to represent the real interests of their citizens.  Two other countries have been unable to engineer an autonomous project of state and economic reconstruction.  They have instead remained under management by the United Nations – Liberia and Sierra Leone. These are the darlings of the human rights community.

Why are Africa’s most successful governments at state and economic reconstruction vilified while those managed by donors are praised and presented as model examples? The answer is that their leaders take orders from London, Paris and Washington DC. Perhaps I am overstating the case. However, there is reason to believe that some elements in Western society would like to create an Africa that in their own image. Anything that is not a reproduction of Western society is not only seen as abnormal but also a danger to be fought and annihilated.

Notwithstanding the criticism levelled at Mwenda for his seemingly one-eyed defence of the Kagame regime, there are some points in this article that deserve attention. It is an oft-repeated argument that human rights is a distraction, rather than a focus, for developing countries. Here, Mwenda goes further than that, arguing that ‘single issue’ rights groups actively fight against the sovereignty of African governments by launching ‘jihad’ against leaders like Kagame because of relatively small abuses – one general, one opposition politician is arrested while 10 million others receive the benefits of this otherwise enlightened regime. Furthermore, the attacks on a country’s leader damages its image, reducing tourism, trade and ultimately, the lives of the majority who would benefit from such economic advance. Worse, these rights defenders aren’t elected. Worse still, they’re foreigners working in Paris,Washington and London.

Single-issue seems to be the operative term. I am going to breeze past the obvious inaccuracies – Rwandans have very much suffered for speaking out against Kagame, not just ‘Westerners’. Let’s get on to Mwenda’s essentially economic outlook, he is very much a believer in the power of free-markets and their use in Africa. He argues, eloquently and not unjustly, for African institutions to replace the international organisations that dominate the landscape:

…when you visit Africa today, our public policies are designed by the IMF and World Bank, the hungry are fed by World Food Program, the ill are treated by Red Cross and Doctors without Borders, refugees are cared for by UNHCR, those in conflict are “protected” by UN peacekeepers, our Malaria is fought by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, our story is told by The New York Times, our poverty is fought by Jeffrey Sachs and Bono, our crimes are tried by the ICC, our public serves are financed by a generous international aid community, our debts are cancelled, our press freedom is defended by Reporters without Borders and CPJ, our human rights are promoted by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

This is a call for institutional growth, ultimately, which presumably comes from economic growth and stability. These are things that several East African governments have already: Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda look fairly set on all fronts. So what’s the hold up? Some, Mwenda included, might argue that aid dependency holds these countries back. This might be partially true. But can it be the whole story?

The is an extract from an article about a speech on poverty given by Lant Prtichett. This speech also focuses on the importance of institutions and the possible negative effects of Western interventions to those institutions:

The typical unskilled laborer in Haiti makes about 80 cents an hour. If that same person moves to the United States, studies show they will earn about $8.50 an hour. So why are Haitians poor? It is not because they are lazy or uneducated, Pritchett said. Haitians are poor because they live in a society that cannot make productive use of their labor.

Pritchett outlined four aspects of society that are different in developed countries. These well-off countries have a productive economy, a government that is responsive to the citizens, a capable bureaucracy, and the rule of law. Digging wells in Haiti might provide a bit of relief to that country’s poor, but it isn’t going to change any of these four things, Pritchett said. In fact, many kinds of humanitarian aid may short-circuit the development, he said. Until a country develops institutions that make productive work possible, its people will remain poor, he added.

It seems to me that the similar worlds of aid, development, humanitarianism and human rights have become overly conflated. What attracted me to human rights work was a number of things: the desire to help the most unfortunate, people like IDP who have been mistreated by the institutions that are meant to protect them; the importance of speaking truth to power (something, amusingly, that made me want seek out work for Andrew Mwenda and The Independent before the more recent criticisms became obvious); and, most importantly, the idea that the power of rights based programming is that it seeks to establish a foundation on which more complex developments can be built. If a government can act with impunity, collecting bribes or mistreating their opposition, they are very unlikely to benefit their population. It is interesting to me that Mwenda would choose to use the word ‘tyranny’ in his title. Tyranny is just what human rights seek to abolish, to undermine for good; this is a historical movement born from WWII, after all.

There is a threat to human rights organisations, which leads me to the second criticism I have seen recently. Please watch the following video [HT @c_hargreaves]:

Here, Chris Hedges warns of the very real danger facing the human rights industry – it has become too popular. Previously, unmentioned in the MDGs, human rights have become huge business and, as such, other parts of the broad church of ‘international affairs workers’ – which I mean to encompass not only development but business, military and politics too – are moving to use the tag of ‘human rights’ to sugar an unpleasant pill – the post-colonial imperialism that Mwenda warns of.

What is very interesting to note is how Hedges identifies this mission drift: it is the mark of “corrosive neo-liberal ideology”. It is this very same ideology that Kagame’s development project is founded on and one that Mwenda, at least in my reading, also embraces. For me, this is another mark of hypocrisy from a man once renowned as a fearless critic of corrupt and dangerous leaders. Conflict of interest and mission creep is something that human rights organisations must be increasingly vigilant against in the post MDG landscape. These two arguments are a useful precursor to this challenge.

Hedges warns of what human rights must not become; Mwenda is an example of the consequences of ignoring that warning.

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