Hawks for humanity

Does the human rights industry adore war?

January 21, 2014 4:00PM ET
Samantha Power, the U.S. representative to the United Nations, testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July 2013 in Washington.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The human rights industry does a lot of noble work around the world. And yet many of the field’s most prominent figures and institutions have lately taken to vocally endorsing acts of war. Where does this impulse come from? On what grounds is it justified? And how’s the hawkish stance working out, given a decade of strategic and humanitarian debacles for Washington and its allies?

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and one of the country’s most celebrated human rights advocates, certainly doesn’t shrink from military action. She has supported missile strikes on the Syrian government as well as Washington’s participation in the Libya war and has called for strong-arming U.S. allies into sending more soldiers to fight in Afghanistan — all in the name of human rights, of course. Harold Koh, a former dean of Yale Law School, is best known for his scholarly work on human rights law and the War Powers Act — yet he devised the legal rationale for both Obama’s open-ended drone strikes and the war on Libya. And Michael Ignatieff, a former leader of Canada’s Liberal Party and Power’s predecessor as director of Harvard Law’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq War.

It’s not just individuals, though: Institutions are just as likely to chime in. Human Rights Watch didn’t use to dabble in warfare, but that all changed when the group supported Washington’s failed military expedition into Somalia in 1992, followed by the bombardment of Belgrade in 1999 in what was then Yugoslavia. Human Rights Watch didn’t weigh in on the Iraq invasion other than to note that it did not qualify as a humanitarian mission. But by 2012, fatigues were back in style at the group’s Empire State Building suites when the organization’s executive director, Ken Roth, and chief U.S. lobbyist, Tom Malinowski, loudly applauded the NATO campaign in Libya.

Days after the Libya air strikes began, Human Rights Watch researcher Corinne Dufka called for “nothing less than the type of unified and decisive action the U.N. Security Council has brought to bear in Libya” to be replicated in Cote d’Ivoire in a Foreign Policy article titled “The Case for Intervention in the Ivory Coast”. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch has tacitly supported our longest war at every step. In 2003, Roth said human rights nonprofits should “mobilize public pressure on the (George W.) Bush administration and its European allies to take the security steps needed to deliver on the promise of greater peace and security for the Afghan people” — in other words, support the military occupation and counterinsurgency war that make the development and humanitarian work possible. More recently, Human Rights Watch condemned the possibility of amnesty for Taliban leaders, a necessary condition for any political settlement of the ongoing civil war.

To be fair, Human Rights Watch is far from alone: In 2012, Amnesty International USA went so far as to put up bus-stop advertisements in Chicago during the NATO conference to urge the military alliance to “keep the progress going” — which can only be taken as an endorsement of the military campaign. The Feminist Majority has similarly backed the escalation of the Afghan War, in the name of women’s rights. As for the U.S. media, its more prestigious branches are regular perches for humanitarian hawks, with the New York Times’ human rights guy, Nicholas Kristof, constantly recommending that Washington threaten air strikes of some nature against Sudan.

Mutant offspring

Even more aggressive than the established human rights institutions are their “mutant offspring,” says Alex de Waal, director of the Center for World Peace at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy. Celebrity-sequined advocacy groups like Save Darfur, de Waal says, “have no inhibition of mixing partisan politics, including calls for intervention, and human rights. The groups are not as grounded in human rights principles or on-the-ground humanitarian work, but they do have close ties to the Obama administration, to Samantha Power and Susan Rice.” 

De Waal would know: He’s a former Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch who quit in protest of the group’s recommendation of a military expedition into Somalia in 1992. De Waal’s replacement was one John Prendergast, who now runs an anti-genocide outfit called Enough. Four years ago, Prendergast was calling for a military invasion of Zimbabwe to oust its rights-abusing government, an operation he conceded would be “messy in the short run” but, he insisted, plenty worth it.

These wars weren’t simple humanitarian interventions but attacks motivated almost entirely by national self-interest, conducted to stem massive, destabilizing influxes of foreign refugees from a bordering nation.

Liberal hawks respond to skepticism over their bellicosity with an invented pedigree of successful humanitarian wars, wheeling out India’s armed intervention in East Pakistan in 1971, which halted a genocide and created Bangladesh, or Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978, which ended the Khmer Rouge, or Tanzania’s invasion of Uganda in 1979, which brought down Idi Amin. What they fail to mention is that these wars weren’t simple humanitarian interventions but attacks motivated almost entirely by national self-interest, conducted to stem massive, destabilizing influxes of foreign refugees from a bordering nation. 

But the past is past. Supporters of humanitarian warfare tend not to dwell on their ventures’ failures for very long. Remember the carnage when the U.N. ventured into Somalia, with war crimes committed by both sides? The 200,000 Serbs and Roma ethnically cleansed from Kosovo during the NATO bombardment of Belgrade? The dictatorship of the militias in Libya and the excruciating pacification campaign in Afghanistan, which some have confused with a feminist Peace Corps project?

According to the Human Rights Watch press office, the group has no formal internal review process for prior endorsements of the use of force; instead there is an ongoing internal discussion whose findings are reflected in their steady stream of public statements.

Trigger hippies

Part of what makes humanitarians so comfortable with military violence is their widespread belief that war can be made surgically precise if enough lawyers are involved — that military violence can be regulated, just like mine safety or pharmaceuticals. The reality is that war is not amenable to regulation, and collaborations between humanitarian lawyers and generals usually end up altering the behavior of the former much more than the latter.

It would be a shame for the human rights industry, which does so much fine, often heroic work abroad — and increasingly, at home in the United States — to continue its metamorphosis into a high-minded appendage of official Washington. While it may have been wise for Human Rights Watch to demand targeted sanctions against members of the Syrian government, whose atrocities are well documented, such declarations put them in a situation where hypocrisy is inevitable: The rights group has never made recommended similar penalties against officials in Egypt, Israel and Bahrain, despite these regimes’ dismal human rights records.

Mass atrocity demands a response. It’s not hard to see why so much righteous thought has been expended imagining how paratroopers or other deployments could have, hypothetically, halted the Rwandan genocide. But let us note that such dreams of therapeutic violence are only rarely accompanied by any speculation about how nonmilitary diplomatic efforts could have, with forethought and diligent application of state resources, achieved the same end. 

For instance, Power’s widely assigned book on genocide, “A Problem From Hell,” pays scant attention to preventive means other than military force. The Atrocity Prevention Board she founded within the National Security Council focuses mostly, as de Waal notes, on ways to put foreign soldiers in between government troops and victimized civilians rather than on diplomatic interventions that might head off such atrocities. 

The itchy trigger finger of the human rights industry is symptomatic of the atrophy of diplomacy and dealmaking in favor of the militarization of statecraft. Do human rights professionals really want to be party to this? There is an ethics to nearly everything, even the violent fantasies of intellectuals. A more circumspect attitude toward the lethal force would surely boost the credibility —and the integrity — of our human rights institutions.

Chase Madar is an attorney in New York and the author of “The Passion of [Chelsea] Manning: The Story Behind the WikiLeaks Whistleblower” (Verso, 2013).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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