Jun 25 2013

Taking Human Rights Watch to task

There are many good human rights organizations that are based in the US that look out for the interests of the powerless around the globe. But I have noticed that even though they do on occasion criticize actions by the US government and its client states, sometimes strongly so, they are sensitive to charges that they are being ‘anti-American’, a commonly used rhetorical weapon to stifle criticism. Hence they are more comfortable criticizing the actions of countries that are not US allies. I have noticed that whenever they get a chance to be on the side of the US government, they seize it, perhaps to brush up their establishment credentials and to improve their chances of getting money from their primarily American donor base.

Here for example is a recent series of tweets sent out by Kenneth Roth, Director of Human Rights Watch.

ian bremmer ‏‪@ianbremmer‬
23 Jun
Edward Snowden, martyr for online freedom and privacy, now passing thru Moscow? Say hi to Alexei ‪@Navalny‬ while you’re there.
Retweeted by Kenneth Roth

Kenneth Roth ‏‪@KenRoth‬
23 Jun
If Snowden’s reported itinerary is true, China-Russia-Cuba-Venezuela is hardly an archipelago of free expression. ‪http://trib.al/2d0Qdve ‬

Kenneth Roth ‏‪@KenRoth‬
23 Jun
Snowden’s ‪#Ecuador‬ is limiting asylum rights ‪http://trib.al/goW5gcS ‬ and criminalizing journalists who harm security ‪http://trib.al/jkUNrKi ‬

ian bremmer ‏‪@ianbremmer‬
23 Jun
Edward Snowden, martyr for online freedom and privacy, now passing thru Moscow? Say hi to Alexei ‪@Navalny‬ while you’re there.
Retweeted by Kenneth Roth

Kenneth Roth ‏‪@KenRoth‬
As Snowden proceeds on his itinerary of govt censorship, it’s an opportunity to blow the whistle on their repression. ‪http://trib.al/aSZMmCR ‬

Roth got quite a bit of pushback on Twitter for sending these out and I too was annoyed but I don’t use Twitter (and cannot say anything briefly anyway) so I decided to send him the following letter and publishing it here because it addresses an argument that has been espoused by more people than just Roth

Dear Kenneth Roth,

I have been a supporter of, and contributor to, Human Rights Watch for I don’t know how many years. So I was extremely annoyed (to put it mildly) to read about your smart-aleck tweets pointing out the flaws in the human rights records of the countries that Edward Snowden was passing though in his attempts to find a country that would not hand him over to the US.

I am not sure what you hoped to gain by these tweets, but the impression you conveyed was that Snowden was acting hypocritically by espousing transparency while going to countries that did not uphold those same standards. What country do you recommend that he go to? Perhaps the UK whose record you presumably approve of but whose government would promptly arrest Snowden and hand him over to the US?

The only reason that people like you can be so flip about this is because you personally are not in any danger of being arrested and kept in indefinite detention, renditioned, to a third country to be tortured, kept under solitary confinement for extended periods, or put before some kangaroo court like Bradley Manning. This gives you the luxury of sneering at the attempts of people who are in real danger of such things. If you were being similarly sought by the US government, I am not sure that you would feel as superior or choosy about the countries that might be willing to provide you with shelter and protection from US government persecution.

Human Rights Watch should not be in the business of sneering at people who are powerless and being persecuted by powerful governments. Isn’t human rights about prioritizing the rights of the individual over the rights of governments? At least that is what I thought I was supporting with HRW but now I am not so sure.

By all means criticize the policies of countries like China, Russia, Cuba, and Venezuela because they deserve criticism. But to use their policies to denigrate Snowden’s efforts to find safety was a cheap shot that was unworthy of you and of your organization.


Mano Singham

Let’s see what the response, if any, is.


  1. 1
    Félix Desrochers-Guérin

    Off Topic, but still related to the NSA leak:

    This is an aspect of the story that’s not talked about nearly enough. Remember HBGary Federal? Remember the (mostly illegal) shenanigans they and a few other defense contractors plotted against the US Chamber of Commerce’s political opponents as well as Wikileaks? What’s preventing an NSA contractor from putting their access to the NSA’s systems to similar use?

  2. 2

    My definition of what it means to be “anti-American” is very different from what most conservatives mean. To me, being American means upholding the ideals upon which the Constitution was written, and criticizing the government for violating those principles is a very American thing to do.

    Being anti-American is to cheer on those actions and policies which violate the Constitution.

  3. 3

    Of course HRW may go a little easy on the USA, they have Israel to beat up on. Israel is considered a surrogate for the US by HRW.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>