The Bias of Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch

Over the past thirty years, Human Rights Watch has be­come one of the most re­cog­nized non-​governmental or­gan­iz­a­tions in the world due to its global pro­mo­tion of human rights. But des­pite its claims to be an ad­vocate of in­ter­na­tional human rights law, the re­ports is­sued by Human Rights Watch over the past decade have in­creas­ingly ex­hib­ited a bias to­wards cer­tain rights over others. More pre­cisely, Human Rights Watch re­peatedly fo­cuses on polit­ical and civil rights while ig­noring so­cial and eco­nomic rights. As a result, it routinely judges na­tions throughout the world in a manner that fur­thers cap­it­alist values and dis­credits gov­ern­ments seeking so­cialist al­tern­at­ives. It is this bias that lies at the root of Human Rights Watch’s scathing at­tacks on the gov­ern­ment of Venezuela and its re­cently de­ceased pres­ident Hugo Chávez. This bias was also evident in com­ments made in 2012 by Ken Roth, ex­ec­utive dir­ector of Human Rights Watch, when he de­clared that Venezuela is “the most ab­usive” na­tion in Latin America.

According to Human Rights Watch’s mis­sion state­ment, “Human Rights Watch is ded­ic­ated to pro­tecting the human rights of people around the world” and in order to achieve that ob­jective “We chal­lenge gov­ern­ments and those who hold power to end ab­usive prac­tices and re­spect in­ter­na­tional human rights law.” The in­ter­na­tional human rights law re­ferred to by Human Rights Watch is rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was passed by the UN General Assembly in 1948. The Declaration en­com­passes polit­ical, civil, so­cial, eco­nomic and cul­tural rights.

Capitalist na­tions, par­tic­u­larly the United States, have never been com­fort­able with the art­icles of the UN Declaration that re­quire gov­ern­ments to guar­antee the so­cial and eco­nomic rights of their cit­izens. Among the so­cial and eco­nomic rights that con­tra­vene cap­it­alist values are the right to “food, clothing, housing and med­ical care and ne­ces­sary so­cial ser­vices” (Article 25) as well as the right “to share in sci­entific ad­vance­ment and its be­ne­fits” (Article 27). In a cap­it­alist so­ciety, re­spons­ib­ility for ob­taining food, clothing, housing and med­ical care rests with the in­di­vidual not the state. Likewise, it is not the state’s re­spons­ib­ility to en­sure that all cit­izens share equally in the be­ne­fits of sci­entific ad­vance­ments de­veloped by, for ex­ample, phar­ma­ceut­ical corporations.

The United States does sup­port those art­icles in the Declaration that pro­mote civil and polit­ical rights. These rights en­sure that “All are equal be­fore the law and are en­titled without any dis­crim­in­a­tion to equal pro­tec­tion of the law” (Article 7) “Everyone has the right to own prop­erty alone as well as in as­so­ci­ation with others” (Article 17); “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, con­science and re­li­gion” (Article 18); and “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and ex­pres­sion” (Article 19). Basically, these are the in­di­vidual rights that are en­shrined in the U.S. Constitution and that lie at the root of the lib­eral demo­cratic concept of the “rule of law.” And while Human Rights Watch pro­fesses to de­fend the human rights en­shrined in the UN Declaration, in reality, its work fo­cuses ex­clus­ively on the civil and polit­ical rights re­cog­nized by the U.S. government.

A vivid ex­ample of Human Rights Watch’s bias against eco­nomic and so­cial rights is the re­port the or­gan­iz­a­tion is­sued im­me­di­ately fol­lowing the death of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez. Human Rights Watch had long had an ant­ag­on­istic re­la­tion­ship with the Venezuelan leader, which was touched upon in the re­port. The re­port clearly re­flected the view of the organization’s ex­ec­utive dir­ector Ken Roth that Venezuela (along with Bolivia and Ecuador) is “the most ab­usive na­tion” in Latin America. One only need take a quick look at Human Rights Watch’s re­ports on Colombia to il­lus­trate the ludicrous­ness of such a statement.

Under the title, “Venezuela: Chávez’s Authoritarian Legacy,” the re­port con­tains a litany of vi­ol­a­tions of civil and polit­ical rights and not a single men­tion of the country’s im­pressive achieve­ments in eco­nomic, so­cial and cul­tural rights. The re­port opens by stating, “Hugo Chávez’s pres­id­ency (1999 – 2013) was char­ac­ter­ized by a dra­matic con­cen­tra­tion of power and open dis­regard for basic human rights guar­an­tees.” The latter part im­plies a basic dis­regard for all human rights, but the re­port goes on to focus solely on is­sues re­lated to civil and polit­ical rights. If the Chávez gov­ern­ment had in­deed dis­reg­arded all basic human rights as sug­gested by Human Rights Watch, then how does one ex­plain the country’s re­mark­able suc­cesses en­suring that all cit­izens re­ceive ad­equate food and housing as well as free health­care and edu­ca­tion; all of which con­sti­tute guar­an­tees of eco­nomic, so­cial and cul­tural rights.

Not only does Venezuela now provide free edu­ca­tion — in­cluding at the uni­ver­sity level, where stu­dents can learn the country’s various in­di­genous lan­guages — but its pro­grams, ac­cording to UNESCO, have res­ulted in the country be­coming an “illiteracy-​free” na­tion and post-​secondary en­rol­ments doub­ling over the past decade. And as for the basic right to food, a re­cent re­port is­sued by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) stated, “We ana­lyze hunger stat­istics all over the world. There are 800 mil­lion people in the world who suffer from hunger, 49 mil­lion in Latin America and the Caribbean, but not one of them is Venezuelan.” Perhaps the government’s most im­pressive overall achieve­ment with re­gard to so­cial and eco­nomic rights has been the astounding de­cline in the number of Venezuelans living in poverty, from 55 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion when Chávez was first elected in 1998 to 18 per­cent in 2011.

These achieve­ments have res­ulted from state-​funded pro­jects, called “mis­sions,” that are de­vised, im­ple­mented and eval­u­ated at the com­munity level by more than 16,000 com­munal coun­cils in what con­sti­tutes an im­pressive ex­ample of par­ti­cip­atory demo­cracy. But Human Rights Watch does not make a single ref­er­ence to any of these achieve­ments in so­cial and eco­nomic rights, or with re­gard to the polit­ical rights en­joyed by the mil­lions of cit­izens par­ti­cip­ating in the com­munal coun­cils. All of these ex­amples con­tra­dict Human Rights Watch’s claim that the Chávez gov­ern­ment was “char­ac­ter­ized by a dra­matic con­cen­tra­tion of power and open dis­regard for basic human rights guarantees.”

Venezuela is far from per­fect and, as is the case with all other na­tions, vi­ol­a­tions of human rights do occur. However, Human Rights Watch’s se­lective high­lighting of a handful of cases re­lated only to civil and polit­ical rights im­plies wide­spread human rights ab­uses per­pet­rated against the pop­u­la­tion. This ap­proach ob­scures the fact that the over­whelming ma­jority of Venezuelans are now, for the first time, en­joying eco­nomic, so­cial and cul­tural rights to a de­gree that few cit­izens in the world have ever experienced.

Not only does Human Rights Watch focus solely on civil and polit­ical rights, but it does so by ap­proaching human rights from the per­spective that all things glob­ally are equal. In other words, it does not ac­count for the grossly un­equal power dy­namics that exist in a global so­ciety dom­in­ated by wealthy im­per­i­alist na­tions in the global North. Among the al­leged civil and polit­ical rights vi­ol­a­tions in Venezuela ad­dressed in the Human Rights Watch re­port are is­sues re­lated to the per­se­cu­tion of polit­ical op­pon­ents, press freedom, ju­di­cial in­de­pend­ence and human rights scrutiny.

One of the cases Human Rights Watch high­lights to il­lus­trate the Chávez government’s per­se­cu­tion of the polit­ical op­pos­i­tion is that of Osvaldo Alvarez Paz. In March 2010, Alvarez Paz was ar­rested for state­ments he made during an in­ter­view on one of the country’s largest privately-​owned tele­vi­sion net­works. As Human Rights Watch noted, Alvarez Paz stated that “Venezuela has turned into a center of op­er­a­tions that fa­cil­it­ates the busi­ness of drug traf­ficking” and then ac­cused “Chavez of being a sub­versive ele­ment and having direct links with FARC and ETA [groups viewed as ter­ror­ists by much of the in­ter­na­tional com­munity].” Alvarez Paz was charged with con­spiracy, spreading false in­form­a­tion, and pub­licly in­citing vi­ol­a­tion of the law.

While there are le­git­imate con­cerns re­lated to the ar­rest of Alvarez Paz, Human Rights Watch’s biased por­trayal of the issue ig­nored the broader con­text by failing to men­tion that Alvarez Paz made his agenda clear to all a couple of months after the tele­vi­sion in­ter­view in a column he wrote in El Nacional, one of Venezuela’s largest daily news­pa­pers. In his op-​ed piece, Alvarez Paz called on Venezuelans to oust the Chávez gov­ern­ment as soon as pos­sible by em­phas­izing the need “to be clear about the in­dis­pens­able ob­jective. To re­place the cur­rent re­gime with as little delay and as little trauma as pos­sible.” It was pre­cisely this sort of in­cen­diary rhet­oric dis­sem­in­ated through the elite-​owned private media that played an in­stru­mental role in the mil­itary coup that tem­por­arily over­threw Chávez in April 2002.

Human Rights Watch’s de­pic­tion of the Alvarez Paz case sug­gested that there was little space for high-​profile polit­ical op­pon­ents to cri­ti­cize the gov­ern­ment. However, the re­port failed to men­tion that op­pos­i­tion pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates Manuel Rosales (2006) and Henrique Capriles (2012) re­peatedly verb­al­ized harsh cri­ti­cisms of Chávez during their elect­oral cam­paigns without fa­cing any re­per­cus­sions. Human Rights Watch also failed to note that the op­pos­i­tion used Chávez’s own con­sti­tu­tion against him by or­gan­izing a re­call ref­er­endum in 2004 without being per­se­cuted. And, in all of these cases, most private media out­lets, both print and tele­vi­sion, openly backed the opposition.

Nevertheless, Human Rights Watch also slammed the Chávez gov­ern­ment for re­stricting press freedom. The organization’s re­port high­lights the case of the privately-​owned tele­vi­sion channel RCTV be­cause the gov­ern­ment re­fused to renew the network’s broad­cast li­cense upon ex­pir­a­tion. But Human Rights Watch failed to point out that RCTV was dir­ectly in­volved in the mil­itary coup that tem­por­arily ousted Chávez in 2002 and that this act of sub­ver­sion was the reason the station’s broad­cast li­cense was not re­newed. Furthermore, it is evident to anyone who has spent any time in Venezuela that there is no other gov­ern­ment in the world that en­dures the in­tense cri­ti­cism — and blatant slander — that routinely em­an­ates from the private media in Venezuela.

Human Rights Watch views the Venezuelan government’s re­fusal to renew RCTV’s broad­cast li­cense as a vi­ol­a­tion of the civil rights of the private in­di­viduals who own the sta­tion. And herein lies a fun­da­mental problem that il­lus­trates how Human Rights Watch’s ap­proach is in­com­pat­ible with a so­cialist al­tern­ative to cap­it­alism. By pri­or­it­izing civil and polit­ical liber­ties, Human Rights Watch en­sures that the wealthy have the same rights as the poor, which sounds ra­tional and fair in theory, but is ser­i­ously prob­lem­atic in reality.

From a so­cialist per­spective, the fin­an­cial gains made by the wealthy dir­ectly result from the ex­ploit­a­tion of the poor; in other words, they result from vi­ol­ating the eco­nomic and so­cial rights of the poor. Therefore, the de­fense of the civil and polit­ical rights of a minority of elites is in­ex­tric­ably linked to vi­ol­a­tions of the eco­nomic and so­cial rights of the poor ma­jority. And in the case of the wealthy owners of RCTV, not only are they among the wealth­iest people in Venezuela, but they were using their grossly dis­pro­por­tionate de­gree of in­flu­ence over the pop­u­la­tion that res­ulted from owning a major tele­vi­sion net­work in an ef­fort to bring down the gov­ern­ment in order to pre­serve their priv­ileged status.

In cap­it­alist na­tions, wealthy owners of private media have little mo­tiv­a­tion to chal­lenge a gov­ern­ment that de­fends their priv­ilege. But in a so­cialist na­tion, such owners use their vast media re­sources, not to in­form the pop­u­la­tion, but to de­fend their own per­sonal priv­ilege by un­der­mining the gov­ern­ment at every op­por­tunity. And this has been the modus op­erandi of most private media out­lets in Venezuela — a con­text that Human Rights Watch will­fully ig­nores in its con­dem­na­tion of the Chávez gov­ern­ment. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch’s re­port failed to note the in­flu­ence of powerful for­eign im­per­i­alist forces, which was re­vealed in de­clas­si­fied U.S. State Department doc­u­ments showing that the U.S. gov­ern­ment provided $4 mil­lion in funding to anti-​Chávez journ­al­ists and media out­lets between 2007 and 2009.

Human Rights Watch ar­gues that the government’s crack­down on RCTV is part of a pat­tern of be­ha­viour that un­der­mines “plur­alism” in media cov­erage; a pat­tern that has also, ac­cording to the re­port, “ex­panded the number of government-​run TV chan­nels from one to six.” But this claim by Human Rights Watch is disin­genuous be­cause most of those state-​owned chan­nels have been made avail­able to community-​based media co­oper­at­ives so they have an outlet to broad­cast their per­spect­ives on what is hap­pening in the country. One of these tele­vi­sion chan­nels, Avila TV, reg­u­larly broad­casts pro­grams that ad­dress is­sues re­lated to gender, ho­mo­phobia and in­di­genous and Afro-​Venezuelan rights.

Apparently, Human Rights Watch only views the in­di­vidual “civil” rights of wealthy Venezuelans who wish to dom­inate broad­casting and, by ex­ten­sion, the molding of public opinion as rel­evant to media “plur­alism,” and not the “so­cial” rights en­joyed by Venezuelans throughout the country whose voices can now be heard through community-​based media. Ultimately, Human Rights Watch’s pri­or­it­iz­a­tion of civil and polit­ical rights means that everyone’s human rights are not equally pro­tected. Such an ap­proach to human rights in­ev­it­ably has the same con­sequences as that of the “rule of law” in a lib­eral demo­cracy: it de­fends an un­just status quo. As Anatole France stated in ref­er­ence to the rule of law being equally ap­plic­able to all, “The law, in its majestic equality, for­bids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

Human Rights Watch also ac­cuses Chávez and his “fol­lowers” in the National Assembly of “packing” the Supreme Court with their al­lies. But the de­cision to in­crease the number of sit­ting Supreme Court justices in 2004 was im­ple­mented ac­cording to the country’s con­sti­tu­tion, which it­self was rat­i­fied by an over­whelming ma­jority of voters in a na­tional ref­er­endum. Furthermore, Chávez served two terms in of­fice and, as pres­ident, had the rights to ap­point Supreme Court justices. Similarly, two-​term pres­id­ents in the United States ap­point Supreme Court justices that re­flect their polit­ical views, but Human Rights Watch does not ac­cuse them of “packing” the Supreme Court for polit­ical gain.

With re­gard to human rights mon­it­oring in Venezuela, Human Rights Watch slammed the Chávez gov­ern­ment for “pre­venting the Inter-​American Commission on Human Rights from con­ducting in-​country mon­it­oring of human rights prob­lems.” Again, Human Rights Watch ig­nores the broader in­ter­na­tional con­text. The Commission is part of the Organization of American States (OAS), which has longed served U.S. in­terests in Latin America. The United States had Cuba ex­pelled from the OAS in 1962 be­cause, as the res­ol­u­tion stated, so­cialism “is in­com­pat­ible with the prin­ciples and ob­ject­ives of the inter-​American system.” Not sur­pris­ingly, Chávez, as the leader of a na­tion that is trans­itioning to so­cialism, viewed the OAS as a tool of U.S. im­per­i­alism and did not re­cog­nize its le­git­imacy to judge a sov­er­eign na­tion such as Venezuela, which is pre­cisely why the country with­drew its mem­ber­ship from the Inter-​American Court and Commission.

Human Rights Watch’s re­port went on to cri­ti­cize a ruling by Venezuela’s Supreme Court re­stricting for­eign funding, par­tic­u­larly from the United States and Europe, to Venezuelan Non-​Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Once again, Human Rights Watch will­fully ig­nored the in­ter­na­tional con­text in which the U.S. gov­ern­ment has a long his­tory of funding only those sec­tors of civil so­ciety op­posed to gov­ern­ments it does not like. In re­cent years, such funding was provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to NGOs in Haiti that op­posed President Jean Bertrand Aristide, whose democratically-​elected gov­ern­ment was even­tu­ally over­thrown by the U.S. mil­itary in 2004.

The United States has a sim­ilar his­tory of funding Venezuelan NGOs, such as Súmate, whose primary ob­jective was to re­move Chávez from of­fice. The afore­men­tioned de­clas­si­fied State Department doc­u­ments re­vealed that Washington provided $40 mil­lion in funding to Venezuelan op­pos­i­tion groups between 2007 and 2009. Such ac­tions con­sti­tute blatant in­ter­fer­ence in the in­ternal politics of a sov­er­eign na­tion; an in­ter­fer­ence that is pos­sible only be­cause of the un­equal dis­tri­bu­tion of global polit­ical power that provides wealthy na­tions with suf­fi­cient wealth and power to in­ter­vene in the in­ternal af­fairs of poor na­tions under the guise of providing “aid.”

Human Rights Watch’s re­port also cri­ti­cizes the Chávez gov­ern­ment for ex­pelling from the country two Human Rights Watch em­ployees who had flown in from the United States to pub­licly launch the organization’s 2008 re­port, which con­sti­tuted a par­tic­u­larly harsh at­tack on Venezuela for vi­ol­a­tions of human rights. Upon his ar­rival in Venezuela, Jose Miguel Vivanco, the lead au­thor of the re­port and one of the two ex­pelled, stated, “We did the re­port be­cause we wanted to demon­strate to the world that Venezuela is not a model for anyone.” While Human Rights Watch was busy por­traying it­self as a victim of re­pres­sion, it re­mained ob­li­vious to the ar­rog­ance of its ac­tions. Once again, cit­izens of a country in the global South were sup­posed to tol­erate rep­res­ent­at­ives from an in­sti­tu­tion based in a wealthy na­tion of the global North en­tering their country to render judge­ment on their gov­ern­ment. It was not only the Venezuelan gov­ern­ment that took issue with the Human Rights Watch re­port, more than 100 scholars from throughout the Americas, in­cluding Noam Chomsky, signed a letter cri­ti­cizing the report’s blatantly biased cri­tique of Venezuela. The letter stated that the re­port “does not meet even the most min­imal stand­ards of schol­ar­ship, im­par­ti­ality, ac­curacy, or credibility.”

Given Human Rights Watch’s em­phasis on civil and polit­ical rights and will­ing­ness to com­pletely ig­nore so­cial and eco­nomic rights, it is not sur­prising that a so­cialist country like Venezuela would view such an or­gan­iz­a­tion as aligned with the in­terests of the U.S. gov­ern­ment, Wall Street and cor­porate America. It is this em­phasis on polit­ical and civil rights em­phas­ized by many in­ter­na­tional human rights or­gan­iz­a­tions that leads some left­ists, Marxists in par­tic­ular, to dis­miss the western human rights paradigm as a pro­moter of capitalism’s in­di­vidu­al­istic values — and as an­other tool of imperialism.

The Human Rights Watch re­port on Venezuela con­cludes by stating, “Under Chávez, Venezuela’s closest ally was Cuba, the only country in Latin America that sys­tem­at­ic­ally represses vir­tu­ally all forms of polit­ical dis­sent. Chávez iden­ti­fied Fidel Castro — who headed Cuba’s re­pressive gov­ern­ment until his health de­teri­or­ated in 2006 — as his model and mentor.” Clearly, Human Rights Watch at­tempted to dis­credit Chávez by linking him to Fidel Castro. In order to achieve this, Human Rights Watch again had to limit its defin­i­tion of human rights to civil and polit­ical rights. And again, the de­gree of cor­rel­a­tion between the U.S. government’s em­phasis on civil and polit­ical rights in Cuba and that of Human Rights Watch is uncanny.

Nowhere in its Cuba re­ports does Human Rights Watch ac­know­ledge the country’s huge achieve­ments in guar­an­teeing eco­nomic and so­cial rights. In spite of being sub­jected to an in­hu­mane decades-​long eco­nomic blockade by the U.S. gov­ern­ment, Cuba has suc­ceeded in providing free health­care and edu­ca­tion to all of its cit­izens as well as en­suring that everyone’s basic housing and food needs are met. But as with its ana­lysis of Venezuela, the pro­vi­sion of these eco­nomic and so­cial rights to all Cubans is ig­nored by Human Rights Watch.

Some may argue that Human Rights Watch fo­cuses primarily on vi­ol­a­tions of human rights rather than on achieve­ments, and this is the reason that its re­ports do not re­flect the re­mark­able suc­cesses of Venezuela and Cuba in guar­an­teeing eco­nomic and so­cial rights. However, such an ar­gu­ment does not hold up when the organization’s re­ports on the United States are ana­lyzed. Nowhere in its re­ports does Human Rights Watch ac­cuse the U.S. gov­ern­ment of ex­hib­iting an “open dis­regard for basic human rights guar­an­tees” due to gross vi­ol­a­tions of eco­nomic and so­cial rights res­ulting from not en­suring ad­equate food, housing and health­care for its en­tire population.

According to a 2009 study pub­lished by re­searchers from Harvard Medical School, some 45,000 people die an­nu­ally in the United States due to a lack of med­ical cov­erage. The study also noted that people without health cov­erage had a 40 per­cent greater chance of dying than those with med­ical in­sur­ance. Meanwhile, there are more than half-​a-​million home­less people and, ac­cording to the non-​profit Feeding America, 17 mil­lion hungry chil­dren in the United States. The fact that Human Rights Watch routinely ig­nores these vi­ol­a­tions of the eco­nomic and so­cial rights en­shrined in the UN Declaration high­lights the blatant bias in the organization’s approach.

In con­clu­sion, the re­peated failure of Human Rights Watch to pri­or­itize eco­nomic, so­cial and cul­tural rights on par with civil and polit­ical rights, along with its re­fusal to con­tex­tu­alize human rights within the grossly un­equal and im­per­i­alist power struc­tures that dom­inate global politics, has re­duced the or­gan­iz­a­tion to little more than an ad­vocate of cap­it­alist values. Human Rights Watch re­fuses to re­cog­nize the ways in which a human rights paradigm rooted in cap­it­alist values (i.e. only civil and polit­ical rights) may not be suited to coun­tries searching for a so­cialist al­tern­ative in their struggle to lib­erate them­selves from cen­turies of im­per­i­alism. After all, coun­tries such as Venezuela and Cuba are forced to exist in a global con­text in which the most powerful na­tion on earth is using all of its re­sources to un­der­mine them, not in the name of demo­cracy or human rights, but be­cause they dare to chal­lenge the he­ge­mony of the United States by pro­moting al­tern­ative models.

The point here is not to sug­gest that Venezuela does not vi­olate human rights, ob­vi­ously it does; as does every gov­ern­ment. The point is to il­lus­trate how Human Rights Watch’s bias dra­mat­ic­ally dis­torts the human rights reality in Venezuela where every Venezuelan en­joys eco­nomic and so­cial rights to a greater de­gree than vir­tu­ally everyone else on the planet. It is only through the cal­lous ig­noring of these par­tic­ular rights that Human Rights Watch can label Chávez as “au­thor­it­arian” and ac­cuse his gov­ern­ment of ex­hib­iting an “open dis­regard for basic human rights guar­an­tees.” In ac­tu­ality, the Chávez government’s focus on eco­nomic and so­cial rights has res­ulted in the emer­gence of a thriving grass­roots demo­cracy in Venezuela that is rooted in the con­cepts of par­ti­cip­a­tion and equality — in other words, a so­cialist vision of polit­ical and civil rights. Ultimately, Human Rights Watch’s se­lective and biased ap­plic­a­tion of the human rights norms en­shrined in the UN Declaration not only un­der­mines its cred­ib­ility, it also pro­motes injustice.

Garry Leech is an in­de­pendent journ­alist and au­thor of nu­merous books in­cluding Capitalism: A Structural Genocide (Zed Books, 2012); Beyond Bogota: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia (Beacon Press, 2009); and Crude Interventions: The United States Oil and the New World Disorder (Zed Books, 2006). He is also a lec­turer in the Department of Political Science at Cape Breton University.

With per­mis­sion from Counterpunch

  6 comments for “The Bias of Human Rights Watch

  1. Jane
    21 March 2013 at 12:11 pm

    Great post! I dis­agree with one sen­tence. You write, “The United States does sup­port those art­icles in the Declar­a­tion that pro­mote civil and polit­ical rights.” So based on that, one would think that the United States does sup­port Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Article 21, “(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the gov­ern­ment of his country, dir­ectly or through freely chosen rep­res­ent­at­ives. (2) Everyone has the right of equal ac­cess to public ser­vice in his country.” But this is not ac­tu­ally the case. You have to look at Article 21 to­gether with Article 2: “Everyone is en­titled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without dis­tinc­tion of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, lan­guage, re­li­gion, polit­ical or other opinion, na­tional or so­cial origin, prop­erty, birth or other status.”

    This is even clearer if we look at the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

    Article 25

    Every cit­izen shall have the right and the op­por­tunity, without any of the dis­tinc­tions men­tioned in art­icle 2 and without un­reas­on­able restrictions:

    (a) To take part in the con­duct of public af­fairs, dir­ectly or through freely chosen rep­res­ent­at­ives;
    (b) To vote and to be elected at genuine peri­odic elec­tions which shall be by uni­versal and equal suf­frage and shall be held by secret ballot, guar­an­teeing the free ex­pres­sion of the will of the electors;
    (c) To have ac­cess, on gen­eral terms of equality, to public ser­vice in his country.

    ICCPR Article 25 im­beds Article 2 within it­self. So, in other words, there is a right “to be elected at genuine peri­odic elec­tions” (Article 25) “without dis­tinc­tion of any kind, such as … prop­erty” (Article 2). The United States op­poses this polit­ical right, act­ively pro­moting through le­gis­la­tion, court de­cisions, and ex­ec­utive en­force­ment a property-​based system for being elected to of­fice. The result is this ABC news head­line: “47% of Congress Members Millionaires — a Status Shared by Only 1% of Americans” (http://​ab​cnews​.go​.com/​b​l​o​g​s​/​p​o​l​i​t​i​c​s​/​2​0​1​1​/​1​1​/​4​7​-​o​f​-​c​o​n​g​r​e​s​s​-​m​e​m​b​e​r​s​-​m​i​l​l​i​o​n​a​i​r​e​s​-​a​-​s​t​a​t​u​s​-​s​h​a​r​e​d​-​b​y​-​o​n​l​y​-​1​-​o​f​-​a​m​e​r​i​c​a​ns/).

    The United States does not ac­tu­ally pro­mote polit­ical rights. It pro­motes a system of elite cap­ture under the cloak of polit­ical rights.

    • Garry Leech
      22 March 2013 at 11:45 pm

      I did not in­tend to argue that HRW is an in­stru­ment of in­ter­na­tional cap­it­alism, be­cause as you note some of its re­ports do con­tain cri­tiques of cap­it­alism. The point I at­tempted to make was that HRW’s em­phasis on civil and polit­ical rights and ig­noring of eco­nomic and so­cial rights ends up pri­or­it­izing many of the rights pro­moted under cap­it­alism; whether or not that is HRW’s ob­jective is an issue I did not ad­dress. As you point out, HRW cri­ti­cizes the United States for vi­ol­a­tions of civil and polit­ical rights (i.e. laws that pre­vent workers from or­gan­izing). Therefore, I would argue that HRW’s ob­jective prob­ably is not to pro­mote in­ter­na­tional cap­it­alism, how­ever, its em­phasis on civil and polit­ical rights often res­ults in its per­spect­ives on many rights is­sues being sim­ilar to those of global capital.

  2. Dave.
    22 March 2013 at 10:10 pm

    I’ve said the same for years and have sub­sequently stopped reading their stuff, sim­il­arly with Amnesty. Both are very se­lective in who they cri­ti­cise, mainly the non-​west, and on the rare oc­ca­sions they have a go at western coun­tries it’s with kid gloves. Even rarer is any solid cri­ti­cism of the UK or US, wonder why? Couldn’t be be­cause they know which side their bread is buttered could it?
    They are both too deeply mired in western, cap­it­alist ‘values’ to be trusted, and I live in the UK.

  3. 24 March 2013 at 3:40 pm

    There’s a sub­stan­tial dif­fer­ence between treating al­most any so­cialist gov­ern­ment as a de facto dic­tat­or­ship and fid­dling around with the de­tails of cap­it­alism. Thus an at­tack on Walmart’s treat­ment of its em­ployees under the heading of Freedom of Association is not the same as dis­counting the re­peated elec­tion of a demo­cratic so­cialist. HRW be­haves like any or­ganic in­tel­lec­tual in the cap­it­alist he­ge­mony, fid­dling around the edges and ad­justing de­tails. It plays ap­prox­im­ately the same game as the Roman Catholic Church.

  4. 12 August 2013 at 10:43 am

    Please read my blo­g­posts of how HRW have be­haved in Thailand. They secretly sup­ported the 2006 mil­itary coup, even of­fering ad­vice to the coup makers and then re­fused to help a trade uni­onist being har­assed with Thailand’s dra­conian lese majeste law. When I pub­licly ques­tioned them they handed over con­fid­en­tial in­form­a­tion about me to the US Embassy, some­thing HRW’s chief legal counsel has ad­mitted in writing. They have also passed off ter­tiary hearsay sources as bon­afide fact in a re­port on the 2010 Bangkok Massacre.





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