Albion Monitor /Commentary
[Editor's note: For related commentary, see "How the U.S. Helped Create the Disaster in Zaire" also in this edition.]

The Decay of Human Rights

by Alexander Cockburn

Human rights has shifted from the great mass movements of the 1960's and '70's to professional lobbyists funded by wealthy foundations
The human-rights movement is in a state of profound crisis, yet human-rights professionals continue blithely on as though nothing untoward had occurred. But something very untoward did occur back in 1994. The Hutu in Rwanda launched the first unquestioned genocide since the Second World War, and although it was covered by the press in horrifying detail, the human-rights community wasn't able to do a thing about it.

Three years later, the full implications of that failure should surely be sinking in.

Alex de Waal, co-director of London-based Africa Rights, makes a distinction between what he calls "primary movements" and the professional human-rights organizations that came into being in the mid-1970s. The primary movements of an earlier decade -- the U.S. civil rights movement and the women's movement, for example -- were "mass popular movements dedicated to the struggle for democratic rights," pursuing specific political principles.

By contrast, the 1975 Helsinki Accords, committing Eastern Bloc countries to respect basic human rights, engendered what de Waal calls the archetypal second-generation human-rights organization, Helsinki Watch, put together by publishers, lawyers and some civil-rights veterans. It concentrated on using the media and lobbying politicians; money came from wealthy foundations, such as Ford. The profession of human-rights activism was created, marrying legalism with journalism and political lobbying, shortcutting the erstwhile belief that it was necessary to build a mass political constituency. "Human Rights" became a career: high-profile, risk-free and commanding a professional salary.

Genocide becomes pigeonholed as "past abuses," and thus minimized, in contrast to "current abuses" about which the human-rights pros can raise their stink
The prime strategy of the human-rights pros was, in the words of Aryeh Neier, founder of Human Rights Watch, "mobilizing shame." It's a mobilization that has been yielding diminishing returns, as the jaunts of Al Gore and Newt Gingrich to China have most recently demonstrated. And of course, "human rights" had a lot more resonance in Washington in the years of the Cold War, often successfully corralled in the interests of the state.

De Waal points out that between the onset of political liberalization in 1990 and the genocide in 1994, Rwanda had "an exemplary human-rights community." There were no less than seven indigenous human-rights Non-Governmental Organizations, with allies and patrons overseas, which reported closely on the mounting waves of massacres and murders. In January of 1993, these NGOs invited an Internal Commission of Inquiry, which named some of the perpetrators. The NGOs even predicted monstrous atrocities unless something were done to curb and punish these perpetrators. "But," as de Waal says, "there was no primary movement that could underpin the activists' agenda, no political establishment ready to listen to their critique and act on it, and no international organization ready to take the measures and risks necessary to protect them."

And then, on April 6, 1994, the Hutu began their final solution, butchering the Tutsis and all critics. The United Nations took to its heels. In probably its most shameful act to date, the Clinton administration did nothing, worse than nothing, putting up Secretary of State Warren Christopher and his subordinates to say that "acts of genocide may have been committed and need to be investigated," which meant that the United States was able to evade its obligations as laid down in the 1949 Genocide Convention. The Hutus' only mistake was to encounter defeat by the Rwandese Patriotic Front.

Thus, the first indisputable genocide since that same 1949 Convention aroused no international revulsion powerful enough to compel intervention. This, after almost 20 years of human-rights professional campaigning. "Arguably," de Waal charges, "one reason is the existence of specialist human-rights institutions: responsibility for responding was seen to be theirs, not all of humanity's." Human-rights activism had been routinized, and as de Waal points out, the United Nations and most human-rights NGOs "have devoted more resources to documenting the revenge killings of Tutsi soldiers and shortcomings of the new government than they have spent in investigating the worst crime against humanity to have occurred since their creation and in bringing the killers to justice. Expression of outrage against bad prison conditions have been more consistent than outrage at genocide."

So we have human rights as "business as usual," in which genocide becomes pigeonholed as "past abuses," and thus minimized, in contrast to "current abuses" about which the human-rights pros can raise their stink. The genocide is gently waved away in the name of "reconciliation," while some human-rights pros suggest that there somehow has been a "double genocide" with blame attaching to both sides. Overall, as de Waal says, the unfortunate reality is that human-rights activism in post-genocide Rwanda has done more to encourage impunity for genocidal criminals than to bring to justice those responsible.

A reinvention of human-rights professionalism is in order. De Waal suggests that "contesting or gaining state power can be the most effective way to advance human rights" and that recognition of this fact means "abandoning the human-rights NGO as the privileged vehicle for achieving human rights." I thought about this remark on April 1, after seeing a photograph in the newspaper of Laurent Kabila addressing his rebel troops in Kisangani. Back when Kabila was campaigning with Che Guevara in the Congo in the mid-1960s, de Waal's observation about the seizure of state power would have been regarded as self-evident to the point of being trite. Maybe the wheel is turning full circle, though the human-rights professionals will cling limpet-like to their futile strategies and to their sinecures.

© Creators Syndicate

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor , 1997 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Front Page