In January 1997, the international
human rights organization, Human Rights Watch, released its
seventh annual report on the worldwide condition of human
rights. The report, overall, finds human rights’
conditions bleak and deteriorating.
However, the organization, financed by
individuals and foundations throughout the world, also finds
reasons for hope.
According to the report, "…the
major global powers wavered in their commitment to human
rights. [They] repeatedly deferred the promotion of human
rights in the name of often dubious long-term strategies.
They allowed their quest for trade and investment
opportunities to weaken their opposition to human rights
However, the report also says that,
"[P]ressure to counter these disturbing trends built
from various quarters. A wide variety of governments worked
at the national level to hold abusive officials to account
for serious human rights offenses and at the international
level to overcome the reluctance of the major powers to
establish a permanent International Criminal Court for the
worst human rights offenders.
"The continued expansion of a
global economy, by linking consumers and manufacturers across
wide distances, spawned a growing interest in labor rights
and human rights practices of multinational corporations. And
while a burgeoning human rights movement faced repression in
many countries, this was an unfortunate testament of its
effectiveness in exerting pressure on governments to respect
international human rights standards."
So, according to the report, the
struggle for the future of humanity has become clear: it is
the major multinational corporations that now run the global
economy (and the major governmental powers that serve them)
against nearly everyone else. The report is also clear and
adamant in stating the collaboration of the major powers
(primarily the U.S., the nations of the EU, the governments
of the CIS, Japan, China, and the "tigers" of Asia)
have surrendered their roles as representatives of peoples
and have merely become agents of multinationals.
"Although few governments dared to
jettison human rights explicitly, the major powers settled
far too often in 1996 for the facade of a human rights policy
rather than a genuine effort to promote human rights,"
says the report. Why?
"Fearing a loss of trade and
investment opportunities in ‘big emerging markets,’
or resource-rich economies, the industrialized powers
continue regularly to choose profit over principle when asked
to apply human rights standards universally."
In case after case, the report
documents how governments of industrialized nations mouth
fine words, and then act (or fail to act) in the face of
massive and heinous human rights abuses. No major government
is spared, least of all the government of the U.S. On Bosnia,
it cites President Clinton for caving in and forcing a bogus
"election" so that he could claim progress as an
international expert in his own re-election campaign. In
Haiti, the report says, the Clinton administration helped to
cover up the close relationship between the U.S. Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA) and various members of the
murderous coup of 1991-94. It also scores the CIA for failing
to declassify information on the notorious Battalion 3-16 in
Honduras and on CIA involvement in Guatemala and elsewhere.
The report also describes how the U.S.
administration talked about democracy in Eastern Europe and
the former Soviet Union, but "it ignored electoral
violations and fraud and remained silent about other human
rights abuses to ensure that certain friendly governments
remained in power."
In China, "Human rights [as
evidenced by the Clinton administration] took a back seat to
the commercial and strategic interests in the U.S. The
administration’s 1994 ‘delinking’ of trade and
human rights was thus taken a step further, and President
Clinton abandoned any possibility of using U.S. political or
economic leverage with Beijing to exert pressure on human
Even in the U.S., the report assails
Clinton for allowing and contributing to an attack on
fundamental human rights that most citizens—in the
industrialized world at least—have too often taken for
"[P]olitically popular proposals
made by Congress and the White House contributed to the
accelerated erosion of basic due process and human rights
protections in the United States. Despite his public
proclamations of support of civil and human rights, President
Bill Clinton displayed a startling lack of will to preserve
rights under attack, and in some cases took the lead in
eliminating human rights protections," the report says.
Though the report is correctly firm in
coming down on the Clinton administration and U.S. human
rights policy, it does so only because the U.S. is the
wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world and bears
the heavy responsibility of those facts. There isn’t a
single nation or national leader in the industrialized world
that does not receive harsh—and equally
justified—treatment. The governments and leaders of
Germany, the UK, France, Russia, China, Japan, Indonesia, and
Central and South America are cited numerous times for acts
of omission and crimes of commission, usually at the behest
of the global economic agenda of free, unregulated markets
and short-term profits.
The report does not spare despotic
governments in the developing world or major international
institutions, including various United Nations agencies, the
World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. But this is
not a "pox on all your houses" strategy. The
overwhelming (and carefully documented) truth of the matter
is that the idea of human rights is in a worldwide decline.
The ultimate value, and horror, of this book is admitting to
Where is the hope then? In at least two
places, according to the report. First, there are numerous
individual instances of governments, individuals, and
nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that have stood up to
the tsunami of the global economy and the mantra of putting
profits before people.
In South Africa, it cites the efforts
of the National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation. In
India, it finds improved behavior on the part of the
government in addressing communal violence. In Guatemala, it
reminds us of the peace treaty just signed between the
government and guerrillas, ceasing a 35-year-long civil war
initiated and funded by the U.S.
In South Korea, it notes that two
former presidents were convicted on charges of mutiny,
treason, and corruption. It bends over backwards to say that,
in Indonesia, 20 soldiers convicted of human rights abuses
were convicted of violating military procedures. It also
notes a number of other individual cases, as well as
successful NGO actions, and things like two East Timor
activists receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.
Equally important—possibly even
more important—in a section entitled "Labor Rights
and the Global Economy"—the report gives global
economics a central place in the human rights equation and
states that labor rights are, in fact, human rights.
Later on, in a section on corporations
and human rights, the report also looks at the power
imbalance that exists as corporations virtually ignore the
interests of their workers and the communities in which they
are located, always bowing at the altar of increasing
Despite increasing international
pressure from unions, NGOs, and community groups (and
occasionally governments), corporations usually do what they
want. "[W]ith billions of dollars worth of investment
and profits at stake, most of the business community
resist[s] pressure," the report says. But the good
news—if it can be called that—is that in this
report, the battle, as bad as it is going, is clearly
reported. That is no small feat and Human Rights Watch should
be congratulated for its work.
It has created a report that is
generally well structured. After an introduction that
summarizes the entire volume, five chapters give more
detailed reports from various geographical regions in the
world: Africa, the Americas, Asia, Helsinki (Europe, the
Balkans, Turkey, and the CIS), and the Middle East. Seventy
countries are included in these regions, and the geographical
reports make up the bulk of the book.
The book also contains a number of
additional sections that demonstrate that Human Rights Watch
is continually expanding and refocusing its mission. One
section is devoted solely to the United States, which claims
to lead the world in the human rights struggle. Without
vitriol, with plain facts, the U.S. is revealed as the
world’s leading hypocrite.
The HRW Arms Project also receives
special treatment. It shows how the members of the UN
Security Council have a virtual monopoly on the worldwide
arms trade and notes that the governments of the United
States and Russia continue to lead the pack in the business
of selling organized violence for profit.
HRW has started a Women’s Rights
Project and Children’s Rights Project, forcefully
pushing for the notion that no human beings can be excluded
from a human rights campaign. Other special initiatives cited
in the report include: prisons, corporations and human
rights, drugs and human rights, freedom of expression,
academic freedom, lesbian and gay rights, legal advocacy and
standards, congressional casework, and even a summary of the
HRW International Film Festival. Clearly, the organization is
redefining its view of the words "human" and
There are some problems with this
report and they are deep and fundamental. The problems are
both of language and structure. The language tends toward
bureaucrateze, almost what Orwell calls "newspeak."
It is filled with abbreviations, summaries, and "on the
one hand, on the other hand" types of arguments. This
volume too often reads like a legal brief or academic
The vast majority of space is given to
official organizations, institutions and individuals,
governments, corporations, NGOs, and famous individuals.
Human passion and the human story are generally missing from
these pages. There is not enough testimony from movements and
individuals who are engaged in human rights struggles on a
day-to-day basis. The word "abuse" must be shown,
as well as told. So should the word "struggle."
[However, it should also be noted that
the book lists all of the HRW reports from 1996. These are
documents that do have direct testimony and do not shy away
from the details and realities of torture, murder, and
Another complex structural issue of the
organization must also be confronted. Where does the money
come from? Funding sources cannot be overlooked in any NGO;
in the end, funding at least influences—and often
determines—behavior. HRW receives hundreds of thousands
of dollars from the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller
Foundation. Both of these donors receive most of their income
from global corporations that have been (and are) involved in
significant human rights abuses.
Other major funders include: Phillips
Van Heusen which is involved in sweatshop and anti-union
activity in Central America; the Arthur Anderson Co., a
multinational accounting firm that often does business for
irresponsible corporations and governments that violate human
rights; Reebok, which specializes in low-paid labor;
Continental Grain Co., a multinational agribusiness that
controls much of the world grain market; Body Shop, and
Also, many communications giants are
HRW funders. These include the Washington Post (an
anti-union firm that is friendly with the U.S. government);
the New York Times (also an anti-union company
currently trying to suppress the rights of freelance
writers); Time Warner; Warner Bros.; Disney-owned Capitol
Cities/ABC (which is currently in a bitter dispute with one
of its unions); NBC (which is owned by arms giant General
Electric); CBS; the Hearst Book Group; Random House; and
American Express Publishing Co.
There are progressive funders too,
including the Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett Fund, Mike
Farrell and Shelly Faberes, Norman Lear and others. The
question is: how do the donors affect the organization? It is
unreal to pretend that they don’t.
Human Rights Watch recently faced this
question in quite concrete terms, according to a report in
the April 7 issue of the Washington, DC-based Corporate
Crime Reporter (CCR). According to CCR, Human Rights
Watch released a report in March documenting how the Phillips
Van Heusen corporation mistreats its workers in Guatemala.
Bruce Klatsky is the Chief Executive Officer of PVH and also
a board member of Human Rights Watch.
After reading a draft of the report,
Klatsky personally flew to Guatemala to attend to the
problem: PVH has been refusing to negotiate with its unions
in Guatemala for six years and has been collaborating with
the government there to break the labor organizations. Report
in hand, Klatsky ordered his local company officials to end
harassment of local union officials and to begin good-faith
bargaining with the unions.
The HRW report and Klatsky’s
action came after the U.S./Guatemala Labor Education Project
threatened to picket the HRW annual fundraiser last fall at
the New York Museum of Natural History.
U.S./GLEP project director Stephen
Coats told CCR: "Human Rights Watch should be
congratulated for its work. It is a difficult thing for any
organization, let alone a human rights organization, to
investigate allegations of abuses by a company whose CEO is
on its board of directors."
Even the watchers need watching. They
too are quite human.
Human Rights Watch, 485 Fifth Avenue,
New York, NY 10017; 212-986-1980; http://www. hrw.org