Human Rights Organizations against Human Rights

What comes to mind when you think about human rights organizations? A group of idealistic do-gooders out to save the world?  Brave keyboard warriors providing light and hope to the voiceless?  Detectives of the abyss uncovering and exposing the worst abuses from around the world? If that were the case, my own job would have been easier.

If this were the case, I would not have dozens of people emailing me and begging for help.  Why me, you might ask? Because they have reached their despair with the big human rights organizations. Unless their cases somehow end up in the press, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others of their ilk will not lift a finger to help. At best, their cases might be mentioned in some obscure report or someone might write a letter of reference for a Visa. Most of the time, they will not hear for months or at all. Unless you are in prison, there is not much glory in being a poor abused maid in some Gulf State. Unless you a Reformist supporter in Iran, there is not much home anyone will pick up your case and give you a voice in the media. Unless there is glory in it for the aforementioned human rights organizations, they will not stoop down to help you. And in the few cases when they decide to campaign in your behalf they will likely do so in a manner that underscores their self-interest, not necessarily the interests of their client.

One example of such a strategy has been what happened with Raif Badawi. On the one hand, Amnesty’s treatment of his case has propelled him to becoming a symbol of the fight for freedom in a closed off society, and an inspiration to dissidents everywhere. On the other hand, it has drawn a great deal of attention to Amnesty without moving Raif’s case forwarded in the slightest. He has since then become a political pawn.

I have been silent on this issue for a year, hoping that AI would escalate its activities to the point that it would actually start making a difference or else change a strategy to something more conducive to benefiting Raif rather than merely engaging in self-promotion. Alas, a year later, Raif is still in prison, and was on a hunger strike for weeks, until he was forced to eat and drink,  in a more isolated situation, ans AI is reaping the benefits of donations. So where exactly did the organization go wrong?

Let’s see: with all the media attention this case garnered, the rallies AI organized in various cities around the world only brought in a couple dozen people each, usually the same ones, week after week. While I admire their stalwart dedication, that is not nearly enough to send the message to Saudis about how much Raif and what he stands for means to people around the world. NO rallies were organized in the US, and certainly not in cities like NY and DC, where rallies are very easy to organize, and where masses of people will go out to demonstrate for just about any cause.

In some ways, this type of publicity may have hurt Raif’s case.  Saudi Arabia was bent on not taking orders from an NGO, and once it perceived that AI’s focus was on promoting its “cause”, the case became less of a human rights issue and more of a political issue, which never should have happened vis-a-vis the organization (though of course, it was from the start a very politically charged situation). Nor has anything changed in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else in the world as a result of this approach. No dictator was shamed into taking it down a notch; no activist caught a lucky break; no law was enacted protecting those dissidents and human rights defenders who need it the most. There was a year of outrage and emotional discussions, with no results. I am not blaming the human rights organizations for failing to liberate one famous prisoner or to enact internal change from the outside. I am, however, pointing out that for these organizations, what is considered a human rights case was more about themselves, than about human rights.

Raif Badawi’s case is the one we know.  What about countless others? Rather than going by anecdotal evidence, let’s ask ourselves the following: how many prisoners of conscience have been released as a result of activity by human rights organizations? How many dissidents have received support? How many laws have been changed? How many Western governments have enacted sanctions or engaged in diplomatic talks targeting specific individuals or conditions? What has been done and what results have been achieved?

Freedom Now, one of the more transparent organizations in this field, keeps itself focused on a specific type of prisoners in specific countries, meeting particular sets of criterias. It is a small organization, so understandably has to be selective, and yet it shows a list of results on its page. Whatever you think of its criteria, methods, or results, at least you know what they are. In the future, I will be doing a lot more specific digging to answer each of the questions I have currently raised and encourage you to do the same. However, simple lack of accountability and/or incompetence, issues endemic to the NGO world in general, are not the worst issues with human rights organizations.

What is much worse is blatant hijacking of their true purpose of defending universal values by assorted political agendas, biases, and frankly, criminal misuse of their budget and our attention, that actually damages the field of human rights and serves the violators rather than the victims. In 2012, an investigative report exposes Amnesty’s obfuscation of government funding, hidden as well as overt anti-Israel agenda, which included hiring an anti-Israel activist to work in its Iarael/Occupied Palestinian Territories, in contradiction to its own principle of impartiality, disproportionate number of human rights reports targeting Israel, and even firing a women’s rights activist for the crime of uncovering unsavory ties to Taliban.

Lest my readers think that I am on a personal vendetta against AI, you will see that Human Rights Watch actually suffers from the same problems – unabashed and shameless anti-Israel bias adorned in a wreath of lies, fundraising corruption, and lack of credibility, which caused Richard Bernstein, its founder to condemn his own organization a few years ago. Not much has changed since 2009. Only a few days ago, Human Rights Watch report called for sanctions against Israel over settlements. Yet when Israel was attacked by Hamas in 2014, and Hamas used its own civilians forced to remain in  UNRWA shelters as human shields, Ken Roth went out of his way to defend Hamas and attack Israel. Lest you think that I only care for disregard for the truth, sickening lack of concern for human lives (of either side, actually), double standard, and bias when it comes to Israel, similarly disputable coverage has been very recently applied to Kurds in an Amnesty report, based off satellite imagery of ruined villages but without really investigating the matter (which, in truth, cannot be investigated with full accuracy in the current circumstances of the conflict).

However, these two major human rights watchdogs of reporting are not the only organizations that engage in questionable tactics. Human rights organizations in Israel are all somehow remarkably anti-Israel and by sheer coincidence, largely funded by EU and other countries.  Their condemnations of Israel’s alleged use of “collective punishment” (or self-defense measures they somehow consider collective punishment) ignores historical necessity of such measures when citizens of a country were in danger, with the most obvious example being France during World War II. And as Eric Posner, writes in The Guardian, despite much promise there has been little evidence of the effectiveness of the human rights movement, and other ways of addressing these issues should be considered.

Lack of consensus on what constitutes or should constitute human rights contributes to the problem. Posner recommends implementing an empirical rather than ideological approach to combating violations against civilians in countries around the world. His method, however, would strike at the heart of corrupt agenda-driven organizations and force transparency where currently there is none. Indeed, some of the measures these organizations undertake seem not only unhelpful, but rather harmful to the lives of human beings they purport to defend. Take, for instance, Amnesty’s advocacy on behalf of legalizing sex trade, which would serve to facilitate human trafficking, largely of helpless women and children, around the world (thanks to Kaveh Taheri for the lead). The same organization has sponsored as a speaker, a 9/11 and Holocaust denier, homophobe, and anti-Semite, conveniently, all wrapped up into one hate-filled activist.

It is not just the major international-minded organizations that suffer from such problems. Iranian human rights organizations are inundated with regime mouthpieces, who as many non-Reformist sources allege, do nothing more than produce reports, which distort the histories of minorities in the region, ignore the plight of individuals, hold back reports of dissidents that fail to conform to pro-regime agendas, and villify anyone who dares to expose their activities. Rahim Hamid’s report  uncovers the sordid reality behind the alleged human rights organizations such as Iranian Human Rights Documentation Center, which appear to promote views driven by the regime’s agenda and focus on politicizing history rather than supporting individual dissidents. One can see from pro-Reformist human rights websites such as Iranwire and Iran Human Rights, that only pro-Reformist dissidents are promoted and other voices are ignored and suppressed. It appears that many of the so-called human rights activists are less concerned with helping those in need and more interested in bolstering their own importance at best.

A number of individuals from assorted ethnic and social backgrounds have complained about inability to get even a kind ear from any of these major networks, much less financial aid, advocacy, or any other type of assistance. Secularists are woefully underrepresented.  they are not considered a separate special category; they are not viewed as a religious minority; their stories are met with skepticism and demands fot the kind of evidence people in such situations are not able to produce. Many secularists, humanists, atheists, and agnostics, who would be considered apostates subject to communal abuse and governmental death penalty in a number of Muslim majority countries, are forced to keep silent about their views, because they are simply too few to fight for their rights effectively, dispersed, weak, and likely to end up dead long before they can raise any sort of awareness. Expecting evidence of severe abuse before providing them with assistance is cruel and inhumane, yet that is the kind of reaction they generally elicit, or else, outright indifference. Cases of someone who simply chose to move away from religion and does not wish to practice a restrictive form of ritualism are not dramatic or eye catching or likely to win you any accolades in the media.

Though a number of smaller organizations have emerged that has been providing cybersecurity training, free VPN access, and other services for dissidents in danger zone, overall lives of individuals suffering in terrible circumstances remain of secondary importance to meeting quotas.. Excessive rigidity of such organizations as Freedom House has earned it ill reputation in such countries as Egypt, where many of its would-be beneficiaries have been literally endangered by some of the internal demands and regulations. Likewise, some heartbreaking appeals from Afghanistan are not likely to be met for the same reasons. Yet these are some of the only avenues available in terms of help from Western NGOs to serve many people, who with no access to outside support or help, are often precluded from engaging in daring actions that would facilitate positive change in their own countries. Worse still, organizations that reject assistance and voice to “smaller” cases or cases that do not fit into pre-conceived agendas that are likely to score these organizations any political points play right into the hands of terrorists, evil regimes, and hopelessly biased communities that have driven these people to despair and near doom.

Needless to say, same organizations fail to mobilize their vast resources to advocate on behalf of relocating particularly vulnerable target groups, such as Yazidis, Syrian ans Iraqi Christians, and others. Though they may produce an occasional critical report of someone like Erdogan when his monthly quota for massacring Kurds reaches the socially acceptable limit, there is no carping against some of the world’s worst violators, who also happen to be particularly powerful – here is looking at you, China/Tibet. When’s the last time you have heard a peep from the international human rights community on this issue? And let’s not even discuss Central Asian and African countries, which no longer appear to be on the map. Does anyone here realize that the bloodbath in Darfur is still ongoing? And how many of us would know, just by listening to the same human rights organization that Mauritania still has slavery, and worse still that there has just been a violent clampdown on anti-slavery activists?

There is no shortage of human rights issue that require constant reporting, constant pushing, constant highlighting, media attention and advocacy. These organizations not only fail all these issues by devoting the disproportionate amount of attention to covering the minutiae of Israel’s alleged wrongdoings, but even with respect to scrutinizing the region fails to uncover issues of greater significance, such as the torture of Palestinian journalists… by Palestinians. Not a peep about that one. And have we forgotten about Russia, Ukraine (the abduction and show trial of the Ukrainian pilot Natalia Savchenko), ethnic cleansing by Russians in Georgia?

I can already here critical voices accosting me for politicizing human rights just so I could kvetch about the unfair treatment of Israel. Fair enough. I generally hate when overgrown self-serving bullies gang up on a small state for no reason, and I will be vocal in voicing my displeasure…. but regardless of my concern for the disgusting treatment of Israel by these self-appointed watchdogs, the other questions remain just as valid and there are countless voices I could bring in to bear witness as to their poor treatment and lack of concern for their fate. Providing cover for evil regimes under the guise of concern for Palestinians actually does not serve anyone well.  It merely provides human rights organization with a self-perpetuating excuse to pay lip service to human rights in other places, to shy away from assisting individuals, and particularly liberal human rights defenders in need, from exposing corporate violators that contribute to human rights abuse around the world, from exposing little-known issues, and from what new actors on the scene are doing with a fraction of their budget — coming up with creative and disruptive solutions that utilize talents from a variety of backgrounds such as crowdsourcing human rights.

Meanwhile Palestinian “refugees” remain in horrid conditions in a number of Arab countries, though normally refugees are absorbed within a generation.  This failure to address such a critical issue, however, plays into the hands of dictators that use this abysmal human rights situation within their own borders to shift the onus of responsibility for their own contribution to racism and whatnot to Israel.  Which, at the end of the day, contributes to these watchdogs’ raison d’etre, gives them something to talk about and make themselves feel important.

Some of the people I have become very close with overtime are refugees in Turkey. They have fled their hateful regimes and live from day to day with the hope of eventually being able to start a productive life in a decent country. They face xenophobia, discrimination, poverty, severe lack of opportunity, and isolation on a daily basis. These people are not cowards, not terrorists, not anti-Western ideologues, not hatemongers, and not parasites. Their fate remains ignored; no human rights organization gives them voice, no one wishes to work with them or to provide them with basic assistance, such as emergency medical needs after all the trauma they have undergone.  What about them? Why are they not worthy of our attention, of our  – even just moral – support? Why are their voices not being heard in the media?  Where are their advocates? The big international human rights groups have the resources, the connections, and the credibility, yet they shift that burden to individual volunteers with no backing, who have to start off from scratch.

This article is my J’accuse to human rights organizations, who have failed so many, with deliberate, willful blindness, indifferences, biases, and corrupted practices. I accuse these organizations for turning away where they could be helpful. I accuse them from ignoring the Yazidis, the Kurds, the Christians, the Bahais, the secularists, the refugees in Turkey and Malaysia who live without even the most basic of rights for years, for failing the men, the women, and the children, from every corner of the world. I accuse these human rights organization of deafening silence in the face of so many individuals crying out for help, for attention, for kindness, for a chance.

I accuse these organizations of diverting from their mission, of assisting the culpable, of lending moral support to the enemy, of making a mockery of their own missions. I accuse them of hijacking human rights movement and turning it into a political playing field where agendas, ego, and caprices are having a free for all, while the innocent suffer. I accuse these human rights organization of facilitating the widespread ignorance,  of contributing to the confusion, and even giving credence to the murderers of the innocent. I stand in accusation of these human rights organizations who have no issue with Israeli children being murdered in cold blood and of Palestinian civilians dying needlessly for the sake of feeling self-righteous. I accuse these human rights organizations of acting from a place of hatred, rather than a place of love. I accuse them of hiring self-absorbed spoiled jerks, for whom human rights are just a pastime, or an ideological outlet. I accuse these human rights organizations of ignoring pain, suffering, turning their backs on the very people they claim to represent.

I am asking them: whose side are you really on?

As far as I see, many, if not most human rights organizations appear to be against human rights, at least the way they are acting now, with reckless disregard for the consequence of their one-sided, narrow-minded reporting and failure to uncover and advocate for deeply disturbing issues of which, unfortunately, there is no shortage.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.
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