Is Human Rights Watch Too Close to the US Government?

In the realm of human rights advocacy, few organizations enjoy the influence commanded by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

With outposts and contacts all over world, the New York-based NGO enjoys a reputation for assiduously chronicling human rights abuses and leveraging its political clout to hold abusers to account. HRW experts routinely testify before Congress, and HRW scholars enjoy access to a range of media outlets – from the New York Times on down to Foreign Policy In Focus.

The organization employs many courageous and conscientious researchers, but critics say its influence may come at a cost. In recent months, some activists have charged the organization with having a “revolving door” relationship with the U.S. government, which they say gives it a blind spot for abuses that originate in Washington.

It began with a May 12 letter signed by two Nobel Peace Prize Laureates and over 100 academics, journalists, and human rights activists. The letter called on the organization to end its exchange of personnel with the U.S. government, arguing that the relationship has affected HRW’s research and advocacy against human rights abuses, particularly those committed by the U.S. government.

HRW first replied to these allegations in a June 3 letter written by Kenneth Roth, the executive director of HRW, saying that these activists’ “concern was misplaced.” In a June 11 debate on Democracy Now!, HRW counsel and spokesperson Reed Brody similarly rejected the letter and said that there was “really no basis to this kind of allegation.”

On July 8, another letter was published in response to Roth and Brody’s claims. I spoke by phone recently with Keane Bhatt, the activist who initiated the original sign-on letter, about HRW’s relationship to the U.S. government and HRW’s response to these concerns.

Bhatt stresses that his answers reflect his own views and not necessarily those of his co-signatories.

Latifah Azlan: Could you first explain what a “revolving door” policy is?

Keane Bhatt: A revolving-door policy as pertains to Human Rights Watch is one in which high-level U.S. foreign policy staff – those who have crafted and executed U.S. foreign policy – are allowed into Human Rights Watch as staffers, advisory committee members, and as board members. These people can wield an enormous as influence on the priorities and advocacy of HRW.

What often happens then is that these various HRW associates go back into the foreign policy divisions of the U.S. government. They take with them the accumulated knowledge and relationships and intimate understanding of HRW’s functioning to their new positions.

The conflict of interest is immediately understandable when you see people from the State Department coming into HRW and then going back to the State Department – as is the case with Tom Malinowski, who served as the senior director of Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, then as HRW’s Washington director, and is now an assistant secretary of state for President Obama.

Or when you see people like Miguel Díaz who have had experience working for the CIA – which is easily the Western hemisphere’s largest institutional human rights violator over the past half century – spend eight years on HRW’s advisory committee before going into the State Department with the explicit objective of facilitating greater interaction between the U.S. intelligence community and NGOs like HRW. How can HRW associates be expected to not hold back in their criticisms of U.S. abuses around the world when they plan to help manage U.S. foreign policy in the future?

Latifah Azlan: How long has the “revolving door” relationship between HRW and the U.S. government existed?

Keane Bhatt: HRW was originally called Helsinki Watch. It was created in 1978 during the Cold War to scrutinize and criticize the crimes that were being committed by the USSR and its allies. That Cold War ideology has long played a role in the kinds of priorities and advocacy that HRW engages in.

In terms of concrete examples of the revolving door, I can’t really set a date as to when it began, although I discuss trends that have occurred over the past 15 years. What’s important now is that it has continued even after this letter, which was delivered to HRW’s Executive Director Kenneth Roth in May. Despite this call from Nobel Peace Prize Laureates and others, HRW has persisted in allowing this revolving door to flourish, most recently with the transition of its senior researcher, Nik Steinberg, into the State Department under UN Ambassador Samantha Power.

Latifah Azlan: Former NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana, who joined HRW’s board of directors after presiding over NATO bombing raids in Yugoslavia that HRW criticized, is one person you mention quite frequently in your letters. Aside from Solana, who else has been or is currently part of this revolving door policy?

Keane Bhatt: Well, Javier Solana is not a participant in the revolving door in a strict sense, unlike Malinowski and Díaz, who are both current and former U.S. officials. But Solana is problematic because he is a U.S.-allied war criminal. He was once the subject of HRW’s campaigns on accountability for NATO war crimes.

Yet despite the fact that he initiated an illegal war against Yugoslavia in 1999 and presided over the use of cluster munitions and atrocities like the deliberate bombing of civilian targets – including a television station, where 16 civilians were killed – Solana was awarded a membership on HRW’s board of directors.

That is particularly egregious. The Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, former UN officials, and I wrote in our most recent letter to HRW that we believe war criminals should not have any say whatsoever in the functioning of an independent human rights advocacy organization. Solana connects in a way to Tom Malinowski, because Malinowski worked as a speechwriter for Bill Clinton to promote the Kosovo intervention.

And if you look at the advisory committee for the Americas, you’ll find former U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Myles Frechette. He directed U.S. diplomacy towards Colombia under Clinton during Plan Colombia, which led to human rights catastrophes and helped militarize the entire country. It facilitated the displacement of millions of people and gave the Colombian government free reign to commit the worst human rights atrocities in the hemisphere over a decade and more. The pretense of the program was ostensibly to eradicate drugs, but what it really did was continuously provide arms, training, and cover to Colombia’s security forces. Frechette went on to serve as a lobbyist for corporations engaged in major human rights violations in the hemisphere, like Newmont Mining, Barrick Gold, Exxon-Mobil, and Texaco.

Along with Frechette is Michael Shifter, who is now at the corporate-backed think tank, the Inter-American Dialogue, in Washington, D.C. He once directed the National Endowment for Democracy’s Latin America and Caribbean program. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is financed by the U.S. government and is widely recognized to have funded destabilization efforts against various governments. There is very clear documented evidence, in the cases of Venezuela and Haiti, that the NED was financing opposition groups and helping to overthrow the democratically elected governments of both countries. It continues to fund political groups in Venezuela against Venezuelan law.

Another egregious case is Marc Garlasco, who served in the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency and was involved in bombing targets in Iraq. He was quoted on This American Life saying, “I walked out of the Pentagon. And it was a Friday. And then on Monday morning I walked into Human Rights Watch, and suddenly I’m now a human rights advocate. And got on a plane and flew to Iraq to see my handiwork.” The Washington Post offered him a sympathetic profile, but the headline was telling: “The Man on Both Sides of Air War Debate.” This is just another case of a broader phenomenon that corrupts HRW’s priorities and really diminishes its reputation worldwide.

Latifah Azlan: Sometimes HRW does pit itself against the U.S. government’s stated positions. For example, it urged the UN to endorse the Goldstone Report about Israel’s 2008-2009 war in Gaza, even as the United States tried to help Israel quash it. It has also suggested that U.S. drone strikes could violate international law.

Does the relationship between HRW and the U.S. government give these criticisms more weight? Does it at least illustrate that HRW wasn’t prevented from speaking out against the U.S. government?

Keane Bhatt: I welcome any occasion in which HRW speaks out against U.S. wrongdoing. But its condemnations are not commensurate with the severity of the human rights abuses that the U.S. commits.

And its ties to the U.S. government have caused HRW to not speak out in a variety of cases, such as the U.S.-orchestrated coup in Haiti in 2004, which we write about in our recent letter.

HRW should be seeking criminal investigations and prosecutions for Obama-era crimes like the continuation of CIA renditions and of torture – at the Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan and at an underground prison in Somalia, for example. But Tom Malinowski is now the assistant secretary of state to President Obama, and HRW has been silent on legal culpability for such violations of human rights.

Also note how timid HRW’s position is on the drone program: these strikes “could violate international law.” HRW said drone attacks have “likely killed and wounded civilians.” A principled, independent organization would describe the program for what it is: a flagrant and self-evident violation of international law. It’s a worldwide terror campaign. Consider double-tap strikes, signature strikes, the targeting of rescuers and mourners, and the killing of a 16-year-old U.S. citizen in a country not at war with the United States, far from any battlefield. Entire societies and communities are being absolutely terrorized and not knowing, from second to second, whether they or their neighbors will be vaporized.

HRW should be demanding an immediate end to the global drone assassination program. But HRW is only asking for transparency regarding the legal justifications for it. I think that if China or Russia were sending robotic airplanes to bomb anyone that their heads of state secretly classified as enemies, killing at least hundreds of innocent people, HRW would justifiably call for the immediate cessation of such a program.

In our letter we also describe our opposition to Ken Roth’s characterization of the U.S. playing “a constructive role” within the UN Human Rights Council. How can HRW both endorse the Goldstone Report while praising the actor within the Council that vigorously blocked its implementation?

The U.S. is constantly vetoing resolutions concerning Palestinian human rights, which is an extraordinarily relevant topic at present. In HRW’s first statement about the latest violence in Gaza, when at least 70 Palestinians had been killed and zero Israelis had been killed, the headline only condemned Palestinian rockets, and HRW called them war crimes. Actually lethal Israeli airstrikes, carried out with U.S.-supplied planes and weapons, weren’t called war crimes.

Latifah Azlan: But does it carry more weight when HRW does speak out?

Keane Bhatt: I don’t think the revolving door policy makes HRW’s criticisms against the U.S. government any more credible. Let’s put it this way: HRW characterizes itself as an independent, worldwide organization. If it wishes to maintain that self-description on its website, in its “About Us,” then it has to relinquish its revolving door and intimate ties to the U.S. government.

If HRW’s stated description of its work and its mission were that it is unabashedly linked to the U.S. government – that it hopes to affect U.S. policy by insinuating itself through high-level linkages into the State Department, NATO, and so on – then it is welcome to do so. But HRW can’t maintain both positions simultaneously – it cannot continue to define itself as independent and retain that revolving door into human-rights-abusing divisions of the U.S. government.

As we wrote in the letter, in 1999 HRW did speak out against NATO, urging Solana to launch “disciplinary or criminal investigations” for NATO atrocities. Solana ignored it. Solana held no one accountable for any crimes in Yugoslavia. HRW subsequently invited Solana to sit on its board. I see that as a signal to former and future human rights abusers allied to the U.S. that HRW itself understands that its protests carry no weight and are meant to be disregarded.

And that speaks more generally to the moral bankruptcy and even racism of a certain type of human rights framework within the West. HRW routinely demands that African leaders be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court, and the West’s enemies du jour can find themselves on the ICC’s docket in part as a result of such pressure. But Javier Solana can initiate NATO’s war of aggression, preside over clear war crimes, and serve on the board of directors for the world’s largest human rights group. Solana shows that if you’re a Western war criminal, you can become a distinguished fellow on foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. Nobody bats an eye.

Latifah Azlan: You’ve proposed that HRW institute a “cooling off” period of five years between when someone leaves the U.S. government and when they can join HRW. How would you respond to Reed Brody, spokesperson for HRW, who has said that that would affect very few people at the organization?

Keane Bhatt: If the cooling off period would affect very few people, then there should be no barriers or obstacles to implement our proposal.

Our suggestion is common sense, and its importance is widely recognized in a range of industries, like the financial sector. If the lobbyist for Goldman-Sachs immediately began working as an official in the Treasury Department and vice versa, people would recognize that as a breach of ethics.

But I dispute Brody’s claim that the cooling off period would affect very few people in HRW. When you think of people such as Myles Frechette, Michael Shifter, Miguel Diaz, Tom Malinowski, Nik Steinberg, Marc Garlasco, and so on, a nontrivial segment of HRW’s staff, advisory committee members, and board of directors would likely be affected.

Latifah Azlan: What is stopping HRW from implementing this policy?

Keane Bhatt: My suspicion is that HRW is under the sway of an ideology we call “American exceptionalism.” American exceptionalism basically treats the U.S. as this extraordinarily, uniquely benevolent power in the world, regardless of what it actually does. (For example, if any other government had killed half a million people in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, or half a million prior to that through economic sanctions, that government would have no credibility to opine on human rights.)

But I’d prefer not to delve into the motivation behind HRW’s refusal to implement this proposal because I’d be speculating. Reed Brody dismissed the policy as a “gimmick” when asked this question by Amy Goodman. But I think that HRW’s very refusal indicates that it is not behaving in an upright way.

Latifah Azlan: In addition to the cooling off period, what else can HRW do to restore its credibility and its independence?

Keane Bhatt: Our latest response to Kenneth Roth delineates two proposals. The first is implementing the cooling off period, which he rejected in his response to us. So we would like to reiterate its validity and its importance.

The second step, which is independent of the cooling off period, is to banish Javier Solana from sitting on its board of directors. Boards of directors at non-profit organizations are important. They set executive compensation, they have authority over hiring and firing, and they wield power over the operations of the organization. They set the parameters, the guidelines and vision for the organization. So having somebody who is responsible for war crimes to help orient the organization is extremely controversial.

These two policies in tandem will be the terrific first steps to asserting HRW’s independence.

Latifah Azlan is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy In Focus.