Peter Slezkine Round table: The Sword and the Cross

This post is part of our round table on Peter Slezkine’s essay on the origins of Human Rights Watch from our recent issue. Please be sure to read other entries by Kenneth Roth, Aryeh NeierBart De Sutter, and the final response from the author.

Peter Slezkine’s “From Helsinki to Human Rights Watch” tilts persuasively at a key myth beloved by human right advocates, that of the ineluctable unfolding of natural law (being “in league with the cosmos,” Thomas Jefferson called it). Actually how Human Rights Watch evolved was far more the product of contingent political circumstances, and responses to them, than of some logic inherent in the enlightenment. The dilemma, as Slezkine shows, was always the lure of power—to harness it or to oppose it. The often distinctively American answer has almost always been: use it! America was just different—in 1776, 1919, 1945, 1977, 1991 and in 2001. It was the liberal superpower that could. A high degree of elite consensus about the legitimacy of national governing institutions allied to the wherewithal to try to globalize sometimes pale versions of them goes back to the founding of the Republic.

For a while in the 1980s democracy and human rights fought an internecine battle in the United States but once the Cold War ended all good (liberal) things could once again go together. The very un-American Amnesty International, built on the  “internationalist outlook,” stumbled through these years because it was constitutionally unable to grab the sword (it was left holding the cross). It feared American power like it feared American money. Human Rights Watch had no such qualms.

All of this seemed to matter until the Berlin Wall came down but in reality it never did. The rise of human rights tracks the destruction after 1968 of the European left. There was no left and right anymore, just liberals where the socialists had once been and various shades of conservatism. As there were no socialists to speak of in the United States, this appeared to be a permanent historical shift, as Francis Fukuyama pointed out. But the era of liberal hegemony was a short one. Communism was vanquished but communist states were not, empires were dismantled but post-colonial states—even pseudo-democratic ones—were not as compliant as liberals hoped.

Most of all, the non-ideological ideology of human rights—the mantra that global advocates have embedded in international law, campaigns and institutions—was now undermined by a critique that allied it with not just American power but Western power and money as a whole. Human Rights Watch has not made Amnesty International’s mistake, which was thinking it could build a global movement by reproducing a narrow set of highly liberal, individualized and secular principles in hugely diverse societies worldwide.

But Human Rights Watch is making a mistake all its own. There is no non-ideological space any longer. There is no beacon (nor city) on the hill. There are many hills and many beacons (and many global cities) and the closer you are to them the closer they seem. The Hague, London, Geneva, New York, are but a dim glow from the Pacific, Central Asia, Iraq and Syria and the Congo. The narrative of universality, the master narrative, of the one tower of babel speaking the language of human rights, is diminishing.

Human Rights Watch’s non-transparency—its own internal meeting records held secret until 2055, Slezkine says—is a sign of how much it has to learn. It is a secretive organization. By what right does it pronounce on the propriety of others from the vantage point of the torture state? It repudiates post 9/11 America and it is appalled by President Obama’s failures on human rights, but it has no membership to act as a wellspring of democratic accountability. It has money—but in this world of inequality, money is a counter-signal of integrity.

Slezkine suggests Human Rights Watch thinks it is legitimated by international law. But in a contested world that law may be stalled for a while. Human Rights Watch’s real legitimacy comes from proximity to American power, American money, and American values. This is no kind of legitimacy at all outside the United States, but it will sustain influence and even some kind of impact. Human Rights Watch’s sacred icon is not a candle in barbed wire but a blue passport.

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