Peter Slezkine Round table: The Importance of Ronald Reagan’s Election

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 Stephen Hopgood, Kenneth RothBart De Sutterand a final response from the author.

Peter Slezkine does a good job describing the origins Human Rights Watch. I could quibble over a few details and points of emphasis.  In general, however, so far as it goes, his account seems to me to be accurate. In the comment that follows, I have endeavored to flesh out part of the story.

Slezkine points out that, unlike a few other early leaders of Helsinki Watch, I did not have a prior connection to the Soviet Union.  Right. My only involvement was that I had signed a couple of statements on behalf of Soviet dissenters.  Robert Bernstein called me in the Spring of 1978 to ask me to join him as a founder of Helsinki Watch at the outset of his attempt to establish of the organization because, as he made clear, he needed to be associated with someone with credibility in dealing with rights abuses in the United States to avoid having the new organization seen as a Cold War exercise.  At the time, I was Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union.  Bernstein also asked my opinion of Orville Schell.  I told him I had worked closely with Schell on domestic civil liberties issues and thought highly of him.  We agreed that he would ask Schell to join us.  Thereafter Bernstein, Schell and I met and agreed to go forward with the organization.  Soon thereafter, I announced publicly my intent to step down from my ACLU post.   Bernstein and Schell asked if I would serve as the director of Helsinki Watch, but I declined.  I told them that I was tired after fifteen years at the ACLU and preferred to take some time to teach and write.    Helsinki Watch was formed with Bernstein as Chair and Orville Schell and I as Vice Chairs.

In November 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States and quickly made it known that he would turn his back on the policy of promoting human rights associated with his predecessor, Jimmy Carter.  I then told Bernstein and Schell that I had changed my mind about directing the organization and would do so provided that we transformed it into an organization that would promote human rights worldwide.  As a first step, I proposed that we launch an Americas Watch alongside Helsinki Watch because Reagan was making it plain that Latin America was where his new policies would have most immediate effect.  At the time, a war had started in El Salvador; a long-term low intensity conflict was underway in Guatemala; the Reaganites were making it clear that they wanted to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua; and US relations with highly abusive dictatorships in Argentina, Chile and Haiti were intensely debated.  We agreed that Bernstein would continue as Chair of Helsinki Watch; Schell would become Chair of the new Americas Watch; and I would retain the title of Vice Chair of both while serving as director of the expanded organization.

As Slezkine points out, we began monitoring compliance with international humanitarian law (the laws of war) because we wanted a basis in international law to denounce abuses by the opposing sides in the conflicts in Central America.    This was first proposed by an Americas Watch board member, Robert Goldman, and I readily adopted his proposal.  It was a crucial innovation in the human rights field.   Currently, wherever armed conflicts are underway, human rights advocates look to international humanitarian law for the standards to assess the practices of combatants.

Another important innovation in the early work of Americas Watch was a focus on accountability for past abuses.  It arose from our concern with an amnesty that the Argentine armed forces purported to grant themselves in advance of a transition to democracy in 1983.  A staff member, Juan Mendez, an Argentine lawyer and a former political prisoner in his native country who has subsequently become one of the leading figures worldwide in the human rights field, led our work on the issue.  Again, it has become standard in the human rights field to make accountability for past abuses a leading concern.

Because Americas Watch often entered into conflict with the Reagan Administration, its efforts attracted far more attention in the United States and other Western countries than those of Helsinki Watch.  One consequence was to enlarge the pool of prospective financial donors to the organization.  In effect, by become our adversary, the Reagan Administration inadvertently helped us to raise the funds we needed to create Asia Watch, Africa Watch and Middle East Watch.  As we acquired the capacity to promote human rights globally, we adopted the name Human Rights Watch and gradually stopped referring to the regional Watch committees as if they were separate organizations.  I dropped the title of Vice Chair and became Executive Director.

An important way that our conflict with the Reagan Administration, particularly over Latin America, influenced our work is that it made us adopt an investigative methodology in which we placed stress on making sure that the evidentiary base for HRW’s fact-finding and advocacy was as strong as possible.  For about its first year, the Reagan Administration seemed to disdain efforts to promote human rights.  Then, it shifted course.  It began to claim it was promoting rights, but it argued with much of the non-governmental human rights movement about the facts.  It purported to see positive developments respecting rights in countries aligned with the United States and negative developments in countries aligned against the United States. In instances, when human rights organizations reported contrary information, the Reagan Administration often tried to discredit them.  A document prepared in the State Department and distributed to members of Congress claimed that the authors of a book length report we published on El Salvador had left-wing associations.  The modus operandi that we adopted early on has remained central in HRW’s work for its own sake, and has served it well.   Today the organization is more sophisticated than ever in its fact-finding.  It thrives in large part because the reliability of its fact-finding is widely recognized.

As Peter Slezkine points out, the transformation to the present day Human Rights Watch from Helsinki Watch, a small organization formed in the late 1970s to challenge the persecution of human rights monitors in Soviet bloc countries, has not been linear.  Under the leadership of my successor as Executive Director, Ken Roth, HRW not only promotes a broad array of human rights globally.  It has also become global in its operations and increasingly global in support for its work.  This has enhanced its effectiveness in an era when institutions that are exclusively American are no longer such important factors in international affairs as when we launched Helsinki Watch thirty-seven years ago.  I think the transformation to the present-day HRW has been a success story in which changing historical circumstances played an important part.  The evolution has also reflected our recognition that adverse circumstances sometimes create opportunities.

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