Peter Slezkine Round table: The Two Paths that Converged in Human Rights Watch

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 HopgoodAryeh NeierBart De Sutter, and a final response from the author.

Peter Slezkine is right to note there were two different methodologies at the origin of Human Rights Watch, which began as a series of regional Watch groups. Helsinki Watch was founded foremost to protect local activists in Soviet-era Moscow, Warsaw, Prague and other Eastern Bloc countries who took up the promise of the Helsinki Accords to monitor the rights practices of their governments. They were promptly suppressed, so Helsinki Watch sought to protect them, hoping to expand the political space for them to operate and to amplify their voices in the international arena. That remains a central part of the Human Rights Watch global agenda today, because the defense of human rights is best led by domestic advocates.

However, the modern Human Rights Watch draws more from the methodology developed by Aryeh Neier in Americas Watch, which was founded two years after Helsinki Watch. It, too, worked with local activists, who often faced not only imprisonment like their Soviet-bloc counterparts but also torture, enforced disappearance and death. However, Americas Watch (and Human Rights Watch today) also deployed a quite different set of tools: global human rights standards in addition to regional ones; international humanitarian law, as a way to make sense of rights standards in a war context; rigorous on-the-ground fact-finding in highly contested situations, to demonstrate that abuses are taking place and identify those responsible; and pressure on the US government to use its influence to rein in abuses by its allies, not just its adversaries.

Over time, as Slezkine notes, this approach took on natural corollaries that are now part and parcel of the modern Human Rights Watch. We embrace all human rights—economic, social and cultural rights in addition to civil and political rights. And we have created thematic programs devoted to neglected aspects of the human rights agenda. Neier started this with programs on women’s rights and prison conditions; we now have programs on the rights of children, LGBT people, and people with disabilities, as well as the right to health, among others.

The approach also led to efforts to sway influential governments wherever they might be found, not only in Washington; and greater emphasis on United Nations mechanisms that were largely moribund during the Cold War. Researchers are now deployed as much as possible in or near the countries they cover (currently in 45 countries, covering some 90) rather than in a handful of Western cities. And we have and a correspondingly multinational staff (currently 77 nationalities among a staff of 407) and donor base (nearly 40 percent of our current $75 million in annual revenue comes from outside the United States). In addition, we cover human rights in the United States, not just to enhance our work elsewhere but as important and necessary work in its own right, focusing on immigration, criminal justice and national security issues.

There are obvious complexities in managing such a multinational organization. For all its faults, the U.S. government remains the most powerful proponent of human rights, and the Human Rights Watch base in the United States gives the organization special access to Washington. But much of the world is rightly suspicious of the U.S. government’s agenda, so Human Rights Watch is careful to maintain our independence from U.S. foreign policy (we regularly report on and criticize it) and to establish offices and working relationships in other key and emerging global capitals.

A big international organization has an easier time gaining access to policymakers, journalists and donors, but we continue to see a central part of our mission the support of domestic activists on the front line of virtually every country where we work. Simply negotiating our internal priorities—which issues are most deserving of the attention of our substantial but still finite resources—can be a challenge, because the relative importance of issues can seem quite different to staff members of varying nationalities in disparate parts of the world. Personally, I believe that managing these challenges is worth it, because the organization that results makes a stronger and more important contribution to the human rights movement than it would have if it had followed the Helsinki Watch path alone.

One past manifestation of these tensions that Slezkine notes can be found in the 2009 op-ed by Robert Bernstein criticizing Human Rights Watch for working on Israel because, in his view, we should focus on only closed, not open, societies. To begin with, one must ask if it is even appropriate to characterize Israel as an open society with respect to its abuses in Gaza and the West Bank—the focus of Human Rights Watch’s work—given that the Palestinians affected have no voice in the Israeli political system. More to the point, Bernstein’s comments make sense only in the context of the Helsinki Watch background to Human Rights Watch with which he was most associated. Even in the old days, as Slezkine points out, Helsinki Watch made a point of reporting on open societies as well, but there is no doubt that the closed societies of the Soviet bloc were its principal focus. However, from the earliest days of Americas Watch, it addressed abuses in ostensibly open societies like El Salvador or Colombia as well as closed ones like Cuba, and that approach, pioneered by Neier, has been central to Human Rights Watch ever since.

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