Groups such as Human Rights Watch have lost their way by imposing western, 'universal' standards on developing countries
For those of us who used to consider ourselves part of the human rights movement but have lost the faith, the most intriguing piece of news in 2010 was the appointment of an eminent foreign policy mandarin, James Hoge, as board chairman of Human Rights Watch.
Hoge has a huge task, and not simply because human rights violations around the world are so pervasive and egregious. Just as great a challenge is remaking the human rights movement itself.
Founded by idealists who wanted to make the world a better place, it has in recent years become the vanguard of a new form of imperialism.
Want to depose the government of a poor country with resources? Want to bash Muslims? Want to build support for American military interventions around the world? Want to undermine governments that are raising their people up from poverty because they don't conform to the tastes of upper west side intellectuals? Use human rights as your excuse!
This has become the unspoken mantra of a movement that has lost its way.
Human Rights Watch is hardly the only offender. There are a host of others, ranging from Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders to the Carr Centre for Human Rights at Harvard and the pitifully misled "anti-genocide" movement.
All promote an absolutist view of human rights permeated by modern western ideas that westerners mistakenly call "universal". In some cases, their work, far from saving lives, actually causes more death, more repression, more brutality and an absolute weakening of human rights.
Yet, because of its global reach, now extended by an amazing gift of $100m from George Soros – which Hoge had a large part in arranging –Human Rights Watch sets a global standard. In its early days, emerging from the human rights clauses in the 1975 Helsinki Accords, it was the receptacle of the world's innocent but urgent goal of basic rights for all.
Just as Human Rights Watch led the human rights community as it arose, it is now the poster child for a movement that has become a spear-carrier for the "exceptionalist" belief that the west has a providential right to intervene wherever in the world it wishes.
For many years as a foreign correspondent, I not only worked alongside human rights advocates, but considered myself one of them. To defend the rights of those who have none was the reason I became a journalist in the first place. Now, I see the human rights movement as opposing human rights.
The problem is its narrow, egocentric definition of what human rights are.
Those who have traditionally run Human Rights Watch and other western-based groups that pursue comparable goals come from societies where crucial group rights – the right not to be murdered on the street, the right not to be raped by soldiers, the right to go to school, the right to clean water, the right not to starve – have long since been guaranteed.
In their societies, it makes sense to defend secondary rights, like the right to form a radical newspaper or an extremist political party. But in many countries, there is a stark choice between one set of rights and the other.
Human rights groups, bathed in the light of self-admiration and cultural superiority, too often make the wrong choice.
The actions of human rights do-gooders is craziest in Darfur, where they show themselves not only dangerously naive but also unwilling to learn lessons from their past misjudgments.
By their well-intentioned activism, they have given murderous rebel militias – not only in Darfur but around the world – the idea that even if they have no hope of military victory, they can mobilise useful idiots around the world to take up their cause, and thereby win in the court of public opinion what they cannot win on the battlefield.
The best way to do this is to provoke massacres by the other side, which Darfur rebels have dome quite successfully and remorselessly. This mobilises well-meaning American celebrities and the human rights groups behind them.
It also prolongs war and makes human rights groups accomplices to great crimes.
This is a replay of the Biafra fiasco of the late 1960s. Remember? The world was supposed to mobilise to defend Biafran rebels and prevent the genocide that Nigeria would carry out if they were defeated. Global protests prolonged the war and caused countless deaths.
When the Biafrans were finally defeated, though, the predicted genocide never happened. Fewer Biafrans would have starved to death if Biafran leaders had not calculated that more starvation would stir up support from human rights advocates in faraway countries.
Rebels in Darfur have learned the value of mobilising western human rights groups to prolong wars, and this lesson is working gloriously for them.
The place where I finally broke with my former human-rights comrades was Rwanda. The regime in power now is admired throughout Africa; 13 African heads of state attended President Paul Kagame's recent inauguration, as opposed to just one who came to the inauguration in neighbouring Burundi.
The Rwandan regime has given more people a greater chance to break out of extreme poverty than almost any regime in modern African history – and this after a horrific slaughter in 1994 from which many outsiders assumed Rwanda would never recover.
It is also a regime that forbids ethnic speech, ethnically-based political parties and ethnically-divisive news media.
By my standards, this regime is the best thing that has happened to Rwanda since colonialists arrived a century ago.
My own experience tells me that people in Rwanda are happy with it, thrilled at their future prospects, and not angry that there is not a wide enough range of newspapers or political parties.
Human Rights Watch, however, portrays the Rwandan regime as brutally oppressive. Giving people jobs, electricity, and above all security is not considered a human rights achievement; limiting political speech and arresting violators is considered unpardonable.
Human Rights Watch wants Rwandans to be able to speak freely about their ethnic hatreds, and to allow political parties connected with the defeated genocide army to campaign freely for power.
It has come to this: all that is necessary for another genocide to happen in Rwanda is for the Rwandan government to follow the path recommended by Human Rights Watch.
This is why the appointment of James Hoge, who took office in October, is so potentially important. The human rights movement lost its way by considering human rights in a vacuum, as if there are absolutes everywhere and white people in New York are best-equipped to decide what they are.
Hoge, however, comes to his new job after nearly two decades as editor of Foreign Affairs magazine. He sees the world from a broad perspective, while the movement of which he is now a leader sees it narrowly.
Human rights need to be considered in a political context. The question should not be whether a particular leader or regime violates western-conceived standards of human rights.
Instead, it should be whether a leader or regime, in totality, is making life better or worse for ordinary people.
When the global human rights movement emerged nearly half a century ago, no one could have imagined that it would one day be scorned as an enemy of human rights.
Today, this movement desperately needs a period of reflection, deep self-examination and renewal. The ever-insightful historian Barbara Tuchman had it exactly right when she wrote a sentence that could be the motto of a chastened and reformed Human Rights Watch:
"Humanity may have common ground, but needs and aspirations vary according to circumstances".
This article first appeared in The Guardian on Friday, December 31, 2010