Politics of human rights groups in the age of austerity: Information or mis-information?

Since late 1970s, there has been a surge in numbers of many organisations claiming to champion for different causes, rights and interests with the most renowned groups being the Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI).
Joe B. Jakes
Joe B. Jakes

Since late 1970s, there has been a surge in numbers of many organisations claiming to champion for different causes, rights and interests with the most renowned groups being the Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI).

The end of the Cold War had two primary effects on these groups: first, the diminished world attention given to East-West tension brought increased focus on other regions; second, the reduced threat of nuclear annihilation created opportunities for more emphasis on the human rights principles that had been established following the Second World War through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

On this basis, the human rights community, including HRW, became deeply involved in other campaigns expanded its activities in other parts of the world, particularly in the context of protracted ethnic conflicts, including Africa. In this process, they rely on their considerable effect and the perception of expertise, morality, and objectivity as a non-governmental organization (NGO) to become an influential political and ideological actor. Their impact is particularly pronounced in the developing countries for example, the HRW exerts major influence on the UN and on the policies of governments through condemnations for alleged violations and demands for “independent investigations.” These allegations are then rightly or wrongly amplified by the media.

The article’s aim is not to launch an attack on any specific human rights group, in principle one agrees with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 and other codified regional and international legal instruments available and also appreciates the fact most of these agreements are encoded in the United Nations (UN) documents. The aim is to question whether the economic slump in the West has had an impact on these organisations’ coffers, to examine if such condition has encouraged these agencies to cut back on their budgets, and consequently leading to misinform the global public with consistent bias, inaccurate and often ideological and political reports when investigating certain abuses in conflict zones.

One is of the view that human rights are not and should not be subjected to serving political interests and bullying or harassing small states. Postmodern thinkers, however, take an antifoundationalist approach, attacking the supposedly firm grounds on which the idea of human rights rests, by challenging some of its main elements, such as universality and absoluteness. In other words, the concept of human rights is essentially contested and its application in other parts of the world has raised more questions than answers.

Few of the questions are the following: can the human rights politics remain a politics of information? Why are human rights agencies perceived to be political arms of powerful states? Human rights advocates, are they human rights experts or ideologues? How can human rights be universal in a world of difference? Who watches the human rights watch? Is their business model being threatened by the economic recession? And if so, who is going to hold them accountable for their shoddy and inaccurate reports?

Clearly these questions cannot be brushed away and if human rights agencies are to remain relevant in the age of austerity. Like any human rights defender, it is common knowledge that the global recession has potential to increase human rights abuses in the furthest corner of the world due to the lack funds from the developed countries which are usually used to support the majority poor, for instance.

Over the recent years, there has been growing criticism against human rights organisations for their breach of code of conduct by entering into territories over which they have no jurisdiction.

The tragedy is that these unchecked reports and recommendations made by the so called ‘experts’ are then adopted by governments, international organisations, including the UN at peril of million civilians  who are directly affected by these decisions in targeted countries. As the recent report of the UN’s group of Experts on the DRC showed, some of the experts in the group were people of questionable character, qualification and expertise; and once again the content of the report reflected bias, contradictory statements, unknown sources and the use weak methodologies.

From this episode, there are many lessons to be learned but one ought to critically think when looking at dynamics between human rights groups and spaces in which they operate. This tells you more about the gap between their vision statements (which are susceptible to influence regardless of their claimed independence of mind and finance), and their actual aims and objectives on the ground.

There is a certain degree of connivance between certain human rights organisations and governments in trying to force an agenda. This is not always a bad thing as some countries with record of human rights abuses do need a reminder that such things are unacceptable. However, these rights organisations need to earn their pay, repair their reputation, recover their credibility and honour their names by maintaining objectivity and professionalism despite of the ‘economic weather’ if they are to be believed, respected and trusted.

To end with an important question, are human rights universal? If yes, then what happens when such ‘universals’ come into contact with particular realities? These set of norms and practices have produced mixed reactions across the globe, some even problematic. As a keen observer, one understands a great deal of International Relations (IR) theories that constructed human rights as universal, justifying their claim to an overarching morality, but it is worth concluding that human rights are not universally applicable to every specific context, it remains unclear how they could be, and by being treated as such they can be used to justify coercion and violence.



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