Monday, January 3, 2011

Human rights imperialism

Regrettably the doctrinal human rights community has largely closed its eyes and ears to the many ways in which its discourse has been politically and economically sullied. In not undertaking the task of constructing a political economy, or an ecology, of human rights, the doctrinal mainstream has allowed the discourse to be all-too-frequently harnessed to the service of contemporary imperialism and rapacious global capitalism. The hard political questions are deftly side-stepped."  Nick Rose (2008). quoted in Michael Barker 2010 
Stephen Kinzer knows a great deal about American and Western imperialism. His 2006 book Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq details three centuries of American involvement in the overthrow of foreign governments who failed to protect or advance US national and corporate interests. Kinzer documents the ways that American governments, politicians, intelligence agencies, military commanders and corporations took it upon themselves to overthrow governments they did not approve of.

Kinzer shows how the US and its allies have consistently appropriated the rhetoric of national security, protection of freedom and human rights and the promotion of Western democracy, to justify the overthrow of foreign governments. He also documents the role US corporations and the corporate elite have played in US imperialism.

So his latest argument in the UK Guardian that Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other global human rights organisations actually act as a vanguard for Western imperialism requires serious consideration. Of the human rights movement Kinzer writes:

"Founded by idealists who wanted to make the world a better place, it has in recent years become the vanguard for new forms of imperialism"
Writing in the Guardian Kinzer argues that the global human rights movement defines human rights in a narrow egocentric (Western and European) way and in many cases actually opposes human rights. Kinzer argues that the human rights movement has become scorned as an enemy of human rights:

"Human rights groups, bathed in the light of self-admiration and cultural superiority, too often make the wrong choice."

"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."

Kinzer also points to links between the global human rights movement and multinational corporations and the global political elite, who increasingly fund international human rights organisations. Human rights have become interwined with European and US versions of liberal, capitalist democracies.

Kinzer is not the only writer to raise these concerns. In 2009 aid worker and writer Connor Foley made similar criticisms, arguing that Western aid organisations and NGO's are increasingly co-opted in the service of military intervention and capitalist and corporate domination (as in Iraq).  Belgian academic Jean Bricmont's book  Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to sell War argues that the US Government and its allies have used human rights as a justification for military and economic intervention.

The Australian writer Michael Barker has made similar criticisms arguing that mainstream human rights organisations have actively supported the imposition of neoliberal policies. Barker has written that human rights organisations have failed to challenge the primary driver of human rights abuses, which is an exploitive political and economic system.


Breenus said...

Excellent stuff, as usual, Colin. It seems internationally to parallel the backing of NGOs in Australia by conservative forces. They foster and fund the organizations which further their, mostly fundamentalist christian dogmatism drawing society further and further to the right of decency, equality and respect. After all, there is only a small segment of humanity the "Blessed" who will be "saved".There is a symbiotic relationship between the chosen NGOs and government;the former want funds,recognition and power, the latter want votes and the respectable image which comes from being christian, in the eyes of many. They forget the Crusades, the Inquisition and the bigotry of their bedfellows in the recent past in Australia. The fundamentalism is bulletproof as soon as they say it is a matter of faith. Which it is not; it is a matter of interpretation and choice. Fundamentalism is to belief what Nazism is to government. But if you are conservative it is good to get other bodies to prepare the soil and manage the climate for you who are in power, and who would remain in power at any price.

Breenus said...

Come to think of it, funding for Private Schools is another instance of the same thing. Conservative governments know that people associated with private schools have more money than the rest and are more likely to want to accumulate, associate with 'nice people' and have a good social image so they will vote for the party which supports their social welfare funded private schools. And round goes the cycle. Pay for the education of those associated with private schools who will vote for you and who will form a different "upper" class who will vote for the continuation of their system. How Simple! And mostly the schools funded are conservative if not fundamentalist Christians.