Human rights campaigners need to follow a self-denying ordinance if they are not to become enemies of the values they espouse. Like a civil servant or judge, they must leave their passions at the office door, and oppose the oppressive, whoever they are and whatever the consequences. It is easy for me to say that, but the record of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International tells you that it is hard for them to do so. To their politically committed workers impartiality can feel a thin and bloodless doctrine. It requires them to criticise people they regard as friends and provide inadvertent comfort to enemies.
The effort required in maintaining universal principles is too much for them, and explains why human rights organisations have gone off the rails. If you need convincing, look at the introduction to the Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2012 by Kenneth Roth, its ‘Executive Director’. is grandiose title is warning enough. It suggests that Roth sees himself more as a corporate leader than a liberal campaigner. The Executive Director’s analysis of the Middle East does nothing to dispel that suspicion.
Human Rights Watch’s main concern is opposing western governments. Fair enough, there is much to oppose, particularly in their policies on the Middle East. But the danger is that liberals start believing that their enemy’s enemy is their friend, and embrace Islamists, who are anything but liberal. You could write a book about why the liberal-left has become the excuser and indulger of reactionaries. In fact, I have written a book about it.
The point to bear in mind is that wealthy westerners, who call themselves liberals and feminists, have become the least reliable defenders of liberals and feminists from the poor world, who need their support. Nowhere more so than in the Middle East.
‘The international community must come to terms with political Islam when it represents a majority preference,’ the Executive Director intones as he gives his views on the Arab Spring. Roth is leading a human rights organisation, but he talks as if he is a foreign minister or president setting strategic objectives. It does not occur to him that it is not his business to instruct the ‘international community’ on whom or what it must come to terms with. His business is to stick to the hard and necessary task of monitoring and condemning all those who abuse the rights of others without fear or favour. The pitfalls of pomposity are so obvious Roth that should not need me to point them out. For how can Human Rights Watch monitor and condemn political Islam when its executive director is issuing manifestos from his boardroom telling the international community to accept it?
I am not the only person to notice it is negating its founding principles. Gita Sahgal of the Centre for Secular Space is collecting signatures for an open letter to Roth – you can sign it here if you wish. In it she writes
‘You say, “It is important to nurture the rights-respecting elements of political Islam while standing firm against repression in its name,” but you fail to call for the most basic guarantee of rights-the separation of religion from the state. Salafi mobs have caned women in Tunisian cafes and Egyptian shops; attacked churches in Egypt; taken over whole villages in Tunisia and shut down Manouba University for two months in an effort to exert social pressure on veiling. And while “moderate Islamist” leaders say they will protect the rights of women (if not gays), they have done very little to bring these mobs under control. You, however, are so unconcerned with the rights of women, gays, and religious minorities that you mention them only once, as follows: “Many Islamic parties have indeed embraced disturbing positions that would subjugate the rights of women and restrict religious, personal, and political freedoms. But so have many of the autocratic regimes that the West props up.” Are we really going to set the bar that low? This is the voice of an apologist, not a senior human rights advocate.’
When it comes to Shari’a law, Human Rights Watch hedges and mutters and refuses to condemn illiberal prejudices in plain language.
As Sahgal, says: ‘It is simply not good enough to say we do not know what kind of Islamic law, if any, will result, when it is already clear that freedom of expression and freedom of religion – not to mention the choice not to veil – are under threat. And while it is true that the Muslim Brotherhood has not been in power for very long, we can get some idea of what to expect by looking at their track record. In the UK, where they were in exile for decades, unfettered by political persecution, the exigencies of government, or the demands of popular pressure, the Muslim Brotherhood systematically promoted gender apartheid and parallel legal systems enshrining the most regressive version of shari’a law. Yusef al-Qaradawi, a leading scholar associated with them, publicly maintains that homosexuality should be punished by death. They supported deniers of the holocaust and the Bangladesh genocide of 1971, and shared platforms with salafi-jihadis, spreading their calls for militant jihad. But, rather than examine the record of Muslim fundamentalists in the West, you keep demanding that Western governments “engage”.’
It is worth reading the whole thing. I particularly enjoyed the section where Sahgal nailed the perfidy of western liberals by saying to Roth, ‘You seem able to hear only the voices of the right wing – the Islamist politicians – and not the voices of the people who initiated and sustained these revolutions: the unemployed and the poor of Tunisia, seeking ways to survive; the thousands of Egyptian women who mobilized against the security forces who tore off their clothes and subjected them to the sexual assaults known as “virginity tests”. These assaults are a form of state torture, usually a central issue to human rights organizations, yet you overlook them because they happen to women.’
It is also worth noting that until recently Gita Sahgal was the head of Amnesty International’s gender unit. When she said that Amnesty had to stop endorsing supporters of Islamist misogyny, the ‘human rights organisation’ responded to her defence of the rights of half the human race by forcing her out.
I know that the Spectator has many wealthy readers – aristocrats, country gentry, CEOs, hedge fund managers, international drug smugglers and so on. If any of you has money to spare you might consider passing it on to Sahgal’s Centre for Secular Space. Unlike the pompous, politicking types elsewhere, she is a human rights defender who actually means it.