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Human rights groups are secretly U.S. agents. True or false?

- November 29, 2016
Side handled and telescopic batons and spike batons are displayed at a police equipment exhibition, at an undisclosed location. (AP/Amnesty International)

For rights activists, Trump’s victory is a dark cloud with one silver lining. For the next four years, human rights groups will be inoculated against accusations of complicity in U.S. foreign-policy machinations.

Once Trump assumes control, no good-faith critic is likely to condemn Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International or their local counterparts as “agents of the American empire.” After all, the new U.S. president explicitly rejects fundamental rights principles. He advocates torture of terrorism suspects, killing of their family members, creating a national registry of Muslims, expanding libel laws to silence the media and taking away citizenship from U.S.-born children of immigrants.

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Until now, the perception of being complicit in Washington’s policies has often hurt rights groups. Ever since President Jimmy Carter proclaimed his support for human rights in the 1970s, critics of U.S. foreign policy have accused Western-supported rights groups of tacitly promoting U.S. hegemony. Here are the three main versions of this:

  1. One variant of this critique argues that international rights groups and the U.S. government, in the early 1990s, came to a devil’s bargain. International rights groups endorsed U.S. global primacy, and in exchange, Washington offered support for international rights norms and institutions.
  2. Another school argues that after the U.S. military involvement in Vietnam ended, U.S. policymakers decided to stop justifying global interventions with “anti-Communism” and instead to claim to be acting on behalf of “human rights.”
  3. A third school argues that while rights groups claim their ideas are universal, the principles they espouse promote a uniquely Western view that establishes U.S. political ideas as the global norm.

Consider this. In spring 2014, a group of 125 Nobel Peace laureates, activists and scholars slammed the New York-based Human Rights Watch for maintaining a “revolving door” with the U.S. government. Exhibit A, they said, was Tom Malinowski, a senior staffer who joined the U.S.-based rights group in 2001 after working in government and who then returned to federal service in 2013, as director of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

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According to the Nobel laureates, this and similar cases suggested HRW was overly close to U.S. policy elites. Given “the impact of global perceptions on HRW’s ability to carry out its work,” they wrote, even “the appearance of [this kind of] impropriety” undermines the organization’s credibility.

HRW leaders disputed these claims but acknowledged that “the stigma of ‘western imposition’” often impedes their efforts.

And in Ecuador, Egypt, IndiaPakistan, Russia, Venezuela and many other countries, authorities increasingly charge both local and international rights groups with doing Washington’s bidding. These officials have also cracked down on Western funding to local rights groups, arguing that these moneys violate their national sovereignty.

Few people believe these claims, our research shows

Our own survey research, though, suggests that relatively few people buy these arguments. We conducted face-to-face surveys with randomly selected samples in six countries from 2012 to 2014. These include national coverage in Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico and coverage of key urban and rural areas in India (Mumbai and its rural environs), Morocco (Rabat, Casablanca and environs) and Nigeria (Lagos and environs).

We found little evidence that ordinary adults suspect human rights principles or organizations of serving as U.S. agents. (In these questions, we did not ask for reactions to specific human rights issues, such as the rights of the LGBT community; on these, different groups of people may think differently).

Our first survey question was “To what extent do you associate the term ‘human rights’ with ‘promoting U.S. interests?’” We asked more than 9,000 randomly selected people to respond on a scale of 1 (no association) through 7 (maximum association).

Most did not associate “human rights” with “promoting U.S. interests,” as the average strength of that association, across all six cases, was 3.5, below the midpoint of 4 on our 1-7 scale.

CROW Fig 1

We also asked people how much they trusted human rights organizations and the U.S. government, using a four-point scale that we later re-scaled from 0 (no trust) to 1 (maximum trust).

We found that people trust human rights groups more than the U.S. government. Average trust in local rights organizations was 0.54 on the 0-1 scale and 0.52 for international groups; average trust in the U.S. government was only 0.46. (Lagos residents were far more trusting of the U.S. government than the others, perhaps because of Nigerian domestic politics, where views toward the United States do not figure prominently.).

CROW Fig 2

Our statistical analysis, moreover, discovered no positive relationship between trust in the U.S. government and trust in human rights organizations.

Finding such a relationship would be necessary (if insufficient) for us to conclude that respondents suspect that rights groups work with, or for, the U.S. government.

In other words, the people don’t believe this, even if some elites do

Our data show that people believe either that human rights groups are geopolitically neutral from the United States or that they tilt against Washington. We found no evidence that many people suspect rights groups of serving as secular missionaries for a Western point of view that paves the way for U.S. political hegemony.

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Accusations that human rights groups are “handmaidens of a U.S. empire” come either from academics or from political leaders, especially autocrats, seeking to deflect attention from their own misdeeds.

In the months to come, Trump’s administration will probably do much to expand this gap between the U.S. government and rights groups. The more that Trump and his advisers endorse anti-human-rights policies, the more likely rights groups will be seen as distinct from Washington. Academic skepticism and political critiques of human rights NGOs may become increasingly difficult to maintain.

For the next four years, the dividing line between “U.S. government” and “human rights organization” is likely to be very clear.

James Ron holds the Stassen Chair in International Affairs at the University of Minnesota and is an affiliated professor at CIDE, a leading Mexican university.

David Crow is an assistant professor at CIDE.

Together they are co-authors (with Shannon Golden and Archana Pandya) of the forthcoming Oxford University Press book “Taking Root: Human Rights and Public Opinion in the Global South.”