Amnesty International is pretty well-established and well-regarded as human rights organizations go. In his synthetic account of international human rights organizations, Aryeh Neier describes Amnesty as “the best known and by far the largest human rights organization in the world—in membership, in global income, and in the number of its national sections… Its creation [in 1961) was a major milestone in the emergence of an enduring human rights movement. From the start it was intended to be a global organization. That is, those who would participate in its efforts would come from all over the world, and those on whose behalf it campaigned would be persons everywhere who suffered abuses of human rights”.
That, arguably, is the essence of the modern human rights movement (although caring for “distant strangers” is by no means a product of the late-twentieth century): that a person in the United States, or any other country, might be moved by the plight of someone they have never met and never will meet in some distant part of the world.
Neier summarized Amnesty’s early goals—as articulated by a founder—as “to work impartially to release those imprisoned for their views; to secure fair trials for them; to expand the right to asylum and assist political refugees in obtaining jobs; and to secure international legal protections for freedom of opinion”.*
In its early years Amnesty took on the fascist government in Portugal, the British colonial government in Yemen, the apartheid government in South Africa, the Soviet Union, the governments of El Salvador and Guatemala, the Chilean dictatorship, and other governments which violated the rights of their citizens and subjects.
The organization has its critics, but its targets have been wide-ranging, and it has a consistent record of opposing rights abuses and infringements. So it should not have been surprising when Amnesty recently observed—via twitter—that the “US can’t tell other countries to improve their records on policing and peaceful assembly if it won’t clean up its own human rights record”.
This, of course, was in reference to events in Missouri, where police shot dead an unarmed citizen and then lied blatantly and repeatedly about the chain of events that led to the shooting, while donning military gear and swaggering around town pointing guns and citizens while jailing journalists and local officials.
Amnesty’s commentary about the mindset of the U.S. could as well apply to many spheres in the conduct of our foreign policy: as a country which uses torture, murder, extraordinary rendition, kidnapping, and aggressive war, while harassing journalists, attacking whistleblowers, and covering up the terrorism of our military-intelligence complex, you could argue that we’ve perfected the art of throwing stones in a glass house.
But whatever our qualities, receptiveness to constructive criticism and self-scrutiny are not amongst them. Which I suppose explains why the venerable Center for Strategic and International Studies, a D.C. think tank close to the corridors of power responded thusly to Amnesty’s injunction towards self-criticism: “Your work has saved far fewer lives than American interventions. So suck it”.
The grade-school verbiage aside, I’m not entirely sure what CSIS is referring to. Could it be the disdain with which we stood aside during the Rwanda genocide? Or the manner in which our later backing of the Rwandan government fuelled a devastating regional war in the Congo?
Could they be referring to our disastrously illegal and immoral war in Iraq which killed upwards of 100,000 people, destroyed infrastructure, dismantled institutions, and opened the door to Al Qaeda? If not, they might have in mind the various Latin American regimes—Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Argentina, etc—to which we supplied arms, as well as training to their death squads.
They might mean the long-term chaos that ensued when we overthrew democratic governments in Iran, Guatemala, or the Congo. Or the hundreds of thousands we killed in Vietnam because a bunch of ignorant, narcissistic empire-builders at organisations like CSIS pulled the widely-discredited “Domino Theory” out of their backsides as an excuse to go to war.
CSIS sent out a half-baked “apology” for its comments—an “apology” which did not retract the substance of the characterization. But one suspects that because they wallow in the same trough as the elites who promulgate our serially-immoral foreign policy, their contempt for an organization like Amnesty which prioritises the well-being of individuals instead of some morally-mangled notion of “national security” is shared by Congress, the White House, and particularly operatives in the intelligence services, military, and State Department.
Some of these people are “realists” who think that civil and human rights are expendable. Others are crackpot fundamentalists, raised on Kool-Aid served in red, white, and blue, who believe that our country is on a mission to deliver “civilization” to the rest of the world via predator drone.
What they have in common is a conviction that our supposed exceptionalism means that we can and should play by a different set of rules to everyone else. That conviction has generated instability, terrorism, and catastrophic wars around the world for the past fifty or more years. And until we’re capable of pushing the “realists” and the “fundamentalists” alike aside, the idea that we are saving lives and doing good in the world through our interventions is risible.
* Aryeh Neier. The Interantional Human Rights Movement: A History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012. 186, 188.