The Politics of Human Rights

Friday, April 30, 1999

United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan hailed the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations’ “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” last December as “a day for celebration, a day for remembrance, and a day for commitment.”

It was all that, but it should also have been a day for profound self-examination. Many in the international “human rights” community have done much recently to discredit themselves and the cause.

Recent developments include an aggressive resurrection of Cold War biases; more evidence on the tragic impact of the politicization of the Nobel Peace Prize; and continuing indifference to “burying” one of the twentieth century’s most heinous crimes against humanity.

It’s the same question Bob Dylan asked long ago: “How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?”


When the Cold War ended, political bias as the motivation for supporting human rights for some and not for others seemed to decline, though not everywhere—consider, for example, Nicaragua, whose human rights defenders in the 1990s were systematically ignored. Balance seemed to be increasing until the Pinochet affair, which Amnesty International has called a “new era for human rights.”

New? More like a return to the old.

Whatever one thinks of the substance of Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzón’s case against former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, his actions are as contemptuous of impartiality as they are irresponsible.

An impartial magistrate would have defused the inevitable explosive politics of arresting Pinochet by going as far as necessary to demonstrate political balance. Garzón could have simultaneously issued a warrant for the arrest of Fidel Castro. If Castro could not be picked up because he is still Cuba’s leader, Garzón could have issued warrants for former Sandinista president Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and his thuggish interior minister, Tomás Borge.

Meanwhile, an investigation into Castro’s crimes in Cuba and many countries abroad could have begun with the same international cooperation that rights advocates want given to the investigation of Pinochet.

Garzón’s action was irresponsible because, as Amnesty International’s U.S. executive director William Schulz says, this kind of prosecution is still “a very ad hoc procedure”—though Schulz endorses it. Indeed! Garzón has thrown an extremely complicated and controversial case in the lap of an international justice system whose guidelines and instruments remain woefully inadequate for this job. But, since rogues do such things by nature, the main problem is that Garzón’s actions have been so uncritically supported by others.

Amnesty International says justice for Pinochet “would send a clear message to the world’s torturers and death squads that they cannot commit their crimes with impunity.” But while Amnesty International talks of making tyrants tremble, recent events suggest otherwise. Unless the rights community becomes much more politically balanced, it will never launch equally vigorous campaigns to get justice for victims of the Castros and Borges—and those old leftists know it.

In effect, Garzón has said, “I’ve got my demon, you go get yours if you can”—which, if Pinochet is extradited, many others will try to do. That is a prescription for chaos.


Another human rights personality from the Cold War is in the news again: Rigoberta Menchú, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize. David Stoll has just published Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, which shows that her 1983 “autobiography” that led to the Nobel Prize is less Menchú’s life and more a “morality play”—an often misleading one at that.

Menchú got the award for political reasons, as is common with peace prizes. The Nobel Committee sought to recognize indigenous peoples on the five hundredth anniversary of the “discovery” of American and to condemn repression in Guatemala—matters of merit—but it chose the wrong recipient and created a fraudulent spokesperson for the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Menchú’s passion was Marxist revolution, not human rights. In fact, the prize glorified a woman who militantly supported brutal Sandinista repression of the Miskito Indians and others in Nicaragua in the early 1980s and brought grief to the Indians in her own country. Stoll shows how she was used by outsiders “to justify continuing a war [in Guatemala] at the expense of the peasants who did not support it”—with untold and senseless casualties.

Menchú promoted her political passion effectively because, like the Spanish rogue magistrate, she (and her supporters) knew how to tell politicized urban audiences abroad what they wanted to hear in order to pursue their own objectives—which were often hers as well, but not those of most indigenous peoples.

Many human rights organizations have done much recently to discredit themselves and their cause.

Last December the founder of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, which Menchú supported, asked the Guatemalan people to forgive him for his past. Menchú—a celebrated guest of honor at a fiftieth-anniversary celebration in Paris, which Amnesty International called its “first ever world summit of human rights defenders”—however, simply says all who challenge her past are “racists.”


The biggest case of indifference by human rights groups relates to Japan’s crimes in China during World War II. There is no statute of limitations on Nazi crimes in Europe, but what of the concurrent and often equal Japanese atrocities in China? The Japanese actions were of such a scale and ferocity as to make all the repression by all Latin American dictators of the twentieth century combined seem almost mild by comparison.

Chinese president Jiang Zemin pressed for an apology when he went to Japan in November, but he did not follow Garzón’s lead and demand the extradition of presumed war criminals for trial. All he wanted was an apo- logy, along the lines of the one Tokyo had recently made to Korea.

One might suppose that rights advocates who are surpassingly concerned about three thousand Chileans a quarter century ago would have equal concern for the Chinese the Japanese raped, mutilated, and/or conducted grotesque medical experiments on. Between 75,000 and 300,000 were tortured and killed over several months in the city of Nanjing alone, while tens of millions died during Japan’s unprovoked fourteen-year invasion and occupation.

But when Japan refused to give the apology, there was no international protest or pressure. With its absolute silence—not even a press release from Amnesty International or Asia Watch—the rights community spoke loudly on these crimes against Chinese: “They’re not important like Nazi crimes! Forget them, as we have!”


The human rights community’s deadliest enemy is double standards. Now that the celebrations have passed, advocates should analyze what is happening and act on the understanding that the most important commodity they have is the truth. It must be an impartial truth—one that seeks justice even for Chinese, anti-Castro Cubans, former contras, and indigenous peoples who don’t like Marxist guerrillas.

Tragically, many in the rights community fail to recognize or admit their bias. Thus it continues, reducing the credibility and impact of rights groups even where they do excellent work and impeding moves to create fair, workable international enforcement standards and mechanisms.

The bias is all the more frustrating and inexcusable because it could so easily be overcome—if only the truth and impartiality that rights groups claim as their guiding principles were adhered to consistently.