Amnesty International and the World of International NGOs

Co-Conspirator DB notes the continuing controversy over Amnesty International, with Salman Rushdie now weighing in.

Side note:  Although until I come out with my own longer account of my views of the NGO movement, including the human rights monitors, I tend to avoid saying much about human rights groups, I have written a bit about Amnesty in the past.  A couple of years ago I commented in the Weekly Standard, here, reaping a remarkable amount of hate e-mail.  And then I gave a short book review in the International History Review of Stephen Hopgood’s part-journalism, part-anthropology account of Amnesty from the inside, Keepers of the Flame – a sympathetic-but-somewhat-critical take on the organization in an earlier phase of its internal theological debate over its mandate.  The Hopgood review is written with a deliberately anodyne academic tone; my views are actually affectively stronger than that.  While I think HRW on balance does more good than harm, I can’t say the same about AI, and haven’t thought that for quite a while.

The international NGO question is important, and the attention it receives is far too much from in-the-tank academics besotted with the idea of academic activism.  (Not always.  See, for example, Steve Charnovitz’s fine writing on NGOs and accountability in the American Journal of International Law (I’ll try to find a public link to his outstanding long AJIL piece; meanwhile here’s a comment of mine that references Steve).  But, well, let’s just say that the mean of the literature is not exactly distanced.  I will try to say more about that in responding to a recent review essay by Steve in the most recent AJIL; hold the thought.)  The herd mentality of the good-and-consensus opinion of international elites – global “experts and enthusiasts,” in someone or other’s excellent phrase – has a palpable effect on so many things, from the “settled” science of climate change, to the desirability of a multipolar world in which the United States no longer provides hegemonic public goods, to the lawfulness of targeted killing by the CIA using Predator drones (as the Obama administration, or more likely some Republican successor, will learn to its sorrow).

I come from the international NGO world, and have written about this before – in a short piece for an undergraduate text, and in this longer book chapter appearing in a book on global philanthropy later this year.  The thing that most continues to amaze me is how unwilling US government senior staff, whether career or political, are to take this into account at the outset of a rising movement in the international community – whether landmines, gun control, anti-free-speech, cluster munitions, targeted killing, detention and interrogation and rendition policy, climate change, on and on.  I like some of the advocacy issues, don’t like others.  What astonishes me in either case, however, is how important US government players under any administration simply assume that NGO movements are too … too irrelevant to have an effect, much less control outcomes.  I suppose it is simply the structural shortsightedness built into government, but the myopia costs the USG a lot, especially when it suddenly notices and tries to play catchup.

Since 1990, human rights has occupied a privileged position as the “apex” value in the global system of values reflected not just at the UN, but elsewhere, despite the many arguments over what exactly it is supposed to mean and how.  As a consequence, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as the two lead organizations in the global field, have had outsized influence on international politics.  They, and much of the rest of the global elite, have viewed this as a consequence of the universality of their values.  As I have occasionally suggested on this blog (and here in these pieces on the UN and international security, as well as in my forthcoming book on US -UN relations), universal those values might be (though their meaning as asserted by AI and HRW is not beyond contestation) the ability to give them effect in the world since 1990s has depended almost entirely on US hegemony.

Be careful what you wish for when you wish for American decline.  American decline would almost certainly entail the decline of those universal values and, along with them, the human monitors whose universal claims are unlikely to thrive under a multipolarity championed by, for example, China.  (Perhaps the most depressing phenomenon in all this, however, is the Obama administration’s embrace of ideological decline in advance of any historically materialist (what we Marxists like to call “objective”) reason to do so.  I refer particularly to the entirely unnecessary group hug of the demotion of free speech by the US at the UN Human Rights Council.)