The human rights industry does a lot of noble work around the world. And yet many of the field’s most prominent figures and institutions have lately taken to vocally endorsing acts of war. Where does this impulse come from? On what grounds is it justified? And how’s the hawkish stance working out, given a decade of strategic and humanitarian debacles for Washington and its allies?
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and one of the country’s most celebrated human rights advocates, certainly doesn’t shrink from military action. She has supported missile strikes on the Syrian government as well as Washington’s participation in the Libya war and has called for strong-arming U.S. allies into sending more soldiers to fight in Afghanistan — all in the name of human rights, of course. Harold Koh, a former dean of Yale Law School, is best known for his scholarly work on human rights law and the War Powers Act — yet he devised the legal rationale for both Obama’s open-ended drone strikes and the war on Libya. And Michael Ignatieff, a former leader of Canada’s Liberal Party and Power’s predecessor as director of Harvard Law’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq War.
It’s not just individuals, though: Institutions are just as likely to chime in. Human Rights Watch didn’t use to dabble in warfare, but that all changed when the group supported Washington’s failed military expedition into Somalia in 1992, followed by the bombardment of Belgrade in 1999 in what was then Yugoslavia. Human Rights Watch didn’t weigh in on the Iraq invasion other than to note that it did not qualify as a humanitarian mission. But by 2012, fatigues were back in style at the group’s Empire State Building suites when the organization’s executive director, Ken Roth, and chief U.S. lobbyist, Tom Malinowski, loudly applauded the NATO campaign in Libya.
Days after the Libya air strikes began, Human Rights Watch researcher Corinne Dufka called for “nothing less than the type of unified and decisive action the U.N. Security Council has brought to bear in Libya” to be replicated in Cote d’Ivoire in a Foreign Policy article titled “The Case for Intervention in the Ivory Coast”. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch has tacitly supported our longest war at every step. In 2003, Roth said human rights nonprofits should “mobilize public pressure on the (George W.) Bush administration and its European allies to take the security steps needed to deliver on the promise of greater peace and security for the Afghan people” — in other words, support the military occupation and counterinsurgency war that make the development and humanitarian work possible. More recently, Human Rights Watch condemned the possibility of amnesty for Taliban leaders, a necessary condition for any political settlement of the ongoing civil war.
To be fair, Human Rights Watch is far from alone: In 2012, Amnesty International USA went so far as to put up bus-stop advertisements in Chicago during the NATO conference to urge the military alliance to “keep the progress going” — which can only be taken as an endorsement of the military campaign. The Feminist Majority has similarly backed the escalation of the Afghan War, in the name of women’s rights. As for the U.S. media, its more prestigious branches are regular perches for humanitarian hawks, with the New York Times’ human rights guy, Nicholas Kristof, constantly recommending that Washington threaten air strikes of some nature against Sudan.