Naomi Klein on the “why” of human rights violations

naomik.jpg By Nick Li

For those who haven’t read it, "The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism" by Canadian uber left-wing activist Naomi Klein is a must read for anyone interested in economics, human rights, or the world generally. One of the most interesting chapters of her book, "Entirely Unrelated," discusses the rise of the international human rights movement in the 1960s and its acute limitations. The basic premise of the book, which I will not get into here, is that the shock, confusion and dislocation caused by natural disasters (like Katrina), wars (Iraq or the Falklands), coups (Pinochet in Chile, Suharto in Indonesia, etc.) or economic crises (like the kind gripping Eastern Europe after the fall of communism and the whole developing world during the 1980s) have provided fertile grounds for the implementation of extreme right-wing economic policies by alert and opportunistic ideologues and powerful interests. In the chapter "Entirely Unrelated" Klein explores how the restricted domain of analysis of the international human rights movement in the 1960s (to this day) resulted that "an ideology was cleansed of its crimes." She points out that Milton Friedman, the main intellectual force behind the economic policy and personnel of the dictatorial regimes of Chile and Argentina, won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1976; a year later Amnesty International won the Nobel Peace Prize largely for its work exposing the human rights abuses in Chile and Argentina. She writes:

From afar, however, it seemed as if, with the two Nobel prizes, the most prestigious jury in the world had issued its verdict: the shock of the torture chamber was to be forceful condemned, but the economic shock treatments were to be applauded – and the two forms of shock were, as [Orlando] Letelier had written with dripping irony, "entirely unrelated."

Another strange contradiction of this period was that the Ford Foundation spent $30 million during the seventies and eighties devoted to human rights in Latin America, while the economists dominating these governments had their education and training largely funded by… the Ford Foundation. She writes:

After the left in those countries had been obliterated by regimes that Ford had helped shape, it was none other than Ford that funded a new generation of crusading lawyers dedicated to freeing the hundreds of thousands of political prisoners being held by those same regimes…Given its own highly compromised history, it is hardly surprising that when Ford dived into human rights, it defined the field as narrowly as possible. The foundation strongly favoured groups that framed their work as legalistic struggles for the "rule of law," "transparency" and "good governance." As one Ford Foundation officer put it, the organization’s attitude in Chile was, "How can we do this and not get involved in politics?"… The foundation’s decision to get involved in human rights but "not get involved in politics" created a context in which it was all but impossible to ask the question underlying the violence it was documenting: Why was it happening, in whose interests?

The story of the international human rights movement begins, as my colleague pointed out in a recent post with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. As Klein observers:

No sooner had the document been written than it became a partisan battering ram, used by both sides in the Cold War to accuse the other of being the next Hitler. In 1967, press reports revealed that the International Commission of Jurists, the pre-eminent human rights group focused on Soviet abuses, was not the impartial arbiter it claimed to be but was receiving secret funding from the CIA.

One of the results of this tendency to use human rights as a tool of partisan politics was the foundation of Amnesty International as a non-ideological, non-political champion of human rights around the world. Writes Klein:

It was in this loaded context that Amnesty International developed its doctrine of strict impartiality: its financing would come exclusively from members, and it would remain rigorously "independent of any government, political faction, ideology, economic interest or religious creed." To prove that it was not using human rights to advance a particular political agenda, each Amnesty chapter was instructed to simultaneously "adopt" three prisoners of conscience, one each "from communist, Western, and Third World countries." Amnesty’s position, emblematic of the human rights movement as a whole at that time, was that since human rights violations were a universal evil, wrong in and of themselves, it was not necessary to determine why abuses were taking place but to document them as meticulously and credibly as possible.

It is entirely understandable why we need groups like Amnesty. Human rights are still very much a political game, with accusations of human rights violations often serving as a precursor to warfare. The implementation of human rights still seems to be frequently subordinate to strategic and economic interests as well as "realism." Amnesty’s neutrality allows it to credibly criticize our own Western governments as well – unlike activists like Naomi Klein who are often (unfairly) accused of hating American first and ignoring crimes by other regimes, especially those of ideological sympathizers (like Cuba, Venezuela, etc.), Amnesty International comes across as impartial. Using the cold, legalistic language of international human rights discourse, referencing norms found in internationally ratified documents like the UN Declaration (that very few people will ever criticize), Amnesty comes across as even-handed. Of course, given the fact that Amnesty documents human rights abuses in all countries, some people in the West have attacked it for its "double standard" when it comes to the United States or Israel . But Amnesty International to this day proclaims principles of independence and impartiality on its website:

We have a number of safeguards in place to protect our autonomy. We are: * Independent of any government, political ideology, economic interest or religion * Democratic and self-governing * Financially self-sufficient, thanks to the generous support of donations provided by individual members and supporters We do not support or oppose any government or political system and neither do we necessarily support or oppose the views of the victims/survivors or human rights defenders whose rights we seek to protect

While I think there is a role for a human rights watchdog that strives to be as non-political as possible, I think Naomi Klein is right to point out the deficiencies of this approach. When human rights violations are documented and condemned without any analysis of the raison-d’etre, we invariably end up with the impression that either (a)these are just random acts of violence, or (b)there are truly evil people in the world. This is problematic from both an intellectual and a practical point of view. From an intellectual point of view, focusing on human rights and their violation in a purely formal or legal sense abstracts from the political economy that governs the use of power and force in the first place. This greatly impoverishes our understanding of history and conflict. In some cases, this leads to the perception that human rights violations are carried out as part of a struggle for survival between mortal enemies – the national defense and security rationale for imprisoning, torturing, disappearing and executing enemies of the state. This justification of the use of force is usually only a veil, masking a deeper struggle for power and resources. The economic ideology underlying the massive repression carried out throughout Latin America and elsewhere has escaped condemnation precisely because it has convinced the world that the facts of human rights violations (such as the imprisonment or disappearance of union leaders and left-wing journalists) are distinct from the questions of why they occur and for whose benefit. Communism was never able to pull off such an intellectual coup – by now, most people have correctly made the connection between unpopular its unpopular economic policies (such as collective farming) and the repression required to implement them. For this we have the myopia of contemporary human rights discourse to blame. [Two interesting examples of this in recent times are the case of the Tiananmen square massacre, which Klein argues was widely perceived as an anti-democracy crackdown when it was as much an attempt to crush forces that opposed the economic policies of Deng Xiaoping and his successors, and the current situation in Burma, which has its roots more in the ridiculous economic incompetence of the kleptocracy than a desire to promote freedom of the press for its own sake.] From a more practical point of view, the reason for analyzing the causes of human rights abuses more deeply is that it greatly extends the sphere of culpability. It is not just the torturers, executioners and military men who are to blame, but the civilians who stand to benefit from the fear and control that is achieved. Being the beneficiary of repression is not enough in and of itself to merit criminal prosecution under international law, or even censure in the court of public opinion. But there are many cases where civilians, business leaders, and, yes, economists themselves are actively involved in the support and formulation of the very policies that provoke, or even require, systematic human rights abuses. I am not sure that international human rights lawyers are currently up to the task of prosecuting these people, when so many of the petty thugs with literal blood on their hands go unpunished. The international business interests that benefit every time a (seemingly random) group of thugs intimidate or kill a union leader have excellent legal resources, protection from their home (and often host) governments, and arms-length associations with the "muscle." Naming and shaming is probably the best we can do right now. Nevertheless, one longs for the day that a more thorough accounting of culpability recognizes the role of the "why" in human rights violations, especially as it relates to the implementation of unpopular policies by undemocratic regimes.

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3 thoughts on “Naomi Klein on the “why” of human rights violations

  1. Hi Nick

    Good points all! I agree that the “discourse” is tough. Apparently it is tougher still to build and defend legal systems that remedy rights violations.

  2. Hi Michael,
    The only reason I single out right-wing economic doctrines is that they are the focus of Naomi Klein’s book (its not the rise of disaster communism, though one could certainly write a book about that too – the contribution of economic crisis to radical left-wing regimes). That, and the fact that while the crimes of Communist regimes in China, Russia, Cuba, and elsewhere are frequently asserted to be intimately related to the economic programs of these countries, we very rarely hear of the very real connections between the economic policies of corporatist and fascist type states and their economic policies. Of course what Naomi Klein points out is that while a belief in the logic of the free market underlies much of right-wing economic thought, and serves to justify certain policies, in practice this is frequently synonymous with a corporatist or state capitalist model where the government is in bed with the elite local and multinational business interests and the policies that support the free market (like restrictions on unions, loose labor regulations, policies that make taxes and social spending less progressive) “just happen” to coincide with the policies favored by these groups. This is the model we see today everywhere, including in countries that are wrongly classified as communist or left-wing – like China. There is not much difference between the left and right in these specific cases – only an alliance of special interests. But perhaps in fairness I should have pointed to a contemporary example – say, Venezuela – where human rights abuses (in particular restrictions on the behavior of oil workers and a major crackdown on the right-wing press) can be analyzed within the same framework, as part of a program to override opposition to economic reforms that hurt certain groups (notably wealthy and middle-class Venezuelans).

    Regarding Amnesty, I mentioned that they have come under criticism for their work, especially with regards to the US and Israel, but of course there may be many more examples. There are many other human rights groups that try to maintain a similar neutral stance, like Human Rights watch (which is ironically the amalgam of two groups, one focusing only on Soviet bloc abuses and the other only on abuses by the US and friendly regimes in Central America). The UNHCR obviously draws a lot of flak as well, since its members are frequently the worst human rights abusing states in the world. Perhaps there is no possibility of human rights discourse ever being judged as “fair and balanced” or “objective” no matter how hard we try?

  3. Hi Nick

    Interesting post. The politics of rights is a field where angels fear to tread. Let us focus for a second on one of the all time individual rights violators, Herr Stalin. In order to achieve the scale of repression that he desired, he had to politicize all organizations that implemented law. ?Into the Whirlwind” describes the enormous pressures (read fear) that compelled local actors to condemn their friends and family to the Gulag (only later to be condemned themselves).

    Two points. These pressures did not come from, nor were abetted by economists or businessmen. They came from the left. So, you might be a bit more balanced in your finger pointing. Political actors from the left and right both have been bad boys and girls from time to time. Second, there is a larger problem than just violations of rights. These violations occur after the rule of law is debased. So rather than complain about symptoms of systemic failure, why don’t we demand stronger accountability for the developing these systems themselves? To be more concrete, Amnesty International can write all it wants about rights abuses (by the way sometimes basing its conclusions on hearsay and rumor – I do take issue with your claim that Amnesty enjoys high ?credibility”), but there will be no greater protections in countries where the courts are controlled, incompetent or both.

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