Almost everyone likes the idea of human rights. The phrase itself is freighted with goodness. Supporting human rights is like supporting world peace.
The modern human rights movement began as a band of outsiders, fighting governments on behalf of the faceless and voiceless. President Jimmy Carter brought it into the American foreign policy establishment by naming an outspoken assistant secretary of state for human rights. This meant that concern for the poor, the brutalized, and the imprisoned would be heard in the highest councils of government.
Now, several decades after the human rights movement traded its outsider status for influence in Washington, it is clear that this has produced negative as well as positive results. The movement has become a global behemoth. Sometimes it functions as a handmaiden to the power it was once dedicated to combating.
The most appalling result of this process in the United States is that some human rights activists now regularly call for using force to resolve the world's problems. At one time, "human rights" implied opposition to war. Now some of the most outspoken warmongers in Washington are self-proclaimed human rights advocates.
They were among the loudest promoters of war to depose the Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy. That war cast Libya into chaos and set off a chain of events that has brought radical jihadist rule to large parts of Mali.
In recent months, President Obama's "human rights" team has pushed for escalated intervention in Syria and the dispatch of more troops to Afghanistan. Human rights activists — sometimes supported by well-meaning but pitifully ignorant celebrities — have urged that American military power be used to capture a warlord in Uganda, impose order in the Ivory Coast, crush rebels in South Sudan, and locate kidnap victims in Nigeria.
This is a radical development in the history of the human rights movement. Once it was generals, defense contractors, and chest-thumping politicians who saw war as the best solution to global problems. Now human rights activists play that role. Some seem to have given up on diplomacy and statecraft. Instead they promote the steady militarization of American foreign policy.
These trigger-happy human rights activists rotate in and out of government jobs. This month more than 100 scholars, activists, and Nobel Peace Prize winners protested against this revolving door in an open letter to Human Rights Watch, which, thanks to an astonishing $100 million gift from the financier George Soros, has become king of the human rights hill.
Their letter says that, although Human Rights Watch claims to defend and protect human rights, its ties to the American military and security establishments "call into question its independence." It names prominent Human Rights Watch figures who have served in the State Department and CIA; condemns the group for supporting "the illegal practice of kidnapping and transferring terrorism suspects around the planet"; and asserts that it produces biased reports exaggerating human rights abuses in countries the United States dislikes, like Venezuela, while being gentler to American allies like Honduras.
"HRW's close relationships with the US government suffuse such instances with the appearance of a conflict of interest," the letter says.
Also this month, news came that a French publisher will issue a book version of a devastating essay by a former American diplomat, Richard Johnson, called "The Travesty of Human Rights Watch on Rwanda," that has been circulating on the Internet for the last year. It is a detailed indictment of the policies Human Rights Watch wants Rwanda to adopt. They include demands that the Rwandan government end restrictions on hate speech and invite the former genocide army back from its bases in the Congo so it can compete for power.
In his paper, Johnson accuses Human Rights Watch of waging a "viscerally hostile" campaign against Rwanda from behind an "aura of sanctity." He asserts that this campaign "is a threat to that country's peace and stability."
"The mendacity and bias of HRW's political campaign against the post-genocide Rwandan government undermines the overall credibility of Western human rights advocacy," he concludes.
The world needs fearless truth-tellers. Some human rights advocates are. Others have succumbed to the temptations of power. Their movement is in danger of losing its way.
Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.