What Do Human Rights Groups Do?

What did Human Rights Watch hope to accomplish with its letter to Richard Scudamore two weeks ago, asking the Premier League to reject Thaksin Shinawatra as a new club owner?

It’s a fair question. After all, the letter made no attempt to argue that Thaksin did not meet the criteria of the league’s “fit and proper person” test, and no effort to contest his right to reside and do business in England. HRW’s Brad Adams must have known the probability of his letter receiving a positive reply was infinitesimally low. So what, then, was the point?

We can begin to fathom the answer by considering four distinct strategies human rights organizations might employ in attempting to promote human rights.

First, there are efforts to stop human rights abuses already under way. The aim here is to expose abuses currently being perpetuated, in hopes of raising public awareness and ultimately galvanizing political action so as stop or mitigate the abuses as soon as possible. Petitions to governments, letter-writing campaigns, documented reports, and media releases are the tools of the trade here. Obviously the letter concerning Thaksin did not fall into this category, since it concerned past alleged abuses.

Second, there are efforts to bring justice for past abuses. The thought here is simple: those who have helped perpetrate or are otherwise complicit in deliberates abuses of human rights should be brought to justice. Although the proportion of cases that are actually brought to any kind of justice may be very small, the possibility that abusers may face legal consequences may serve as a deterrent to those tempted to abuse power.

Third, there are efforts simply to shine a light, or tell the truth about past or current abuses. Sometimes—often—it’s simply not feasible to bring justice in human rights cases. Here, the best human rights groups can do is simply try to tell the truth, by documenting abuses, in the belief that this is valuable for its own sake.

Fourth, there are efforts to criticize regimes that abuse human rights, and effect political change so as to improve respec tfor human rights. Here the target is not a particular case, or a particular person, but a particular political regime or particular set of public policies. In some cases, a human rights group may try to lend its weight to promote regime change. Efforts of this nature are inherently more controversial, since they involve political judgments about the nature of regimes rather than reports on specific events, and because implicit in such efforts are judgments that there are politically attainable superior alternatives to a given regime that is presently committing human rights abuses. (Sometimes, there are not.)

Now the Thaksin letter from HRW can be plausibly interpreted as fulfilling the second and/or third function identified above. The letter about Thaksin has focused increased media attention and interest in the alleged abuses associated with the 2003 war on drugs in Thailand, a renewed attention that may yet rekindle serious efforts in Thailand to investigate the extra-judicial killings and bring a measure of justice.

In fact, the Manchester City and Premier League angle was most likely simply a pretext, an opening to call attention to the widely reported abuses of the drug war. I seriously doubt Adams or Human Rights Watch care very deeply whether Thaksin owns Manchester City or not; Adams more or less acknowledged this in a BBC interview, saying it’s not for him to say what the Premier League’s rules on owning a team should be.

Rather, this was seen as an opportunity, an opportunity to make headlines and cast worldwide attention towards the drug war issue. There is nothing inherently wrong in this; seizing opportunities when they come along, in whatever form they present themselves, is what effective pressure groups do. And, the tactic seems to have been quite successful, based on the renewed interest in the topic, from outlets like the Asia Sentinel all the way to humble blogs like this one.

One can imagine, however, a critique of the HRW’s intervention along these lines: doesn’t the criticism of Thaksin at this time hand Thailand’s military junta a propaganda victory? Given that the coup government is locked in an ongoing, no-holds-barred political battle with Thaksin, isn’t the HRW implicitly lending comfort to an anti-democratic regime with little interest in human rights?

One can understand the concern behind these questions, but I don’t think a critique of HRW’s conduct along these lines holds up. First, the coup government does not exactly occupy the moral high ground with respect to the war on drugs issue; any thorough investigation of the topic almost certainly would implicate officials allied with the ruling junta. Second, both in the letter to the Premier League and in many reports from Thailand, the organization has made clear its criticisms of the junta. And, in general, the major human rights organizations have a pretty solid track record of integrity in being willing to criticize human rights violations committed by any government or regime, elected or not.

I do have a couple of critical comments about HRW’s intevention, however. First, it’s not at all clear when Adams means when he called, in a newspaper interview, Thaksin “a human rights abuser of the worst kind.” By “worst kind,” does he mean quantity of dead bodies he is supposed to be responsible for? Surely there are many other leaders in the world who would fare worse than Thaksin by that metric.

Or does he instead mean, by “worst kind,” a particular quality of character exhibited by Thaksin that makes him particularly bad? These might include traits such as mendacity, indifference to legitimate criticism, willingness to violate others’ rights for political gain, or sheer callousness (all charges that in fact have been hurled at Thaksin by critics). But it’s impossible to know from Adams’ statements which of any of these characteristics he had in mind.

Second, Adams also over-stepped his mandate (in my judgment) by expressing sympathy for Manchester City fans and predicting it will all “end in tears.” That may be Adams’ personal opinion, and he may well turn out to be right, but that opinion is irrelevant to the question at hand. That statement, combined with the “abuser of the worst kind” line, will lead some to believe that there is a personal animus at work here, and that HRW’s principal goal is not to deliver justice for those disappeared during the war on drugs but to bring Thaksin down.

Given the kinds of charges Adams’ organization has depicted, that animus is understandable, and it’s certainly the case he’s not alone in harboring a passionate distaste for Thaksin. And, a human rights advocate with no capacity for burning moral indignation isn’t going to be very effective; it’s those advocates’ job to retain a moral passion about issues that most people most of the time ignore or rationalize away.

And, to be fair, it was the “human rights abuser of the worst kind” line that made the story from the media’s point of view. By any reasonable standard, HRW’s intervention was enormously successful in calling attention to some very serious charges. Nonetheless, a touch less personal venom in making the case might have the message even more effective.

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