The Bias of Human Rights Watch
Sydney, Nova Scotia.
Over the past thirty years, Human Rights Watch has become one of the most recognized non-governmental organizations in the world due to its global promotion of human rights. But despite its claims to be an advocate of international human rights law, the reports issued by Human Rights Watch over the past decade have increasingly exhibited a bias towards certain rights over others. More precisely, Human Rights Watch repeatedly focuses on political and civil rights while ignoring social and economic rights. As a result, it routinely judges nations throughout the world in a manner that furthers capitalist values and discredits governments seeking socialist alternatives. It is this bias that lies at the root of Human Rights Watch’s scathing attacks on the government of Venezuela its recently deceased president Hugo Chávez. This bias was also evident in comments made in 2012 by Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, when he declared that Venezuela is “the most abusive” nation in Latin America.
According to Human Rights Watch’s mission statement, “Human Rights Watch is dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world” and in order to achieve that objective “We challenge governments and those who hold power to end abusive practices and respect international human rights law.” The international human rights law referred to by Human Rights Watch is rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was passed by the UN General Assembly in 1948. The Declaration encompasses political, civil, social, economic and cultural rights.
Capitalist nations, particularly the United States, have never been comfortable with the articles of the UN Declaration that require governments to guarantee the social and economic rights of their citizens. Among the social and economic rights that contravene capitalist values are the right to “food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services” (Article 25) as well as the right “to share in scientific advancement and its benefits” (Article 27). In a capitalist society, responsibility for obtaining food, clothing, housing and medical care rests with the individual not the state. Likewise, it is not the state’s responsibility to ensure that all citizens share equally in the benefits of scientific advancements developed by, for example, pharmaceutical corporations.
The United States does support those articles in the Declaration that promote civil and political rights. These rights ensure that “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law” (Article 7) “Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others” (Article 17); “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” (Article 18); and “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression” (Article 19). Basically, these are the individual rights that are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and that lie at the root of the liberal democratic concept of the “rule of law.” And while Human Rights Watch professes to defend the human rights enshrined in the UN Declaration, in reality, its work focuses exclusively on the civil and political rights recognized by the U.S. government.
A vivid example of Human Rights Watch’s bias against economic and social rights is the report the organization issued immediately following the death of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez. Human Rights Watch had long had an antagonistic relationship with the Venezuelan leader, which was touched upon in the report. The report clearly reflected the view of the organization’s executive director Ken Roth that Venezuela (along with Bolivia and Ecuador) is “the most abusive nation” in Latin America. One only need take a quick look at Human Rights Watch’s reports on Colombia to illustrate the ludicrousness of such a statement.
Under the title, “Venezuela: Chávez’s Authoritarian Legacy,” the report contains a litany of violations of civil and political rights and not a single mention of the country’s impressive achievements in economic, social and cultural rights. The report opens by stating, “Hugo Chávez’s presidency (1999-2013) was characterized by a dramatic concentration of power and open disregard for basic human rights guarantees.” The latter part implies a basic disregard for all human rights, but the report goes on to focus solely on issues related to civil and political rights. If the Chávez government had indeed disregarded all basic human rights as suggested by Human Rights Watch, then how does one explain the country’s remarkable successes ensuring that all citizens receive adequate food and housing as well as free healthcare and education; all of which constitute guarantees of economic, social and cultural rights.
Not only does Venezuela now provide free education—including at the university level, where students can learn the country’s various indigenous languages—but its programs, according to UNESCO, have resulted in the country becoming an “illiteracy-free” nation and post-secondary enrolments doubling over the past decade. And as for the basic right to food, a recent report issued by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) stated, “We analyze hunger statistics all over the world. There are 800 million people in the world who suffer from hunger, 49 million in Latin America and the Caribbean, but not one of them is Venezuelan.” Perhaps the government’s most impressive overall achievement with regard to social and economic rights has been the astounding decline in the number of Venezuelans living in poverty, from 55 percent of the population when Chávez was first elected in 1998 to 18 percent in 2011.
These achievements have resulted from state-funded projects, called “missions,” that are devised, implemented and evaluated at the community level by more than 16,000 communal councils in what constitutes an impressive example of participatory democracy. But Human Rights Watch does not make a single reference to any of these achievements in social and economic rights, or with regard to the political rights enjoyed by the millions of citizens participating in the communal councils. All of these examples contradict Human Rights Watch’s claim that the Chávez government was “characterized by a dramatic concentration of power and open disregard for basic human rights guarantees.”
Venezuela is far from perfect and, as is the case with all other nations, violations of human rights do occur. However, Human Rights Watch’s selective highlighting of a handful of cases related only to civil and political rights implies widespread human rights abuses perpetrated against the population. This approach obscures the fact that the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans are now, for the first time, enjoying economic, social and cultural rights to a degree that few citizens in the world have ever experienced.
Not only does Human Rights Watch focus solely on civil and political rights, but it does so by approaching human rights from the perspective that all things globally are equal. In other words, it does not account for the grossly unequal power dynamics that exist in a global society dominated by wealthy imperialist nations in the global North. Among the alleged civil and political rights violations in Venezuela addressed in the Human Rights Watch report are issues related to the persecution of political opponents, press freedom, judicial independence and human rights scrutiny.
One of the cases Human Rights Watch highlights to illustrate the Chávez government’s persecution of the political opposition is that of Osvaldo Alvarez Paz. In March 2010, Alvarez Paz was arrested for statements he made during an interview on one of the country’s largest privately-owned television networks. As Human Rights Watch noted, Alvaro Paz stated that “Venezuela has turned into a center of operations that facilitates the business of drug trafficking” and then accused “Chavez of being a subversive element and having direct links with FARC and ETA [groups viewed as terrorists by much of the international community].” Alvaro Paz was charged with conspiracy, spreading false information, and publicly inciting violation of the law.
While there are legitimate concerns related to the arrest of Alvaro Paz, Human Rights Watch’s biased portrayal of the issue ignored the broader context by failing to mention that Alvaro Paz made his agenda clear to all a couple of months after the television interview in a column he wrote in El Nacional, one of Venezuela’s largest daily newspapers. In his op-ed piece, Alvaro Paz called on Venezuelans to oust the Chávez government as soon as possible by emphasizing the need “to be clear about the indispensable objective. To replace the current regime with as little delay and as little trauma as possible.” It was precisely this sort of incendiary rhetoric disseminated through the elite-owned private media that played an instrumental role in the military coup that temporarily overthrew Chávez in April 2002.
Human Rights Watch’s depiction of the Alvaro Paz case suggested that there was little space for high-profile political opponents to criticize the government. However, the report failed to mention that opposition presidential candidates Manuel Rosales (2006) and Henrique Capriles (2012) repeatedly verbalized harsh criticisms of Chávez during their electoral campaigns without facing any repercussions. Human Rights Watch also failed to note that the opposition used Chávez’s own constitution against him by organizing a recall referendum in 2004 without being persecuted. And, in all of these cases, most private media outlets, both print and television, openly backed the opposition.
Nevertheless, Human Rights Watch also slammed the Chávez government for restricting press freedom. The organization’s report highlights the case of the privately-owned television channel RCTV because the government refused to renew the network’s broadcast license upon expiration. But Human Rights Watch failed to point out that RCTV was directly involved in the military coup that temporarily ousted Chávez in 2002 and that this act of subversion was the reason the station’s broadcast license was not renewed. Furthermore, it is evident to anyone who has spent any time in Venezuela that there is no other government in the world that endures the intense criticism—and blatant slander—that routinely emanates from the private media in Venezuela.
Human Rights Watch views the Venezuelan government’s refusal to renew RCTV’s broadcast license as a violation of the civil rights of the private individuals who own the station. And herein lies a fundamental problem that illustrates how Human Rights Watch’s approach is incompatible with a socialist alternative to capitalism. By prioritizing civil and political liberties, Human Rights Watch ensures that the wealthy have the same rights as the poor, which sounds rational and fair in theory, but is seriously problematic in reality.
From a socialist perspective, the financial gains made by the wealthy directly result from the exploitation of the poor; in other words, they result from violating the economic and social rights of the poor. Therefore, the defense of the civil and political rights of a minority of elites is inextricably linked to violations of the economic and social rights of the poor majority. And in the case of the wealthy owners of RCTV, not only are they among the wealthiest people in Venezuela, but they were using their grossly disproportionate degree of influence over the population that resulted from owning a major television network in an effort to bring down the government in order to preserve their privileged status.
In capitalist nations, wealthy owners of private media have little motivation to challenge a government that defends their privilege. But in a socialist nation, such owners use their vast media resources, not to inform the population, but to defend their own personal privilege by undermining the government at every opportunity. And this has been the modus operandi of most private media outlets in Venezuela—a context that Human Rights Watch willfully ignores in its condemnation of the Chávez government. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch’s report failed to note the influence of powerful foreign imperialist forces, which was revealed in declassified U.S. State Department documents showing that the U.S. government provided $4 million in funding to anti-Chávez journalists and media outlets between 2007 and 2009.
Human Rights Watch argues that the government’s crackdown on RCTV is part of a pattern of behaviour that undermines “pluralism” in media coverage; a pattern that has also, according to the report, “expanded the number of government-run TV channels from one to six.” But this claim by Human Rights Watch is disingenuous because most of those state-owned channels have been made available to community-based media cooperatives so they have an outlet to broadcast their perspectives on what is happening in the country. One of these television channels, Avila TV, regularly broadcasts programs that address issues related to gender, homophobia and indigenous and Afro-Venezuelan rights.
Apparently, Human Rights Watch only views the individual “civil” rights of wealthy Venezuelans who wish to dominate broadcasting and, by extension, the molding of public opinion as relevant to media “pluralism,” and not the “social” rights enjoyed by Venezuelans throughout the country whose voices can now be heard through community-based media. Ultimately, Human Rights Watch’s prioritization of civil and political rights means that everyone’s human rights are not equally protected. Such an approach to human rights inevitably has the same consequences as that of the “rule of law” in a liberal democracy: it defends an unjust status quo. As Anatole France stated in reference to the rule of law being equally applicable to all, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
Human Rights Watch also accuses Chávez and his “followers” in the National Assembly of “packing” the Supreme Court with their allies. But the decision to increase the number of sitting Supreme Court justices in 2004 was implemented according to the country’s constitution, which itself was ratified by an overwhelming majority of voters in a national referendum. Furthermore, Chávez served two terms in office and, as president, had the rights to appoint Supreme Court justices. Similarly, two-term presidents in the United States appoint Supreme Court justices that reflect their political views, but Human Rights Watch does not accuse them of “packing” the Supreme Court for political gain.
With regard to human rights monitoring in Venezuela, Human Rights Watch slammed the Chávez government for “preventing the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights from conducting in-country monitoring of human rights problems.” Again, Human Rights Watch ignores the broader international context. The Commission is part of the Organization of American States (OAS), which has longed served U.S. interests in Latin America. The United States had Cuba expelled from the OAS in 1962 because, as the resolution stated, socialism “is incompatible with the principles and objectives of the inter-American system.” Not surprisingly, Chávez, as the leader of a nation that is transitioning to socialism, viewed the OAS as a tool of U.S. imperialism and did not recognize its legitimacy to judge a sovereign nation such as Venezuela, which is precisely why the country withdrew its membership from the Inter-American Court and Commission.
Human Rights Watch’s report went on to criticize a ruling by Venezuela’s Supreme Court restricting foreign funding, particularly from the United States and Europe, to Venezuelan Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Once again, Human Rights Watch willfully ignored the international context in which the U.S. government has a long history of funding only those sectors of civil society opposed to governments it does not like. In recent years, such funding was provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to NGOs in Haiti that opposed President Jean Bertrand Aristide, whose democratically-elected government was eventually overthrown by the U.S. military in 2004.
The United States has a similar history of funding Venezuelan NGOs, such as Súmate, whose primary objective was to remove Chávez from office. The aforementioned declassified State Department documents revealed that Washington provided $40 million in funding to Venezuelan opposition groups between 2007 and 2009. Such actions constitute blatant interference in the internal politics of a sovereign nation; an interference that is possible only because of the unequal distribution of global political power that provides wealthy nations with sufficient wealth and power to intervene in the internal affairs of poor nations under the guise of providing “aid.”
Human Rights Watch’s report also criticizes the Chávez government for expelling from the country two Human Rights Watch employees who had flown in from the United States to publicly launch the organization’s 2008 report, which constituted a particularly harsh attack on Venezuela for violations of human rights. Upon his arrival in Venezuela, Jose Miguel Vivanco, the lead author of the report and one of the two expelled, stated, “We did the report because we wanted to demonstrate to the world that Venezuela is not a model for anyone.” While Human Rights Watch was busy portraying itself as a victim of repression, it remained oblivious to the arrogance of its actions. Once again, citizens of a country in the global South were supposed to tolerate representatives from an institution based in a wealthy nation of the global North entering their country to render judgement on their government. It was not only the Venezuelan government that took issue with the Human Rights Watch report, more than 100 scholars from throughout the Americas, including Noam Chomsky, signed a letter criticizing the report’s blatantly biased critique of Venezuela. The letter stated that the report “does not meet even the most minimal standards of scholarship, impartiality, accuracy, or credibility.”
Given Human Rights Watch’s emphasis on civil and political rights and willingness to completely ignore social and economic rights, it is not surprising that a socialist country like Venezuela would view such an organization as aligned with the interests of the U.S. government, Wall Street and corporate America. It is this emphasis on political and civil rights emphasized by many international human rights organizations that leads some leftists, Marxists in particular, to dismiss the western human rights paradigm as a promoter of capitalism’s individualistic values—and as another tool of imperialism.
The Human Rights Watch report on Venezuela concludes by stating, “Under Chávez, Venezuela’s closest ally was Cuba, the only country in Latin America that systematically represses virtually all forms of political dissent. Chávez identified Fidel Castro—who headed Cuba’s repressive government until his health deteriorated in 2006—as his model and mentor.” Clearly, Human Rights Watch attempted to discredit Chávez by linking him to Fidel Castro. In order to achieve this, Human Rights Watch again had to limit its definition of human rights to civil and political rights. And again, the degree of correlation between the U.S. government’s emphasis on civil and political rights in Cuba and that of Human Rights Watch is uncanny.
Nowhere in its Cuba reports does Human Rights Watch acknowledge the country’s huge achievements in guaranteeing economic and social rights. In spite of being subjected to an inhumane decades-long economic blockade by the U.S. government, Cuba has succeeded in providing free healthcare and education to all of its citizens as well as ensuring that everyone’s basic housing and food needs are met. But as with its analysis of Venezuela, the provision of these economic and social rights to all Cubans is ignored by Human Rights Watch.
Some may argue that Human Rights Watch focuses primarily on violations of human rights rather than on achievements, and this is the reason that its reports do not reflect the remarkable successes of Venezuela and Cuba in guaranteeing economic and social rights. However, such an argument does not hold up when the organization’s reports on the United States are analyzed. Nowhere in its reports does Human Rights Watch accuse the U.S. government of exhibiting an “open disregard for basic human rights guarantees” due to gross violations of economic and social rights resulting from not ensuring adequate food, housing and healthcare for its entire population.
According to a 2009 study published by researchers from Harvard Medical School, some 45,000 people die annually in the United States due to a lack of medical coverage. The study also noted that people without health coverage had a 40 percent greater chance of dying than those with medical insurance. Meanwhile, there are more than half-a-million homeless people and, according to the non-profit Feeding America, 17 million hungry children in the United States. The fact that Human Rights Watch routinely ignores these violations of the economic and social rights enshrined in the UN Declaration highlights the blatant bias in the organization’s approach.
In conclusion, the repeated failure of Human Rights Watch to prioritize economic, social and cultural rights on par with civil and political rights, along with its refusal to contextualize human rights within the grossly unequal and imperialist power structures that dominate global politics, has reduced the organization to little more than an advocate of capitalist values. Human Rights Watch refuses to recognize the ways in which a human rights paradigm rooted in capitalist values (i.e. only civil and political rights) may not be suited to countries searching for a socialist alternative in their struggle to liberate themselves from centuries of imperialism. After all, countries such as Venezuela and Cuba are forced to exist in a global context in which the most powerful nation on earth is using all of its resources to undermine them, not in the name of democracy or human rights, but because they dare to challenge the hegemony of the United States by promoting alternative models.
The point here is not to suggest that Venezuela does not violate human rights, obviously it does; as does every government. The point is to illustrate how Human Rights Watch’s bias dramatically distorts the human rights reality in Venezuela where every Venezuelan enjoys economic and social rights to a greater degree than virtually everyone else on the planet. It is only through the callous ignoring of these particular rights that Human Rights Watch can label Chávez as “authoritarian” and accuse his government of exhibiting an “open disregard for basic human rights guarantees.” In actuality, the Chávez government’s focus on economic and social rights has resulted in the emergence of a thriving grassroots democracy in Venezuela that is rooted in the concepts of participation and equality—in other words, a socialist vision of political and civil rights. Ultimately, Human Rights Watch’s selective and biased application of the human rights norms enshrined in the UN Declaration not only undermines its credibility, it also promotes injustice.
Garry Leech is an independent journalist and author of numerous books including Capitalism: A Structural Genocide (Zed Books, 2012); Beyond Bogota: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia (Beacon Press, 2009); and Crude Interventions: The United States Oil and the New World Disorder (Zed Books, 2006). He is also a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Cape Breton University.