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The Folly of Awards and Accolades

Human Rights Groups Against Human Rights

by NATHAN GOODMAN

Recently, best-selling author Chris Hedges announced his resignation from PEN, a prominent international writers’ organization. That resignation was partially motivated by the fact that while PEN purports to speak on behalf of dissidents, it’s been completely silent regarding the US government’s imprisonment, torture, and abuse of military whistleblower Bradley Manning.

Hedges’ resignation was also in response  to PEN’s appointment of former US State Department official and Amnesty International USA director Suzanne Nossel as its executive director. As Hedges explains, Nossel “had been one of the most fervent cheerleaders for the Iraq War, indeed had written in support of the war in Foreign Affairs, had embraced the administration’s policy, whether that’s drone attacks, the assassination of U.S. citizens, the curtailment of civil liberties, had not spoken out against torture.” Nossel is also often credited with coining the imperialist Newspeak phrase “smart power.”

At Amnesty, she spearheaded a campaign glorifying the US/NATO occupation of Afghanistan, urging NATO to “keep the progress going” for Afghan women and girls. She evidently cared little for the human rights of innocents murdered by NATO’s night raids in Afghanistan, or for the opinions of women’s rights activists who actually live in Afghanistan. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, far from seeing the war as “progress” for women, sees it as aggression that exacerbates violence against women.

PEN and Amnesty aren’t the only human rights groups complicit in state aggression. “Mainstream” LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights groups have a sordid history of supporting war, empire and incarceration. Dean Spade documents [PDF] many instances of LGBT rights being used as propaganda cover for state violence and repression, a phenomenon known as “pinkwashing.”

Spade writes, “The term ‘pinkwashing’ is most frequently used to describe the explicit strategy Israel has undertaken in recent years to market itself as a human rights leader based on its stances on same-sex marriage and LGBT military service,” even as it institutes policies of apartheid, burns civilians to death with white phosphorus, steals land, imposes dire poverty through its Gaza blockade, and perpetrates a litany of other human rights abuses. But with a bit of “pinkwash,” the Israeli state re-brands itself as a beacon of freedom.

While largely associated with the Israeli state, pinkwashing has also been deployed in support of state aggression by the US, with the full complicity of mainstream LGBT rights groups. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) celebrated passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which added sexual orientation and gender identity to federal hate crimes laws. But this law was not passed on its own. Instead, it was an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2008 Department of Defense Authorization. As Spade explains, “The bill set aside the highest amount of money ever provided to the Department of Defense in U.S. history. The increase in funding to the Department was made to cover the expense of Obama’s 100,000-person troop surge in Afghanistan.”

HRC celebrated the financing of violence abroad to prevent homophobic and transphobic violence at home. But there’s little evidence that hate crimes laws actually prevent violence, and lots of evidence that they strengthen America’s violent police and prison systems, which disproportionately harm members of the LGBT community.

More radical LGBT groups like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project reject hate crimes laws. But for groups like HRC, expanding the prison-industrial complex is just fine, and not just in the name of stopping hate crimes. HRC gives “private prison” and immigration detention center investor Wells Fargo top marks on its “Corporate Equality Index.” It presented an Equality Award to Jane Marquardt, Vice Chair of the Management and Training Corporation, the third largest operator of for-profit prisons in the country.

Human rights organizations shouldn’t be in the business of  handing out awards, accolades and executive positions to human rights abusers. Kudos to Chris Hedges for dissociating himself from such behaviors. Resistance to war, occupation and mass incarceration includes opposing organizations that falsely claim to fight for human rights.

Nathan Goodman is a writer and activist living in Salt Lake City, Utah. He has been involved in LGBT, feminist, anti-war, and prisonersolidarity organizing. In addition to writing at the Center for a Stateless Society, he blogs at Dissenting Leftist. He is a member of the Prison Divestment Project.