Empire’s Sometime Handmaidens: Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International

Photograph Source: Richard Potts – CC BY 2.0

Chevron’s malfeasance in Lago Agrio, Ecuador upended people’s lives. Pristine wilderness polluted with hundreds of oil pits. A plague of cancer on Indigenous children. Rivers filled with toxic chemicals. An international uproar and court case, in which Chevron set new records for playing dirty. And where, you may ask is Human Rights Watch on this gross abuse of human rights? Nowhere to be seen. Amnesty International at least weighed in, as it also did on the atrocious judicial persecution of the Ecuadorans’ attorney, Steven Donziger, enduring years of house arrest for an infraction that ordinarily merits a 90-day sentence. Indeed, on the Chevron fiasco, Amnesty had one of its finer moments.

On Cuba, their roles are reversed. Back in 2017, HRW announced that undoing Obama’s more open Cuban policies would be a bad idea. But just this past July, Amnesty called on the U.S. not to ignore Cuba’s “crackdown on freedom of expression.” This was just throwing fuel on the blockade fire. The U.S. government needs no encouragement to get tough on Cuba. It’s been doing just that, with gusto, for generations.

But perhaps its most recent finest, and the best you can say about both organizations, involves their stance on the prosecutorial abuse of Julian Assange. Both Amnesty and HRW have managed to acknowledge Assange’s horrendous plight. Further violating Assange’s human rights was a CIA plot, revealed on September 26, to kidnap and assassinate him, the sort of thing Assange claimed was going on all along and that pusillanimous reporters for publications like the Guardian pooh-poohed. One hopes that Amnesty and HRW will weigh in on this, because on issues of concern to critics of the capitalist empire, these two marquee human rights bodies display a spottily passable record. But they lack even a few spots in their support of the expansionist U.S. empire and their eagerness to label as human rights violations any government’s acts of self-defense, taken in response to U.S. regime change schemes.

Across the globe, color revolutions or U.S.-backed coups, attempted coups, imperially backed regime-change operations and illegal U.S. sanctions have erupted in lots of places: Russia, Belarus, Hong Kong, Syria, North Korea, Ukraine, to name a few. Granted some of these governments are unsavory or worse. But that does not excuse foreign, i.e. imperial U.S., meddling. Take the example of Venezuela, a country that tolerates a violent, insurrectionist opposition, funded by a hostile foreign government, the U.S. – funding which Venezuela also, inexplicably, tolerates.

First, neither Amnesty nor HRW denounced Trump’s murderous sanctions on Venezuela. They could have. They could have stated the obvious – that preventing cancer patients from buying chemo and the poor from eating full meals is not just amoral and frankly evil, but it also serves no purpose. It is gratuitous cruelty. People tend not to rise up against their government when it’s attacked; they rally around it. But instead, Amnesty designated one Leopoldo Lopez a “prisoner of conscience,” despite his U.S. funding and public laments that the 2013 attempted Venezuelan coup failed. If someone supported a regime change effort in the U.S., while taking money from Russia and was later jailed for it, do you think Amnesty would laud that person as a prisoner of conscience? Or would it curse him as a hoodlum and a fascist?

And then there was the 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez. Amnesty had nothing to say about that. In fact, according to Justin Podur and Joe Emersberger in their recent book on Venezuela, Extraordinary Threat, “Amnesty’s real agenda appeared to be absolving the world’s only superpower from all responsibility for trying to overthrow Chavez and shifting as much blame as possible away from U.S. allies in Venezuela.” Amnesty’s approach was reprehensible, but where countries too independent from the capitalist empire are concerned, it was par for the course.

More recently, Amnesty appeared to support Trump’s threats against Venezuela, citing victims of human rights violations in the country. It also issued a report, smearing Maduro for using hunger as a weapon – this when people starved because Trump’s sanctions crippled the government’s food distribution program. Amnesty also insinuated that “colectivos” were comprised of armed government goons, a grotesque distortion. Most members of colectivos are poor people, helping to allot food. Meanwhile, officially, Amnesty washed its hands of the suffering Trump inflicted on Venezuela by taking no position against U.S. sanctions.

In Syria, things haven’t been much better. HRW and Amnesty never condemned U.S. sanctions, though they pontificated about supposed chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government on the rebels. Those sarin releases may have been false flag operations. MAY have. The jury is out. But western human rights mandarins never acknowledged this possibility, so inconvenient when it comes to justifying U.S. bombing in retaliation. Because how could the U.S. righteously bomb Syria, if the government had not used chemical weapons? That would just be naked aggression, right? So it was an imperial article of faith that the Syrian government gassed rebels, and far be it from HRW or Amnesty to admit any evidence to the contrary.

Reporting by Aaron Mate indicated that the 2018 Syrian gas attack was indeed staged. According to the Hill on June 21, “Mate’s reporting has suggested that the intergovernmental chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), found no evidence of a chemical attack in Syria that triggered retaliatory actions from the U.S. and its allies.” Mate’s reporting stirred up a storm on the left, to say the least, but there’s no question it raises serious questions about the veracity of U.S. charges that Syria gassed its people. How have the chief human rights groups responded to this possibility? Without a peep.

As far as U.S. sanctions on Syria are concerned, the two human rights groups are politely mum. Instead, they criticize – often justly – the Syrian government for its atrocities on its citizens, and they decry the barbarism of the opposition. On its website, back in March, Amnesty denounced both sides in the conflict subjecting “millions of civilians to unlawful ground and air attacks, widespread and systematic arbitrary detention, torture leading to deaths in detention, enforced disappearance, sieges leading to starvation, and forced displacement.” But while Amnesty singles out Russia, it never mentions the U.S. role in many of these hardships, as if the U.S. burning wheatfields has no impact on starving Syrian families.

And then there’s Belarus. Back in May, when that country “forced down” a Ryanair plane and detained an “activist” – who had stark Nazi associations in his past – HRW went wild, with a headline on its website: “Belarus’s Shocking New Low in Crushing Dissent.” Well, first, the entire narrative that the plane was supposedly forced to land has been credibly questioned, though this has led to no retraction from HRW. Belarus says it received two bomb threats, causing it to warn the pilot to land, while the plane travelled in its airspace from Athens to Vilnius. It provided evidence of these alarming emails. But did that affect HRW’s coverage, which in turn amplified western hysteria? No.

Second, the activist, Roman Protasevich, later appeared in a local TV interview that cast much doubt on the whole noble-dissenter-detained storyline, since the so-called freedom fighter provided a tell-all about the foreign-financed regime change efforts he had participated in, as Moon of Alabama reported June 4. Also, the bomb threat probably originated with other regime change activists, who opposed and betrayed him.

But the most glaringly hypocritical aspect of the adventure was that in 2013 the U.S. did exactly what Belarus was accused of, without a murmur of protest from HRW or Amnesty. That was when the U.S. forced a jet to land in Vienna, a plane carrying then Bolivian president Evo Morales, because geniuses in the Obama administration believed whistleblower Edward Snowden was hiding under a seat. This clear violation of international law – Morales WAS a head of state – provoked no screams of outrage from Amnesty or HRW. They held their fire until this year, when they accused Belarus of doing something that, in fact, they had given the U.S. a pass on eight years earlier.

These are only a few of the many examples shading with doubt the bona fides of our establishment human rights groups. One set of rules for the empire, I guess, and another for everybody else.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Busybody. She can be reached at her website.