The Magazine

An American Gulag?

From the June 13, 2005 issue: Human rights groups test the limits of moral equivalency.

Jun 13, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 37 • By KENNETH ANDERSON
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Other leading organizations in the human rights business have been by degrees more circumspect. Human Rights Watch, for example, may feel the same as AI but is more cautious and has called only for a special counsel to examine allegations against U.S. officials. But it, too, is entirely capable of publicity-seeking tantrums on these issues. HRW's latest world report, for instance, opens with an essay by its executive director, Kenneth Roth, which compares Sudan and the United States, Darfur and Abu Ghraib. Roth opens in lawyerly fashion, claiming that "no one would equate the two." He then spends the rest of the essay doing little else. Khartoum's violations are more extensive, while Washington's are actually more insidious because it is more powerful.

One is entitled to believe this, I suppose. But here's the rub. If you really believe, as Amnesty does, that Guantanamo is a Stalinist gulag, then you ought really to believe that its authors are the genuine Stalinist article--criminal leaders of a world-class criminal regime. After all, it is Stalins, Berias, and their henchmen who produce Stalinist gulags. Likewise, if you are Human Rights Watch and you really believe in the moral equivalence of Sudan and the United States, then surely you ought to regard U.S. leaders as nothing more than wicked criminals, to be arrested, and their regime isolated and sanctioned, if not actually invaded. Surely you should be urging the virtuecrats of Brussels and all of Europe to break off trade relations with the United States. You should be arguing for a breakup of NATO to isolate the human rights abuser, and perhaps even urging Europe to create the military might necessary to confront the deep evil of the U.S. regime. That's what morally serious people should be doing, after all, in dealing with Sudan and its leaders. We should be contemplating all that and more against the regime in Sudan. And if you really believe in the moral equivalence you rhetorically trumpet, then that's what a principled organization would demand regarding the United States, too.

But that's not what the human rights organizations do or say in the fine print, is it? On the contrary. Human Rights Watch wants the U.S. government to do many, many things on behalf of HRW's own agenda. Not merely mend its evil ways and stop torturing as HRW defines it--no, the group has an extensive action agenda for the world's wicked superpower and for its human rights abusing military, one that it wants Washington to get moving on right away, wicked or not. To start with, HRW has said that someone--preferably the U.N. Security Council, but failing that a coalition that must necessarily involve the United States--should intervene in Darfur.

There is much to be said for that position morally, and I admire Human Rights Watch for overcoming its bias for international organizations and against ad hoc coalitions of the willing, in the interests of the people of Darfur. But if the United States is what HRW says it is, why would the arch-criminals--in Washington, that is--care about doing anything so obviously, well, good? Which is it to be? The United States government and its leadership are a gang of criminals who should be isolated, sanctioned, arrested, and condemned as in principle no better than the undeniably criminal Sudanese government--but, by the way, it would be excellent if the Great Satan would also mount its noble charger, rattle its weapons, gird up its loins, and intervene to defend the people of Sudan. Please report to the International Criminal Court's dock in The Hague to be tried for torture and war crimes and what-not--but on your way, could you stop by Darfur, using military force if necessary to protect the people from genocide, make sure the peace treaty ending the war in the south doesn't fall apart, and don't do anything that we might regard as unnecessary collateral damage (we'll be watching, and we'll add anything we don't like to the list of your crimes). And, oh yes, be sure to arrest and bring the wicked Sudanese leaders and militias along with you to The Hague, so they can be prosecuted after we finish with you.

There is something morally perverse about this. Can you really hold these positions simultaneously and still count yourself a human rights organization acting solely on principle? Unlikely. What it means in the real world, of course, is that these human rights organizations, whether Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, simply indulge themselves in rhetorical overkill. They do not mean what they say.
Amnesty instinctively recognized this by putting its nonsensical charges in its press releases and not in its report. Human Rights Watch announces this horrific moral equivalence--then it calls merely for a special counsel to investigate further. Neither group means what it said, even though, like clockwork, letters to the editor will be received next week insisting that they really, really did. We, for our part, instinctively know better.

We also know that it is suicidally irresponsible for groups that depend on the moral force of their pronouncements to habitually say things they don't actually mean. Rhetorical inflation is a dangerous indulgence for the human rights movement. And it is a bad thing for the cause of human rights.

The world needs independent human rights organizations. Amnesty International may well have gone into a moral freefall of no return--and if so, it is an immense loss. Human Rights Watch is tempted in the same direction--tempted, to be precise, by the reports of its own virtue--but has not gone over the edge. Anyone who cares for human rights should hope deeply that it does not.

Because we need human rights groups with real moral authority, we should hope that the good ones will resist the temptation to wallow in their own unassailable virtue--to think that they are entitled, because of their inherent goodness, to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Which is why we need a press that is as willing to ask tough questions of the human rights organizations--to actually read their reports and notice what they have said and not said--as it is to go after the U.S. government. It is, at the end of the day, the best way to ensure that the world's nongovernmental watchdogs of morality themselves remain morally serious.

--Kenneth Anderson, an American University Law Professor and Hoover Institution research fellow, is legal editor of Crimes of War (Norton 1999) and blogs at