The End of Human Rights?

Stephanie Sinclair
Two eight-year-old brides with their husbands, Hajjah, Yemen, July 2010

Human rights organizations today have a major part in international affairs. My organization, Human Rights Watch, works in ninety countries, including virtually all those suffering war or severe governmental repression. Amnesty International, the largest rights group, has similar coverage and three million members around the world. These two big international human rights groups are joined by diverse and vigorous groups and activists working in virtually every country of the world other than the most closed and repressive. Together, they investigate a wide variety of human rights abuses by governments and armed groups, publicize their misconduct, and generate often intense pressure for change.

Just in the last year or so Human Rights Watch has had a significant influence in such matters as forcing Rwanda to stop supporting the abusive M23 rebel group in eastern Congo, leading to its demise. It had a leading part in convincing the French government and the United Nations Security Council to deploy peacekeepers to stop the mass slaughter in the Central African Republic. It contributed to China’s decision to abolish its system of administrative detention known as “reeducation through labor.” It showed that the Syrian military was responsible for the sarin attack in the suburbs of Damascus, adding to the pressure for Syria to relinquish its chemical weapons. It helped to secure a major new treaty among dozens of nations strengthening the existing prohibitions on forced labor. And much more.

But as the international human rights movement, and particularly the big global organizations, have gained prominence and influence, they have become the subject of growing academic interest, much of it critical. In the most recent example, The Endtimes of Human Rights, Stephen Hopgood argues that the accomplishments of the human rights movement are the product of a fading political moment. Hopgood laments the passing of the movement’s early days in the 1960s and 1970s when small groups of Amnesty members sat around kitchen tables and wrote letters on behalf of “prisoners of conscience” in such places as Communist Czechoslovakia and Pinochet’s Chile or lit candles in church basements in solidarity with them. Hopgood admires these early activists for standing “as spiritual guardians outside the prevailing global regime of politics and money.” They were, in his view, characterized by their “detachment from power politics,” acting with a purity that was “without self-interest.”

Today, however, Hopgood sees organizations run by human rights professionals who, he says, are “throwing in their lot” with the US government and other Western powers while losing touch with the movement’s popular origins. Beginning in the 1980s, he writes, human rights organizations have allied themselves much too closely in particular with the US government, whose support has been inconsistent and whose influence in any event is declining in an increasingly multipolar world. By entering “the profane worlds of state power and…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.