In defense of human rights lobbying

Since over 100 people, including Nobel Peace laureates, sent a letter to Human Rights Watch (HRW), asking them to “close” their “revolving door” to the U.S. government, there’s been an increasingly flurry of criticism of the organization’s work and, to some extent, of the larger [American] human rights community and its tactics for affecting human rights change.

However, HRW’s close ties to the U.S. government call into question its independence. For example, HRW’s Washington advocacy director, Tom Malinowski, previously served as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton and as a speechwriter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. In 2013, he left HRW after being nominated as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights & Labor under John Kerry.

The signatories of the letter end with recommendations to HRW:

We therefore encourage you to institute immediate, concrete measures to strongly assert HRW’s independence. Closing what seems to be a revolving door would be a reasonable first step: Bar those who have crafted or executed U.S. foreign policy from serving as HRW staff, advisors or board members. At a bare minimum, mandate lengthy “cooling-off” periods before and after any associate moves between HRW and that arm of the government.

The letter, which was circulated on the internet, has made waves because of the signatories, but also because it does raise points about the nature of human rights organizations – and particularly American human rights NGOs – that cannot be ignored. Just as there are concerns when politicians and policy-makers have close links with private sector lobbyists and lawyers, there are concerns with human rights activists and staff of human rights organizations (which are, in my opinion, actually two very different types of “jobs”).

In an op-ed in the Boston Globe, Stephen Kinzer argues the following:

The modern human rights movement began as a band of outsiders, fighting governments on behalf of the faceless and voiceless. President Jimmy Carter brought it into the American foreign policy establishment by naming an outspoken assistant secretary of state for human rights. This meant that concern for the poor, the brutalized, and the imprisoned would be heard in the highest councils of government.

Now, several decades after the human rights movement traded its outsider status for influence in Washington, it is clear that this has produced negative as well as positive results. The movement has become a global behemoth. Sometimes it functions as a handmaiden to the power it was once dedicated to combating.

First off, it’s unclear what is encompassed by the term “human rights movement.” Kinzer goes on the op-ed referring to “human rights activists” referring to staff at HRW and other such people engaging in lobbying on Capitol Hill. I personally wouldn’t call professional staff at a human rights organization “human rights activists.” For me, that term is reserved for people who are out in the streets demonstrating, many of whom are putting their lives at risk on a daily basis.

While the term “activism” has certainly evolved in recent years (with derived terms such as “clicktivism,” “slacktivism” and others increasingly being used to differentiate between different types of “activists”), it still denotes, at least in my opinion, something very different than a person who works on human rights within a well-established NGO. The latter is constrained by organizational policies, by grant requirements, by job descriptions, by administrative and bureaucratic hurdles that are inherent in any organization. The former is not.

But regardless of the terms used, and of the definitions used for these terms, there needs to be a distinction made. The breadth and depth of human rights work – and the people who do it – makes it then impossible to describe “the human rights movement” as one entity, and, if taking into consideration the plethora of human rights activists fighting for human rights and democracy throughout the world, one cannot say that this movement has “traded its outside status for influence in Washington.”

Moreover, what is missing from the discourse is an analysis of the context human rights organizations, at least those in the West, operate in. Human rights organizations do not lobby governments in a vacuum; private companies and foreign governments both employ teams of lawyers and lobbyists who are paid fortunes to defend their clients against accusations of human rights abuses and to influence foreign policy to their advantage.

A July 2010 article by Joshua Kurlantzick in Newsweek put forth some telling numbers:

Once the province of a few fringe players operating on the margins of Washington, lobbying for foreign countries has become big business for the most prestigious firms in D.C. According to data from the Department of Justice, the number of registrants—forms submitted by people registered to represent foreign countries—grew from about 1,800 in the first half of 2005 to 1,900 in the first half of 2009, the most recent data available. Human-rights activists say there has been a steeper rise, particularly in terms of dollars spent, among some of the most brutal regimes on earth, including several sanctioned by the U.S. for their human-rights abuses.

The Republic of the Congo spent $1.5 million on lobbying and PR firms and other representation in the first half of 2009 alone, according to reports compiled by the Justice Department. Angola, one of the most corrupt nations in the world, spent more than $3 million in that period. Teodoro Nguema Obiang, the brutal dictator of African petrostate Equatorial Guinea, who took power more than three decades ago in a coup, has hired the law firm of former Bill Clinton aide Lanny Davis to lobby on his behalf, for the annual sum of $1 million.

This is not just something that happens in the US but in other countries as well. In April 2014, Amnesty International UK released documents obtained from the UK Foreign Office that detailed the extent to which Rio Tinto and Shell lobbied the UK government to intervene on their behalf in cases related to human rights abuses being heard in US courts.

Human rights organizations have been forced to adapt to this reality in order to affect human rights change. Part of this adaption process has naturally meant learning how to lobby more effectively. And how to learn to lobby better than by employing people who know the ins and outs of the government? Speaking from experience, there is tremendous value in having staff on your team who have extensive experience and connections with policy-makers (both the executive and legislative branches of government). Most often, these people are former Congressional staffers, State Department aides, etc.

Finally, I disagree with the premise that there is an inherent problem with human rights activists going to work for the US State Department (or other such government bodies and organizations) and back and forth. First off, there’s a very real “careers” consideration here; as much as those of us in the human rights field would love to stay working in human rights organizations exclusively, it is such a restricted field (speaking in the number of posts available- especially once one leaves the Washington DC bubble), that it is almost impossible to do so. Leaving the human rights sector to work for foreign aid agencies, foreign affairs ministries, the UN, private corporations, you name it … is for many the only way to get the experience and skills necessary to

Now I recognize that the examples given in the open letter to HRW are ones of people who are more “senior” than what I’m speaking about here, but where do we draw the line? At what stage in one’s career or after how many years of work experience does one need a “cooling period” before they can switch the human rights sector? Criticism is always helpful and necessary, but it must also be realistic.

Secondly, assuming that there is a problem with switching between these fields means one is assuming that these individuals are not fully capable of adhering to an organization’s policy on these sensitive issues. I’m not saying there haven’t been policy mistakes made by HRW (and other human rights organizations), such as some of the examples highlighted in Kinzer’s op-ed, but I disagree those are necessarily because of the so-called “revolving door.”

I would rather posit that many of these mistakes happen because someone failed to adhere to the organization’s policy on a certain matter, or wasn’t appropriately trained in the organizational policy, or somewhere, someone forgot to go through the right approval channels. This is still a problem, of course, but with a very different root cause. At the end of the day, non-profits are non-profits; they are not well-oiled corporate machines, for better and for worse.

**Disclaimer: I work in the human rights field, and in the past was a registered lobbyist for a human rights organization (not Human Rights Watch).

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