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”).

Continue reading