International Justice Group

Too many human rights organizations have lost their way


Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, will step down at the end of August after nearly 30 years at the helm.

Roth brags about his legacy on paper: a tenfold increase in both staff and budget and a share of the 1997 Nobel Prize. In reality, he has presided over the erosion of the group’s reputation. Roth shifted Human Rights Watch from careful research to putting politics and ego before truth. Under Roth’s stewardship, Human Rights Watch solicited funds from Saudi Arabia in order to demonize Israel. The group even collaborated with a front organization founded by a designated al Qaeda financier.

Amnesty International has not been much better.

While the Iranian regime was ratcheting up wholesale human rights violations, Iran analyst Mansoureh Mills played politics and squandered credibility with false accusations she subsequently deleted. Now, Iran’s most partisan defenders can dismiss her work. In effect, she gave the ayatollahs a free pass. That damage is nothing compared with the group’s apartheid libel against Israel. The interview Lazar Berman conducted with Amnesty’s leaders should be required reading for any human rights practitioner as Exhibit A in what happens when groupthink and politics trump tradecraft.

The American Friends Service Committee likewise has become less of an organization driven by Quaker values or conscience than a shrill refuge for radical politics. How else can the group explain its previous support for Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge? Its current silence on the Uyghur genocide and its operations in North Korea suggest a disturbing blindness toward regimes that use slave labor.

The American Friends Service Committee likewise has become less of an organization driven by Quaker values or conscience than a shrill refuge for radical politics. How else can the group explain its previous support for Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge? Its current silence on the Uyghur genocide and its operations in North Korea suggest a disturbing blindness toward regimes that use slave labor.

Such political corruption is bad enough, but a brewing scandal involving the Geneva-based Civitas Maxima, which coached witnesses to give false testimony in a war crimes prosecution-for-profit scheme, has claimed lives and should be cause for serious introspection — not least among the group’s many sponsors and collaborators, including the U.S. State Department.
One of the group’s landmark trials collapsed two months ago when the defense was able to alibi the accused as not being in Liberia when coached witnesses said they saw him conduct rapes, murders, and other heinous crimes.

Such political corruption is bad enough, but a brewing scandal involving the Geneva-based Civitas Maxima, which coached witnesses to give false testimony in a war crimes prosecution-for-profit scheme, has claimed lives and should be cause for serious introspection — not least among the group’s many sponsors and collaborators, including the U.S. State Department.
One of the group’s landmark trials collapsed two months ago when the defense was able to alibi the accused as not being in Liberia when coached witnesses said they saw him conduct rapes, murders, and other heinous crimes.

Falsified Civitas Maxima evidence was behind an Interpol arrest of an American citizen accused of slavery. That he committed suicide in prison compounds the injustice. Many others convicted of war crimes in West Africa may now use Civitas Maxima’s corruption to cast doubt on their own convictions, even if Civitas had no involvement in their cases. While Civitas Maxima may be among the most egregious examples of human rights fraud, many upstart NGOs in Afghanistan and Iraq bilked the USAID and U.N. systems for tremendous profit, with founders and senior staff raking in millions and building palatial villas to signal their impunity.

There are still good, earnest activists who approach their work with subjectivity and political blinders, but growing corruption suffocates them and blunts their impact. The human rights field has become home to agenda-driven activists who fix outcomes amenable to their own personal biases or profit.

There are still good, earnest activists who approach their work with subjectivity and political blinders, but growing corruption suffocates them and blunts their impact. The human rights field has become home to agenda-driven activists who fix outcomes amenable to their own personal biases or profit.

The tragedy is that from slave labor camps in Xinjiang to school girls in Afghanistan to journalists in Turkey or prisoners of war in Russia, the need for solid human rights documentation has seldom been greater. But with serious policymakers no longer able to trust either marquee groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International or the myriad upstart groups like Civitas Maxima, it is time for fundamental reform. With Roth on his way out, a corrosive chapter in human rights activism could end. Rather than self-congratulations and glamour, it is time for human rights groups to go back to the future and rebuild the trust they have hemorrhaged.

Michael Rubin (@mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential. He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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