I cannot for the life of me figure out why entirely admirable human rights groups — which pride themselves on their independence from governments and political parties — choose to associate themselves with organizations whose advocacy for human rights is highly, highly selective, to say the least, and whose foreign-policy views are frankly imperialist.
Yet here we find in a press release issued Thursday by the neo-conservative Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) — the successor organization of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) — the announcement that senior officials of the national chapter of Amnesty International (AIUSA), Human Rights Watch, and Human Rights First have signed an open letter to President Obama, apparently drafted by FPI, urging him to take a series of steps to “demonstrate your administration’s commitment to human rights issues in China” in advance of and during next week’s state visit to Washington of President Hu Jintao.
Now, I have no problem with the specific content of the letter or with the general concern expressed in it about the status of human rights observance in China. Nor do I doubt the sincerity of anyone who signed the letter. (And, given their history, I’m not so surprised that Freedom House or Reporters Without Borders would go along with this kind of thing.) But why, oh why, would serious human rights groups that derive their credibility precisely from their independence from governments or political movements hitch their wagon to an organization whose founders and directors — Bill Kristol, Bob Kagan, Dan Senor, Eric Edelman — are so closely tied to the aggressive unilateralism of George W. Bush’s first term, the likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the defense of Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition, and the conduct of Israel’s wars against Lebanon and Gaza?
By signing on to such a letter, these human rights groups — which do so much good work — not only lend some of their credibility to FPI and thus help rehabilitate a political movement that has long used human rights and democracy as an instrument for expanding U.S. power and undermining Washington’s perceived enemies (including the UN and international law). They also damage that same credibility by offering ammunition to those governments and others who see the human rights movement as a handmaiden of U.S. and western imperialism. (How does this advance their human rights advocacy in Iran, for example?) Would they have signed the letter — with their institutional affiliations! — if the sponsoring organization had indeed called itself the Project for a New American Century of which, of course, FPI is the reincarnation?
Unfortunately, this is not the first time this has happened. In July, 2009, shortly after its birth — or reincarnation — FPI published an open letter in which its 39 signatories called on Obama to take steps to show his commitment to human rights in Russia in advance of his first summit meeting with Dmitri Medvedev. Among the 39, which were dominated by the same neo-conservative crowd (James Woolsey, Josh Muravchik, Danielle Pletka, Max Boot, Gary Schmitt, etc.) that used to sign PNAC letters about Iraq, were several bona fide human-rights activists, including — albeit not in their institutional capacity — Larry Cox, AIUSA’s executive director; Mort Halperin, senior adviser of the Open Society Institute (OSI); and Stephen Rickard, OSI’s Washington director. At least, OSI appears to have begged off this latest effort.
But, as I pointed out back then, what prevents the serious human rights groups from drafting and sending their own letters? Why must they enlist themeslves in FPI/PNAC’s initiative?