Over the years, U.S. “public diplomacy” has pulled reputable NGOs into the U.S. propaganda orbit, sometimes via funding, sometimes by creating a revolving door to government jobs, as a letter from over 100 scholars suggests happened to Human Rights Watch. Followed by HRW’s response to the criticism.
Dear Kenneth Roth [of Human Rights Watch],
Human Rights Watch characterizes itself as “one of the world’s leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights.” 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.
In her HRW.org biography, Board of Directors’ Vice Chair Susan Manilow describes herself as “a longtime friend to Bill Clinton” who is “highly involved” in his political party, and “has hosted dozens of events” for the Democratic National Committee.
Currently, HRW Americas’ advisory committee includes Myles Frechette, a former U.S. ambassador to Colombia, and Michael Shifter, one-time Latin America director for the U.S. government-financed National Endowment for Democracy. Miguel Díaz, a Central Intelligence Agency analyst in the 1990s, sat on HRW Americas’ advisory committee from 2003–11. Now at the State Department, Díaz serves as “an interlocutor between the intelligence community and non-government experts.”
In his capacity as an HRW advocacy director, Malinowski contended in 2009 that “under limited circumstances” there was “a legitimate place” for CIA renditions—the illegal practice of kidnapping and transferring terrorism suspects around the planet. Malinowski was quoted paraphrasing the U.S. government’s argument that designing an alternative to sending suspects to “foreign dungeons to be tortured” was “going to take some time.”
HRW has not extended similar consideration to Venezuela. In a 2012 letter to President Chávez, HRW criticized the country’s candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council, alleging that Venezuela had fallen “far short of acceptable standards” and questioning its “ability to serve as a credible voice on human rights.” At no point has U.S. membership in the same council merited censure from HRW, despite Washington’s secret, global assassination program, its preservation of renditions, and its illegal detention of individuals at Guantánamo Bay.
Likewise, in February 2013, HRW correctly described as “unlawful” Syria’s use of missiles in its civil war. However, HRW remained silent on the clear violation of international law constituted by the U.S. threat of missile strikes on Syria in August.
The few examples above, limited to only recent history, might be forgiven as inconsistencies or oversights that could naturally occur in any large, busy organization. But HRW’s close relationships with the U.S. government suffuse such instances with the appearance of a conflict of interest.
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.
Your largest donor, investor George Soros, argued in 2010 that “to be more effective, I think the organization has to be seen as more international, less an American organization.” We concur. We urge you to implement the aforementioned proposal to ensure a reputation for genuine independence.
- . Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, Nobel Peace Prize laureate
- . Mairead Maguire, Nobel Peace Prize laureate
- . Joel Andreas, Professor of Sociology, Johns Hopkins University
- . Antony Anghie, Professor of Law, S.J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah
- . John M. Archer, Professor of English, New York University
- . Asma Barlas, Professor of Politics, Director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity, Ithaca College
- . Rosalyn Baxandall, Professor Emeritus of American Studies, State University of New York-Old Westbury
- . Marc Becker, Professor of Latin American History, Truman State University
- . Jason A. Beckett, Professor of Law, American University in Cairo
- . Angélica Bernal, Professor of Political Science, University of Massachusetts-Amherst
- . Keane Bhatt, activist, writer
- . William Blum, author, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II
- . Audrey Bomse, Co-chair, National Lawyers Guild Palestine Subcommittee
- . Patrick Bond, Professor of Development Studies, Director of the Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban
- . Michael Brenner, Professor Emeritus of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh
- . Jean Bricmont, Professor of Theoretical Physics, University of Louvain; author, Humanitarian Imperialism
- . Renate Bridenthal, Professor Emerita of History, Brooklyn College, CUNY
- . Fernando Buen Abad Domínguez, Ph.D., author
- . Paul Buhle, Professor Emeritus of American Civilization, Brown University
- . David Camfield, Professor of Labour Studies, University of Manitoba
- . Leonard L. Cavise, Professor of Law, DePaul College of Law
- . Robert Chernomas, Professor of Economics, University of Manitoba
- . Aviva Chomsky, Professor of History, Salem State University
- . George Ciccariello-Maher, Professor of Political Science, Drexel University
- . Jeff Cohen, Associate Professor of Journalism, Ithaca College
- . Marjorie Cohn, Professor of Law, Thomas Jefferson School of Law
- . Lisa Duggan, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University
- . Carolyn Eisenberg, Professor of History, Hofstra University
- . Matthew Evangelista, Professor of History and Political Science, Cornell University
- . Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law, Princeton University
- . Sujatha Fernandes, Professor of Sociology, Queens College, CUNY Graduate Center
- . Mara Fridell, Professor of Sociology, University of Manitoba
- . Frances Geteles, Professor Emeritus, Department of Special Programs, CUNY City College
- . Lesley Gill, Professor of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University
- . Piero Gleijeses, Professor of American Foreign Policy and Latin American Studies, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University
- . Jeff Goodwin, Professor of Sociology, New York University
- . Katherine Gordy, Professor of Political Science, San Francisco State University
- . Manu Goswami, Professor of History, New York University
- . Greg Grandin, Professor of History, New York University
- . Simon Granovsky-Larsen, Professor of Latin American Studies, Centennial College, Toronto
- . James N. Green, Professor of Latin American History, Brown University
- . A. Tom Grunfeld, Professor of History, SUNY Empire State College
- . Julie Guard, Professor of Labor Studies, University of Manitoba
- . Peter Hallward, Professor of Philosophy, Kingston University; author, Damming the Flood
- . John L. Hammond, Professor of Sociology, Hunter College, CUNY Graduate Center
- . Beth Harris, Professor of Politics, Ithaca College
- . Martin Hart-Landsberg, Professor Economics, Lewis and Clark College
- . Chris Hedges, journalist; author, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
- . Doug Henwood, journalist; author, Wall Street
- . Edward Herman, Professor Emeritus of Finance, University of Pennsylvania; co-author, The Political Economy of Human Rights
- . Susan Heuman, Ph.D., independent scholar of history
- . Forrest Hylton, Lecturer in History & Literature, Harvard University
- . Matthew Frye Jacobson, Professor of American Studies and History, Yale University
- . Jennifer Jolly, Co-coordinator of Latin American Studies, Ithaca College
- . Rebecca E. Karl, Professor of History, New York University
- . J. Kehaulani Kauanui, Professor of Anthropology and American Studies, Wesleyan University
- . Ari Kelman, Professor of History, University of California, Davis
- . Arang Keshavarzian, Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, New York University
- . Laleh Khalili, Professor of Middle East Politics, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
- . Daniel Kovalik, Professor of International Human Rights, University of Pittsburgh School of Law
- . Rob Kroes, Professor Emeritus of American Studies, University of Amsterdam
- . Peter Kuznick, Professor of History, American University
- . Deborah T. Levenson, Professor of History, Boston College
- . David Ludden, Professor of History, New York University
- . Catherine Lutz, Professor of Anthropology and International Studies, Brown University
- . Arthur MacEwan, Professor Emeritus of Economics, University of Massachusetts-Boston
- . Viviana MacManus, Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
- . Chase Madar, civil rights attorney; author, The Passion of [Chelsea] Manning
- . Alfred W. McCoy, Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison
- . Teresa Meade, Professor of History, Union College
- . Thomas Murphy, Professor of History and Government, University of Maryland, University College Europe
- . Allan Nairn, independent investigative journalist
- . Usha Natarajan, Professor of International Law, American University in Cairo
- . Diane M. Nelson, Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Duke University
- . Joseph Nevins, Professor of Geography, Vassar College
- . Mary Nolan, Professor of History, New York University
- . Anthony O’Brien, Professor Emeritus of English, Queens College, CUNY
- . Paul O’Connell, Reader in Law, School of Law, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
- . Christian Parenti, Professor of Sustainable Development, School for International Training Graduate Institute
- . David Peterson, independent writer and researcher
- . Adrienne Pine, Professor of Anthropology, American University
- . Claire Potter, Professor of History, The New School
- . Margaret Power, Professor of History, Illinois Institute of Technology
- . Pablo Pozzi, Professor of History, Universidad de Buenos Aires
- . Gyan Prakash, Professor of History, Princeton University
- . Vijay Prashad, Edward Said Chair of American Studies, American University of Beirut
- . Peter Ranis, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, CUNY Graduate Center
- . Michael Ratner, human rights attorney; author, The Prosecution of Donald Rumsfeld
- . Sanjay Reddy, Professor of Economics, New School for Social Research
- . Adolph Reed, Jr., Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania
- . Nazih Richani, Director of Latin American Studies, Kean University
- . Moss Roberts, Professor of Chinese, New York University
- . Corey Robin, Professor of Political Science, Brooklyn College, CUNY Graduate Center
- . William I. Robinson, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara
- . Patricia Rodriguez, Professor of Politics, Ithaca College
- . Andrew Ross, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University
- . Elizabeth Sanders, Professor of Government, Cornell University
- . Dean Saranillio, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University
- . T.M. Scruggs, Professor Emeritus of Music, University of Iowa
- . Ian J. Seda-Irizarry, Professor of Political Economy, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
- . Denise A. Segura, Professor of Sociology; Chair, Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara
- . Mark Selden, Senior Research Associate, East Asia Program, Cornell University
- . Falguni A. Sheth, Professor of Philosophy and Political Theory, Hampshire College
- . Naoko Shibusawa, Professor of History, Brown University
- . Dina M. Siddiqi, Professor of Anthropology, BRAC University, Dhaka, Bangladesh
- . Francisco Sierra Caballero, Director of the Center for Communication, Politics and Social Change, University of Seville
- . Brad Simpson, Professor of History, University of Connecticut
- . Nikhil Pal Singh, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History, New York University
- . Leslie Sklair, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, London School of Economics
- . Norman Solomon, author, War Made Easy
- . Judy Somberg, Chair, National Lawyers Guild Task Force on the Americas
- . Jeb Sprague, author, Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti
- . Oliver Stone, filmmaker; co-author, The Untold History of the United States
- . Steve Striffler, Professor of Anthropology, Chair of Latin American Studies, University of New Orleans
- . Sinclair Thomson, Professor of History, New York University
- . Miguel Tinker Salas, Professor of History and Latin American Studies, Pomona College
- . James S. Uleman, Professor of Psychology, New York University
- . Alejandro Velasco, Professor of History, New York University
- . Robert Vitalis, Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania
- . Hans Christof von Sponeck, former United Nations Assistant Secretary General (1998-2000)
- . Hilbourne Watson, Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Bucknell University
- . Barbara Weinstein, Professor of History, New York University
- . Mark Weisbrot, Ph.D., Co-director, Center for Economic and Policy Research
- . Kirsten Weld, Professor of History, Harvard University
- . Gregory Wilpert, Ph.D, author, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power
- . John Womack, Jr., Professor Emeritus of Latin American History and Economics, Harvard University
- . Michael Yates, Professor Emeritus of Economics, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown
- . Kevin Young, Ph.D., Latin American History, State University of New York-Stony Brook
- . Marilyn B. Young, Professor of History, New York University
- . Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar, Professor of History; Co-Director, South Asian Studies, Brown University
- . Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics and Coordinator of Middle Eastern Studies, University of San Francisco
Response from Human Rights Watch
We recently received a petition, which included your signatures, expressing concern that Human Rights Watch’s “close ties to the US government call into question its independence.” Human Rights Watch recognizes the importance of maintaining our independence and credibility, and we believe your concern is misplaced.
If you visit our website you will see that we routinely expose, document and denounce human rights violations by the US government, including torture, indefinite detention, illegal renditions, unchecked mass surveillance, abusive use of drones, harsh sentencing and racial disparity in criminal justice, and an unfair and ineffective immigration system.
The petition provides three examples of supposed “inconsistencies or oversights,” but in each case the authors have either mischaracterized or misunderstood our position.
First, they cite a 2009 article quoting our former Washington director, Tom Malinowski, saying that “under limited circumstances” there is a legitimate place for renditions. The petition mistakenly claims he was supporting unlawful CIA renditions. A “rendition” is the transfer of a person in custody from one jurisdiction to another, which is legal under certain circumstances and practiced by almost all countries (the extradition of criminal suspects is one common form of rendition). Malinowski was certainly not endorsing the CIA’s illegal rendition program, which entailed transferring individuals without due process protections to countries where they faced torture. That practice was repeatedly denounced by Malinowski and by Human Rights Watch. Indeed, we have called for a criminal investigation into former President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and CIA Director George Tenet (among others), for these and other serious human rights abuses.
We have long denounced illegal rendition (sometimes called extraordinary rendition) committed by the US government in the name of fighting terrorism, including in such reports as:
- “Delivered Into Enemy Hands: US-Led Abuse and Rendition of Opponents to Gaddafi’s Libya” (2012)
- “Getting Away with Torture: The Bush Administration and Mistreatment of Detainees” (2011)
- “Double Jeopardy: CIA Renditions to Jordan” (2008)
- “Ghost Prisoner: Two Years in Secret CIA Detention” (2007)
- “Black Hole: The Fate of Islamists Rendered to Egypt”(2005)
- “Still at Risk: Diplomatic Assurances No Safeguard against Torture” (2005)
- “‘Why Am I Still Here?’ The 2007 Horn of Africa Renditions and the Fate of Those Still Missing” (2008)
- “Off the Record: US Responsibility for Enforced Disappearances in the ‘War on Terror’” (2007)
- “The US ‘Disappeared’: The CIA’s Long-Term ‘Ghost Detainees’” (2004)
- “US Detainees Disappeared in Secret Prisons: Illegal Under Domestic and International Law” (2005)
- “List of Ghost Prisoners Possibly in CIA Custody” (2005)
Second, the petition’s authors also wonder why we questioned Venezuela’s candidacy for the United Nations Human Rights Council, but not that of the United States.
A central concern on council membership is whether a government takes the council and its special procedures seriously. Venezuela has not allowed a single UN special rapporteur to visit since 1996. It has ignored eight requests for visits during the past decade by rapporteurs seeking to examine the state of freedom of expression, freedom of association, extrajudicial executions, human rights defenders, and the independence of judges and lawyers. (Only three other countries have such a poor record of non-cooperation: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe.)
In 2013, Venezuela had by far the worst voting record of council member countries. It opposed virtually all resolutions on country-specific situations put to the vote, including motions on Sri Lanka, Belarus and Iran that were supported by Brazil, Argentina and other Latin American countries. Venezuela did support resolutions addressing violations in Palestine and other occupied Arab areas.
The United States has received visits from 15 special rapporteurs since 2005. While we have repeatedly criticized its failure to allow UN rapporteurs to visit Guantanamo Bay and to access other prisoners being held in solitary confinement, we have seen that, on balance, the United States has played a constructive role at the Human Rights Council, along with other countries in the region such as Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Uruguay.
Finally, the petition claims we criticized the Syrian government’s use of missiles against civilians but “remained silent on the clear violation of international law constituted by the US threat of missile strikes on Syria in August.”
This may reflect a misunderstanding of Human Rights Watch’s mandate, which is to monitor governments’ adherence to international human rights and humanitarian law. We criticized Syrian missile strikes that were directed at populated areas, and thus violated the prohibition against indiscriminate attacks on civilians. But not all missile attacks violate the laws of war so we would not criticize as unlawful attacks yet to take place.
Human Rights Watch currently has 399 employees from 67 countries, as well as 34 board members and more than 200 members of advisory committees, among them activists, lawyers, journalists and academics. It is true that some served in the US government before or after their involvement with Human Rights Watch. We also have current and former staff, board, and advisory members who earlier served in the governments of Brazil, Canada, Germany, Mexico, Norway, Peru, Spain, South Africa, and the United Kingdom, among others, and in multilateral institutions.
We are careful to ensure that prior affiliations do not affect the impartiality of Human Rights Watch’s work. We do not allow active government officials to serve in the above capacities and we do not take funding from any government.
The positions Human Rights Watch takes are guided solely by our intensive on-the-ground fact-finding, legal analysis, and multi-layered review process.
When we criticize governments and others, we are frequently accused of being in the pocket of their enemies. We would ask that you look at our work and judge whether these charges of bias are fair.