Though I have been doing international human rights work for the last twenty years, I have no degree in law or international affairs; I started as a writer and feminist acting in solidarity with women who faced forms of gender-based censorship ranging from intimidation and trashing to death threats. As founding chair of the International PEN Women Writers Committee and, later, president of Women’s WORLD, I learned how to organize international campaigns, put out urgent action appeals, and help people seeking asylum, but this skill-set was largely self-acquired, because the professional human rights workers I asked for help were often too busy to share their knowledge.
Since I come out of a movement-building culture in which sharing skills is an obligation, this way of looking at things was quite foreign to me. In addition, the most urgent crises always seemed to happen on weekends or national holidays when staff people were not available, so I began to get an attitude, and decided that professional human rights workers were people who had proper jobs with health insurance and didn’t work weekends.
In the past week, I attended a high-level conference on the UN human rights system, and also was part of an international group of feminists working on an open letter and petition to Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch. These experiences made me reevaluate my attitude and realize that, while there are clearly conflicts between a professional and movement style of human rights work, there are also issues of personality and common humanity.
The conference was organized by the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights to examine the office of the UN High Commissioner and involved a range of participants, from academics and staff at major human rights organizations, to legal experts who had risked their lives and reputations on pro bono fact-finding missions, to people who had spent years in the UN system and were trying to figure out how to make it work better. They talked about the kind of institutional backup needed in a crisis, which they often couldn’t get because the human rights apparatus at the UN is so grossly under-funded compared to development or humanitarian aid. But despite their institutional focus, most speakers had a clear grasp of the nitty gritty. I believe it was Vitit Muntarbhorn, a UN Special Rapporteur on human rights crises in the Ivory Coast and North Korea who had also led a UN investigation into the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography, who said, “to put it very simply, in the end what we are trying to prevent is cruelty.”
Not everyone working on human rights has such a firm grasp of the “human” side. A case in point is Roth’s introduction to Human Rights Watch’s 2012 report, titled “Time to Abandon the Autocrats and Embrace Rights.” Roth is Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. Looking at the Middle East and North Africa from on high, as if he were in a position to orchestrate world diplomacy, he argues that states must overcome their reluctance to embrace the Muslim Brotherhood because the new governments are preferable to the military dictators the West supported in the past.
It was in response to this introduction that an international group of women’s human rights organizations and activists wrote our open letter and petition. It begins:
Dear Kenneth Roth, In your Introduction to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2012, “Time to Abandon the Autocrats and Embrace Rights,” you urge support for the newly elected governments that have brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Tunisia and Egypt. In your desire to “constructively engage” with the new governments, you ask states to stop supporting autocrats. But you are not a state; you are the head of an international human rights organization whose role is to report on human rights violations, an honorable and necessary task which your essay largely neglects.
You say, “It is important to nurture the rights-respecting elements of political Islam while standing firm against repression in its name,” but you fail to call for the most basic guarantee of rights—the separation of religion from the state. Salafi mobs have caned women in Tunisian cafes and Egyptian shops; attacked churches in Egypt; taken over whole villages in Tunisia and shut down Manouba University for two months in an effort to exert social pressure on veiling. And while “moderate Islamist” leaders say they will protect the rights of women (if not gays), they have done very little to bring these mobs under control. You, however, are so unconcerned with the rights of women, gays, and religious minorities that you mention them only once, as follows: “Many Islamic parties have indeed embraced disturbing positions that would subjugate the rights of women and restrict religious, personal, and political freedoms. But so have many of the autocratic regimes that the West props up.” Are we really going to set the bar that low? This is the voice of an apologist, not a senior human rights advocate…