Daily Archives: 5 September 2006

Marketing Humanitarianism by Condemnation

Virtually all reports by NGOs [with human rights agendas] are catalogues of cruelties and abuses by governments, and their central campaigning method has been to publish reports that generate press coverage and place international attention on stigmatised governments. The NGOs campaigning against non-Western [and Western] governments see their work as non-political, they just describe abuses and ask the international community to act. In this way, they present human rights as independent of the social, economic or political situation. Many NGOs are concerned that explaining why abuses occur may justify them or give credence to the claims of repressive regimes. If mitigating factors were to be brought into the account this would undermine the mission of seeking immediate compliance with human rights standards. Pressure is brought about by utilising key events or symbols such as a highly publicised massacre, like Srebrenica, or a ‘poster child’ to simplify complex issues for mass audiences.

This association of ethical human rights policies with the denunciation of the crimes or abuses of governments has led to a particularly one-sided perspective focusing on condemnation and punishment. It is assumed that the more ‘ethical’ the government or NGO group is the more forceful will be their calls for sanctions or other forms of punishment. In this respect the human rights campaigners distinguish themselves from the international agencies involved in democracy promotion and democratisation, which tend to see a long process of constructive assistance for reforms as necessary. There is little evidence that condemnation and coercion is a more effective policy option than co-operation. Jeffrey Garten in Foreign Policy asks if human rights activists would deny that US trade links and commercial investment in states like China, India, Indonesia and Brazil have contributed to improved economic opportunities, communication freedoms and better education, health and working conditions. He makes a strong case that ‘the criteria for promoting human rights ought to be not what salves our consciences, but rather what works’. However, the pragmatic ‘what works’ approach seems to be noticeable by its absence in the human rights NGOs’ concern to denounce foreign governments and promote ethical coercion…. Most high-profile human rights actions have involved selective condemnations, sanctions and military intervention; the policies of economic integration and aid have, in fact, suffered and are often seen as inimical to human rights promotion.

Unfortunately, the NGO approach of seeking ‘worst cases’ to highlight their work, through mounting a populist campaign of condemnation, has been willingly followed by Western [and non-Western] governments.

SOURCE: From Kosovo to Kabul and Beyond: Human Rights and International Intervention, new ed., by David Chandler (Pluto Press, 2006), pp. 66-67 [reference citations removed]

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