Human Rights Watch and hate rituals


posted to on May 3, 2003


Although I have referred to Joanne Landy's membership in the Council of Foreign Relations in the course of my critique of Cuba petition #2, it is worth considering her membership in another organization whose reputation is far better at least at first blush. I refer to Human Rights Watch, where she served on the Helsinki committee for most of the 1990s.


Some background on HRW would be useful, especially the Helsinki connection. Before there was a Human Rights Watch, there was something called the Helsinki Watch Committee that eventually turned into HRW. The Helsinki Watch Committee was formed in 1978 to monitor the Helsinki Accords, an agreement between the major superpowers over some basic human rights guarantees. It was a product of the Jimmy Carter presidency that sought to deploy a velvet glove of human rights concealed around the iron fist of US imperialism.


The Helsinki Watch Committee was the brainchild of Robert L. Bernstein, the president of Random House. Bernstein was constantly running into difficulties with the Soviet government over his efforts to build ties with high-profile dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov and Natan Sharansky and was denied a visa to take part in the Moscow Book Fair at one point. Now only the most cynical would conclude that Bernstein had a material interest in establishing such ties, since they eventually led to lucrative book deals with these author/dissidents.


Bernstein worked closely with Jeri Laber, the long-time executive director of Helsinki Watch and author of a recent Washington Post op-ed urging the smuggling of computers and other resources into Cuba on behalf of the anti-Communist opposition. Shortly after receiving a MA degree in Russian Studies from Columbia University, she became interested in human rights issues after reading an article about torture in 1973. She is the author of "The Courage of Strangers", a memoir of her involvement with HRW. She is also the co-author of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook.


For most of the left, especially those coming out of a Trotskyist background, Human Rights Watch appeared to be on the side of the angels. When George Shriver, translator of Bukharin's "How it All Began", and Marilyn Vogt-Downey, translator of Mikhail Baitalsky's "Notebooks for the Grandchildren: Recollections of a Trotskyist Who Survived the Stalin Terror", were in the formerly Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party in the 1970s, they found themselves speaking out for the same individuals championed by Bernstein and Laber, especially Sakharov. However, they did not take the next step and actually join HRW, as did Joanne Landy, a figure connected to New Politics. Unlike the SWP, New Politics did not consider Soviet society to be progressive vis--vis American capitalism. Hence, the decision to join an openly anti-Communist group like HRW probably came a lot easier.


On first blush, HRW seems to be cut from the same cloth as Amnesty International, an NGO that is dedicated to the rights of political prisoners worldwide. Unlike Amnesty, as Diana Johstone points out in "Fool's Crusade", HRW can barely be described as "non-governmental". Prominent HRW members include Morton Abramowitz, a former undersecretary of state, Warren Zimmerman and Paul Goble, director of Radio Free Europe.


Once HRW achieved its goal of helping to rid the USSR and Eastern Europe of totalitarian communism and establish bourgeois democracy, it was able to focus on other areas where enemies of human freedom held sway. But there was one holdover from the bad old days of Stalinism that held sway, namely Yugoslavia. HRW and its Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights went after the Belgrade government with a vengeance.


On September 18, 1997, HRW issued a long statement announcing *prior* to the Yugoslav elections that they would be "neither free nor fair". Anticipating their more recent denunciation of the Cuban government, HRW claimed that new laws were required to level the media playing field. To the contrary, Yugoslavia had a far more open media than the USA could have dreamed of. As of June 1998, there were 2,319 print publications and 101 radio and TV stations in Yugoslavia, over twice the number that existed in 1992. Belgrade alone had 14 daily newspapers. Six of them were state-backed with a joint circulation of 180,000, compared to 350,000 for the 7 leading opposition dailies.


As I once pointed out, the liberal campaign to demonize Yugoslavia had many of the same characteristics as the conservative campaign against Nicaragua. In either case, stereotypes drawn from the Stalinist era were superimposed on societies with a mixed economy and much more freedom than in the imperialist countries that sought to destabilize them.


When HRW claimed that minority rights were not being respected in Yugoslavia, it did not bother to acknowledge the 1992 constitution, which guaranteed extensive rights to several national minorities, including the Albanians. In Kosovo, the right to education in one's mother tongue and the right to use it in judicial and administrative proceedings was not only upheld but also widely exercised.


In a March 1998 column, Aaron Rhodes, executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights claimed that Albanians in Kosovo were living under conditions "similar to those suffered by Jews in Nazi-controlled parts of Europe just before WWII." It was this kind of hyperbolic incendiary language that paved the way for NATO's war against Yugoslavia.


The "liberation" of Yugoslavia will certainly result in the same conditions that obtained elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc: unemployment, declining health and education indicators, rising drug addiction and alcoholism, mass emigration and prostitution.


Having seen such transformations, is it any wonder that Cuba refuses to open itself up to human rights imperialism of the kind that helped to ravage Eastern Europe? In Cuba as elsewhere, the duty to change society is up to the people living in that country. An NGO like Human Rights Watch, which has a budget of $19.5 million per year, can really throw its weight around when it wants to. If you go to the latest HRW annual report at:, you get a flavor of how it is funded. Major contributors include: ABC, Reebok, Coca-Cola, Warner Brothers and other corporations with a peerless human rights track record.


I want to conclude on what might seem like controversial note to some, especially those who might have read my posts arguing that Cuba is democratic as tantamount to the kind of apologetics deployed on behalf of the Moscow Trials a generation ago. Namely, I would argue that Cuba has a much more lenient attitude toward political expression than any other country in Latin America during its 44 year existence. While a country like Mexico might have the reputation for openness, it proved capable of shooting student demonstrators in cold blood in 1968--something that Cuba has never done.


The high-profile political prisoner cases that have served to stigmatize Cuba in liberal circles more often than not are about *action* rather than thought. In Julian Schnabel's "Before Night Falls," you would get the impression that Reynaldo Areinas was punished for advocating democratic rights and tolerance toward gays. In reality as John Hilson points out in a review of the film (, Areinas ran afoul of the authorities for basically the same reason as the group that has just received lengthy prison sentences. He collaborated with foreign governments.


Probably the best-known political prisoner, at least so-described in the bourgeois media, is Armando Valladares, who wrote "Against All Hope" and who was usually referred to as "the poet in the wheelchair". After he was released from prison, Reagan appointed him to the UN Human Rights Commission. What the liberal press failed to mention was the circumstances of his imprisonment: he had been tried and convicted of participating in a counterrevolutionary gang that carried out terrorist bombings in the early years of the revolution.


Sometimes the truth leaks out. In an October 26, 1994 statement, Human Rights Watch admitted that most "political prisoners" in Cuba were guilty not of writing leaflets demanding the reintroduction of private property, but trying to leave the country illegally!


>>Cuba's criminalization of "illegal exit from the country" violates international law, which recognizes the right of all people to leave any country, including their own. People attempting to leave Cuba have been shot at sea and beaten, and Cubans apprehended while fleeing face prison terms of one to three years, longer if they are found to have aided or abetted the departure of others or used stolen materials in their escape attempt. Cubans convicted of the crime of "illegal exit" are believed to constitute the largest class of political prisoners in Cuba.<<




Of course, the easiest way to cut down on the number of political prisoners in Cuba is not by signing petitions circulated by leftists who served on the Council of Foreign Relations and HRW, but by pressing the USA to relax its immigration laws. Right now, Cuba would love nothing better than to allow anybody who wants to leave the country to do so. But the USA refuses to allow this. It would much prefer for people to come to Miami in leaky boats, as Elian Gonzalez and his mother and boyfriend did. The spectacle of such flights helps to demonize Cuba as a totalitarian dungeon that normal people would flee.


In general, Cuba will become freer when the USA becomes less repressive. No amount of petition-signing will change Cuban policy. The people who sign such petitions are acting out of a kind of moral and political narcissism. It is their way to demonstrate to polite bourgeois society that they are not dirty Stalinists like Ramsey Clark and the Workers World Party. It is a gesture that can only be likened to the "two minutes of hate" that were ritualized in Orwell's 1984. With Saddam Hussein no longer available on television screens to unify the American people with their Leader, a new villain becomes necessary. Whether it is Fidel Castro or North Korean leader Kim Jung-il, the ritual continues. It is up to people of good conscience not to participate in such rituals of hate.