Just read an article by Ramesh Ponnuru from the print edition of National Review examining the politics of human rights organizations. Ponnuru observes that, to hear groups like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch tell it, you might think the U.S. was a worse abuser of human rights than Iraq, China, or the Taliban. Assuming for the moment that the U.S. is not quite that bad, what should we make of this strange focus on American policies?
Ponnuru appears to see this as proof that rabidly anti-American leftist politics dominate these organizations. For all I know, that may be the case, though it does raise the rather embarassing question: “Why aren’t conservatives better represented in groups working to fight abuses of human rights?” But there is, I think, a better explanation and a better corresponding question: “Who gives a damn what Amnesty International thinks?” That’s not a rhetorical or dismissive question, but a strategic one. Folks who hold onto their power by raw force — Saddam Hussein or, despite the shabby democratic veneer, Robert Mugabe — aren’t going to be terribly sensitive to the pressure of public opinion. Their opponents know that they’re tyrants, they know that they know it, and none of that changes the relative stores of guns and ammo on each side.
The U.S., on the other hand, does find it at least temporarily uncomfortable to be condemned by Amnesty International. It’s bad PR. The government may even, in a few cases, find it worthwhile to change policy to avoid catching flak. Given that, even if these groups are all staffed by foaming-at-the-mouth Chomskyites, they needn’t be. If the goal of these groups is to focus their efforts in the way most likely to produce change, then, paradoxically, the most rational strategy is to focus their criticism on the most open and democratic nations. No leftist conspiracy required.