A clarification: What international human rights activists really do

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International human rights activists as they see themselves

In my first post on Mona Seif, I objected to an e-mail that Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, sent to the New York Times. Specifically, he explained to the newspaper that “HRW staff nominated two human rights defenders” for the Martin Ennals award, “and one made it through as a finalist (not Mona).”

Now, I want to be clear about what my objection was, because it is bruited that various people both outside HRW and in have misunderstood it.  It’s not that HRW didn’t nominate Mona; that’s fine; there are other worthy candidates; it’s nobody’s business but the participating groups. Nor did I mean that HRW staff in general failed to do right by Mona — the HRW office in Egypt quite rightly regards her as one of their most valuable allies; they rely on her in their own work, and they support her and No to Military Trials if and whenever they can. The issue is that pesky little parenthesis. Ken is an admirably smart and thorough person for whom no punctuation lacks a purpose. He went out of his way to reveal that HRW didn’t nominate Mona, in a way that could only damage her case at a moment when she’s under unjustified attack, while preserving (or at least trying to preserve) Human Rights Watch from criticism. In my book, this is called selling your friends down the river.

I have a dim memory of the procedures for the Martin Ennals award — HRW directors were periodically solicited to suggest nominees. And my understanding is that the 10 groups participating are supposed to keep who-nominated-whom confidential, just as the ultimate balloting is secret. That’s certainly how it should be. So that Ken in letting this slip seems to violate the process, in spirit if not in letter.

More importantly, though, international human rights organizations have an obligation to defend their allied organizations and activists on the ground when they face such vicious attack: not just on principle, but because it’s those activists who make their work possible. There’s a macho movie-style illusion that international groups much too willingly promote: the heroic myth that their agents all put on combat boots and stride boldly solo into depopulated war zones, to extract Stories from Victims and be their Voices without help or mediation. This is هراء, which is one way of saying bullshit. I did research for Human RIghts Watch for years in Egypt as well as many other countries — I was HRW’s sole Egypt reseacher during several tense months in 2003 — and I know perfectly well that the organization couldn’t get one tweet’s worth of information about human rights violations anywhere between Alexandria and Aswan (or anywhere between the Arctic and Antarctic) unless activists like Mona, Aida Seif el-Dawla, Hossam Bahgat, and countless less-paid others were on their side, made the contacts, did the outreach and often all the work, and frequently provided the documentation for them. International organizations would wither up and die, or become (as they often threaten to become) completely useless, without this support.

Grassroots and domestic defenders enable Human Rights Watch to perform its vital and reputable services. But one serious problem HRW has — we in the LGBT Rights Program fought against this for years — is a belief at the highest levels that it’s the other way around: that HRW makes the work of other human rights defenders possible.

That’s wrong. Until it gets this straight, HRW will continue to embarrass itself, in ways like the New York Times article.

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International human rights activists as they are