Among the favorite themes lately for White House spokesmen, both official and unofficial, is Saddam Hussein’s horrific record of human-rights violations. Saddam’s abuse of his own citizens is often cited these days to justify the war in Iraq, which no longer seems to have been absolutely necessary to defend us from his forbidden arsenal (which no longer seems to exist). According to administration officials and approved ideologues, opposing the war is the same as endorsing the deposed regime’s hideous oppression.
Such convenient invocations of human rights are nothing new, of course, and the White House is hardly alone in its hypocrisy. Although the world’s governments set forth the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, few have since distinguished themselves by upholding a single standard of adherence to those ideals. On a planet of contending power alliances and global commercial competition, governments cannot be relied upon to safeguard the rights of individuals and communities.
Fortunately, there are non-governmental organizations devoted to that cause-and foremost among them is Human Rights Watch, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary on Nov. 12 in New York City.
Founded in 1978 by Random House executive Robert L. Bernstein-along with Jeri Laber, Aryeh Neier and Orville Schell-Human Rights Watch first came into existence as Helsinki Watch. Its initial purpose, during a gelid period of the Cold War, was to monitor compliance with the 1975 Helsinki Accords, guarantees of freedom and legality signed in the Finnish capital by world leaders including then–Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev. Denounced at the time by conservatives here as a token of the West’s craven acquiescence to communism, the Helsinki agreement actually encouraged dissenters within the Soviet bloc to publicly demand basic freedoms.
But the instigators of Helsinki Watch soon realized that they couldn’t credibly demand Soviet accountability unless they did likewise here. At that time, the Reagan administration enabled abusive “authoritarian” governments on the right-particularly in Latin America-while blasting “totalitarian” governments on the left. The Helsinki Watch group organized Americas Watch to fight the Reaganite double standard and hold the U.S. accountable for the atrocities committed by its client states. Naturally, they were red-baited for acting on this insight. Eventually, the same right-wingers who had denounced Americas Watch were claiming credit for the flowering of democracy in the Western hemisphere.
Within a decade after its founding, Helsinki Watch became Human Rights Watch, a new kind of international organization that combined the highest journalistic standards of investigation with tough advocacy and smart diplomacy to advance human rights around the world-including the United States. Back in 1988, when U.S. policymakers were still coddling the Iraqi dictatorship for “geostrategic” reasons, Human Rights Watch documented its slaughter of the Kurds and Iranians with chemical weapons, along with its quotidian practices of torture and repression.
For the past 10 years, under the leadership of Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch has achieved a high level of professionalism without diluting the idealism that inspired its creation. As a former federal prosecutor, Mr. Roth believes that international law can provide the underpinnings for the enforcement of agreements like Helsinki-and to bring malefactors like Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic to justice.
The war on terrorism hasn’t deterred Mr. Roth and his staff from continuing to uphold the single standard enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights-even if that discomfits some of the Bush administration’s motley allies. Our government no longer has much use for the democratic French and Germans, but adores the Uzbeks, the Pakistanis and the Saudis, “authoritarian” rulers whose abuses are regularly exposed in H.R.W.’s detailed reports.
This doesn’t mean that human-rights advocates naïvely discount the threat of Islamist terror. Indeed, Mr. Roth considers human rights to be the foundation of the struggle against terrorism, as he explained in an excellent essay in the new book Lost Liberties: Ashcroft and the Assault on Personal Freedom (New Press):
“Clearly the United States needs to take extra security measures. But the U.S. government must also pay attention to the pathology of terrorism-the set of beliefs that leads some people to join in attacking civilians, to believe that the ends justify the means. A strong human rights culture is an antidote to this pathology, yet in too many places the Bush administration saw human rights mainly as an obstacle to its goals ….
“Even someone as unsympathetic to human rights as President Ronald Reagan at the height of the Cold War understood the need for a positive vision. He understood that the United States could not only be against communism. It had to stand for democracy, even if at times his support was no more than rhetorical. Similarly, it will not work for the Bush administration today to be only against terrorism. It will have to stand for the values that explain what’s wrong with attacking civilians-the values of human rights.”