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Human Rights, Equal Dignity, and Moral Choices PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Louay Safi   
Aug 07, 2001 at 07:00 PM

Reflections on HRW World Report 2001
Human Rights Watch (HRW), a leading non-governmental human rights organization, issued its 2001 annual report, under the title “Human Rights Watch World Report 2001.”

The report describes human rights situations in different parts of the world, and comments on important issues confronting human rights regimes and movements across the globe. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW), a leading non-governmental human rights organization, issued its 2001 annual report, under the title “Human Rights Watch World Report 2001.”

The report describes human rights situations in different parts of the world, and comments on important issues confronting human rights regimes and movements across the globe. 

The 2001 report reflects, like the ones issued in previous years, HRW’s continued commitment to improving human rights records, and its willingness to face tough situations. What is of particular interest in this-year report is the heightened importance it gives to the interconnectedness of economic conditions and human rights situations, and the interest it shows in addressing the impact of the emerging global economy on human rights conditions and practices. The recognition of the need to address market structures and regulations by a major human rights organization is a welcome departure from the legalistic approach preferred by most advocates of human rights in the developed world.  

In addition to reporting human rights situations in various states, the HRW 2001 report raises some important issues and makes some fresh suggestions to dealing with them. These include academic freedom, children’s rights, women’s rights, refugees and asylum seekers, ban on the use of mines, international justice, and others.

Of particular concern in HRW 2001 report is its failure to pay attention to cultural variations across the globe. The authors of the Report take western culture as their frame of reference in evaluating human rights situations and in providing solutions for human rights problems confronting the world. Such an approach immediately puts non-western cultures at a great disadvantage, and greatly reduces the effectiveness of the international human rights movement, which aims at developing a global human rights regime. 


The report rightly points out the growing disparity between rich and poor, and repeatedly reminds its readers that commercial integration is not a panacea, and hence does not necessarily bring by itself human rights improvements. The report further identifies the shortcomings of international organizations charged with the responsibility of hastening and facilitating commercial integration of national economies.

In evaluating the role of the most important international organization in charge of global economic regulation, the report states that “[T]he World Trade Organization, which does have enforcement powers, focuses on promoting global trade, sometimes at the expense of international human rights norms.”

Disillusioned with the failure of governments to voluntarily adhere to human rights requirements, the authors of the report call for the establishment of an enforcement regime to curb human rights violations. While Human Rights Watch should be commended for its uncompromising position with regard to actual observation of peoples’ rights, we must take an exception to the enforcement regime it envisages. The enforcement regime is both dangerous and open to serious abuses.

One solution to the rampant violations of human rights favored by HRW is ironic. HRW 2001 report suggests that international economic organizations, notorious for their disregard to human rights in general, and workers rights in particular, like WTO, should be linked to international organizations concerned with rights, such as International Labor Organization (ILO). The rationale for such linkage, the report’s authors reason, is that WTO’s exclusively economic policies get tempered by the human rights concerns of ILO.

The above proposal does not only reveal the naiveté of its authors, but their indefensible lack of understanding as to how international organizations work.  The fact that the report's assumption that by linking WTO to ILO the latter’s objectives are likely to prevail is erroneous and in direct contradiction with everything we know about the behavior of organizations. At best, one could argue that such marriage between the two is likely to lead to compromises in proportion to their political influence and clout. Under such scenario, ILO leaders will have to make more concessions, being representatives of the weaker party in the relationship. However, the most likely scenario is that ILO’s human rights concerns will be compromised beyond recognition, given the fact that the two organizations are currently subject to the influence of leaders of the industrialized world.

Another serious flaw in the proposal is that it ignores the fact that WTO and ILO are mainly bureaucratic organizations, operating at the pleasure of the political leaders of economically powerful nations. As such, the expectation that bureaucrats can take initiatives in defiance of the will of the nations whose funding is vital for their performance is unrealistic. Perhaps nowhere is this fact more evident than in the inability of the United Nations, the international organization par excellence, to operate independently from the priorities set by major world players, more notably the United States.

This leads us to the second major flawed recommendation by the authors of HRW report, namely their insistence on strengthening the enforcement power of the United Nations organs. In the absence of a democratic structure, and given the overwhelming power given to the five permanent members of the UN security council, any efforts to expand the enforcement power of the UN is likely to further strengthen the grip of advanced nations over this organization’s member states. If the desired outcome is to make sure that the interest of the economically powerful are not advanced at the expense of developing countries, then a serious plan to tackle the problem of abuse of power must start with a proposal to level the playfield in setting the international agenda. Restructuring international organizations to ensure more democratic arrangements and procedures should precede enforcement. 


Another major flaw in the proposals to advance human rights the world over can be found in HRW’s concern with Gay and Lesbian rights. Homosexuality is considered by major world religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam a perverted behavior and moral sin. Some human rights advocates see homosexuality as an individual choice that must be respected by others. They would insist that no one should curtail or object to a relationship and an interaction involving consenting adults.

Yet the advocates of lesbian and gay rights, in their zeal to expand individual liberties, tend to brush aside the serious concerns of the larger society, and are often guilty of trashing the human rights of those who feel they are morally obligated to speak out against moral perversion. For clearly, gays and lesbians are not content anymore with indulging with their practice in the privacy of their homes, but are on a crusade to impose their way of life on the entire society.

The problem with the position taken by the authors of HRW is twofold.

First, they do not seem content with allowing the gay movement to express their preferences and demands, but are intent on stopping all criticism against gay lifestyle. The report takes issue with criticism of gay behavior by religious and political leaders. It takes to task, for instance, the head of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II, for calling homosexuality “an offense to the Christian values.” Similarly the report is unhappy that president of Namibia, Sam Nujoma, described the activities of gays and lesbians as “unnatural and against the will of God.”

Second, HRW position is completely oblivious to cultural variations, and the differences in values and norms across cultures. The authors of HRW never stop to ask themselves why should a form of behavior that is deemed legitimate and acceptable in one culture be imposed on a culture that categorizes it as pervert and criminal? Why should a Namibian culture condone a behavior it deems unnatural, pervert, and unacceptable? And if the notions of “individual liberty” and “consenting adults” are enough to justify the legalization and normalization of homosexuality, why cannot another culture that consider public nudity, the use of narcotics, or the performance of sexual intercourse in public places, as natural and normal demand that societies that deem such activities to be public offenses reverse their positions and permit their citizens to walk naked on the streets, indulge in drugs, or satisfy their sexual desires in public parks?

Homosexuality, like heterosexuality and celibacy, is an individual choice about how one goes about satisfying one’s sexuality. While society has no right to intrude to any person’s privacy or forces him or her to get emotional and physical satisfaction one way or the other, society has all the right to regulate its public space to ensure that behavior deemed pervert by the greater majority of people is outlawed. This of course does not allow individuals and organizations to indulge in witch-hunt activities aimed at discriminating or denying access to individuals who are suspected of indulging in perversion. No individual should be required to discuss his or her sexual choices in public. But society should be able to protect its public space and schools from individuals who are bent on forcing their sexual preferences onto the life and the education system of a community that rejects such preferences.

More importantly, a Human Rights Organization should be committed to principles rather than groups. It is one thing when HRW demands that all individuals should be able to speak on issues of concern to the public. However, as soon as HRW begins to link freedom of speech and action with one set of issues, and deny their opponents the equal right to speak freely against what they see as perversion, it puts into question its standing as a neutral human rights organization, and starts to sound more like an advocacy group of special interests. 

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