21st Century Wire
Human rights in the West: does the reality live up to the rhetoric? On the surface, the cultural narrative seems innocent enough: billionaire philanthropists, political luminaries and transnational corporations, along with legions of staff and volunteers – all working together in the name of social justice, forging a better, fairer and more accountable world.
The story reads well on paper, and well it should. After all, the 20th century saw a string of apparent failures by various governments to curb and halt some of the most horrific exhibitions of genocide and crimes against humanity. As a result, the door has been opened for many high-profile charities and human rights organizations to play a bigger role in moderating international affairs.
Upon more rigorous inspection, however, a number of uncomfortable realities emerge regarding the 21st century international human rights concern. Though many human rights charities still market themselves as ‘neutral’ and ‘nonpartisan’, the reality is something very different. Below, we will detail a number of high-profile cases where these organisations are being used as public relations organs to further western foreign policy objectives. With public skepticism of the charity sector already at an all-time high, the danger is clear: if conflicts of interest are not addressed in a serious way, they threaten to undermine the credibility of the entire non-governmental organization (NGO) sector internationally.
One difficult aspect in analyzing this battle of ‘perception management’ is that there’s a real risk of wrongly demonising the entire NGO sector. The reality is that most human rights and aid organizations are staffed and run by good, hard-working and extremely well-educated individuals, many of whom carry out their roles with an altruistic heart and with the best of intentions. For the most part, many remain unaware or uninterested in who actually funds their organisations and what those financial strings mean in terms of the what a given organisation’s stance will be on any range of geopolitical issues or military conflicts. It’s certainly true that over the years, sincere and dedicated campaigning by organisations has helped to free individuals who were unjustly imprisoned and achieved due process and justice for the dispossessed. It’s also true that many of these same organizations have helped to raise awareness on many important social and environmental issues.
Due to increased funding from corporate interests and direct links to government and defense policy think tanks in recent years, these organisations have become even more politicised, and more closely connected with western ‘agents of influence.’ As a result, an argument can be made that, on many levels, these ‘human rights’ organizations may be contributing to the very problem they profess to be working to abate: causing more suffering, death and instability worldwide through their co-marketing of the foreign policy objectives of Washington, London, Paris and Brussels.
The problem is both systemic and institutional in nature. As a result, many of the western world’s leading human rights organizations based in North America and Europe have become mirror reflections of a western foreign policy agenda and have become virtual clearing houses for interventionist propaganda.
Writer Stephanie McMillan describes the new role of the non governmental organizations in the 21st century:
“Along with military invasions and missionaries, NGOs help crack countries open like ripe nuts, paving the way for intensifying waves of exploitation and extraction.”
In 1999, the manufacturing of consensus for NATO’s war against Yugoslavia was a multilateral effort (Image: Tass News)
Shaping western public perception and opinion on major international issues is essential if major world powers are to realise their foreign policy goals. Not surprisingly, we can see that many of the public positions taken by NGOs are exactly aligned with western foreign policy. In the Balkans War of the 1990’s, human rights groups supported partitioning. In the Ukraine in 2014 and with both Syria and Yemen in 2016 they supported regime change. In each instance NGOs function as public relations extension to a United Nations western member Security Council bloc, namely the US, UK and France. This collusion is manifest throughout the upper echelons of these organizations whose streamlined agenda conforms through a lucrative revolving door which exists between a cartel of western NGOs, government and media.
As western governments find themselves more heavily involved in long-term conflicts around the globe, the need to outsource their ethics and morals to NGOs becomes more apparent. Continuity between these symbiotic entities is essential if governments are to successfully frame the geopolitical narratives on which international human rights organizations so often derive their own public relations and fundraising campaigns. Together, all of these things converge to form a highly efficient, functioning alliance which could be described as a type of ‘government-media-human rights’ industrial complex.
Nowhere is this complex more evident than with the United States-led foreign policy towards Syria. By framing the Syrian Conflict (2011 to present) as a “civil war”, both western media and human rights organizations did their part in propping-up an important western foreign policy narrative. Inaccurate and distorted, this narrative has helped shield the US-led clandestine proxy war which has been allowed to carry on almost unimpeded below the surface narrative of western public perception. For mainstream US audiences, if truly known, the reality of Syria might be too much to bear – a US-backed guerrilla war where Washington and Ankara, along with NATO and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies, flooding Turkey and Syria with weapons, cash, equipment, social media teams, military trainers and foreign fighters from as a far away as Pakistan. When analyzed from this wider perspective, very little is ‘civil’ about the Syrian Conflict.
The Human Rights Industry
What was once a 20th century adjunct to an emerging international progressive movement has since mushroomed into a 21st century multi-billion dollar, internationalised ‘third sector’ concern – underwritten by some of the world’s leading transnational corporations. This impressive labyrinth is led by organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW), and the Worldwide Human Rights Movement (FIDH). Each of these organisations has well-developed links leading directly into central governments, and perhaps more surprisingly, links leading straight into the heart of the military industrial complex. Safely cloaked under the official guise of ‘charity organisation’, many of these entities push a political agenda and effectively serve as public relations outlets for US and NATO forward military planning.
Working behind the public-facing human rights industrial complex is another key component which helps set the geopolitical agenda. Leading western governmental efforts are the White House and the US State Department. Behind the political facade, however, is where the real work takes place; a myriad of think tanks which serve as an unofficial academic-like support structure for managing policy planning, rolling out grand strategies and other big ideas. Some recognisable names in this industry are the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Brookings Institute, Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and Foreign Policy Initiative (the heir apparent to PNAC). These think tanks and foundations are also referred to as ‘policy mills’ because of their ability to churn-out volumes of policy ‘white papers’, surveys and strategic studies which are then disseminated through various industry journals and at functions, conferences and events in Washington DC and New York City. Certain think tanks, like the Committee for Peace and Security in the Gulf, were set-up in the 1990’s to push through specific foreign policy objectives – like kick-starting the war in Iraq. Where you find a war, you most certainly will find a think tank advocating behind it.
Follow the Money
To find the common thread between think tanks, foundations and human rights charities, one needs only to follow the money.
Many of these entities receive large portions of their funding from the same sources – transnational corporations. One large contributor of annual funding for human rights organisations, including HRW, is the controversial Wall Street billionaire George Soros, through his NGO the Open Society Institute. Other human rights organisations like FIDH which draw together some 178 organizations from 120 countries, receive funding from the US State Department by way of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Here we have a direct financial link which forms a ring connecting western governments, NGOs and charities.
One can argue, and successfully, that this nexus ensures that the output, ideas and marketing messages of each leg of a human rights campaign conforms to western foreign policy language and objectives.