Skip to main content

Why Kinzer Is Wrong About Human Rights Watch

Stephen Kinzer's accusation that Human Rights Watch imposes western values is an inadvertent apologia for dictators

Published in:

Stephen Kinzer accuses Human Rights Watch of imposing western values on impoverished or war-torn countries. Yet his argument rests on a paternalism that treats the people of such countries as if they do not value, or know how to exercise, their fundamental human rights.

Kinzer cites two contemporary situations to make his point: Darfur and Rwanda. In Darfur, he contends that the involvement of human rights groups encourages rebels to "provoke massacres by the other side" so as to mobilise public opinion in their favour and prolong the war. In Kinzer's perverse view, it is not the Sudanese government that bears responsibility for slaughtering civilians, but the human rights groups that condemn the killing and the rebel groups that somehow "provoke" it. By that logic, Darfur would be better off if the world left the Sudanese government to proceed on its abusive path rather than pressure it to stop. Murderous regimes the world over would, undoubtedly, be all too eager to embrace such a deflection of responsibility.

In Rwanda, it is widely recognised that the government has brought economic progress to the country, while using the spectre of another genocide to impose increasingly harsh and intolerant rule. Kinzer asserts that the Rwandan people are "thrilled" to give up their political rights, as if Rwandans were incapable of criticising their government without inciting genocide. In the absence of meaningful political pluralism or debate in the country, Kinzer's claims that he knows what the Rwandan people want ring hollow. 

Kinzer is correct that human rights are about not only political debate, but also such matters as health, education and security, as the quickest perusal of Human Rights Watch's website would show. But the best way to achieve the full panoply of rights is not to adopt a paternalist perspective in which government killings are dismissed as outside provocation and repression is justified by imaginary applause from a silenced population. Instead, people in each country need to be empowered to set their nation's course and to hold their government accountable for pursuing their vision.

When rights are trampled upon, the proper course is to work with those who peacefully oppose that repression, rather than concoct justifications from afar for why the dictator really knows best.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country