Skip to main content

“I don’t care about human rights," Rodrigo Duterte boasted in August 2016, shortly after becoming president of the Philippines. Since then, his self-proclaimed “war on drugs” has resulted in police and “unidentified gunmen” killing thousands of Filipinos, without any semblance of due process. Promising medals to those who join his effort, Duterte has compared himself to Hitler and declared that he would be “happy to slaughter” the more than three million Filipinos he describes as “drug addicts.”

This kind of braggadocio makes it difficult to try to change Duterte’s actions by simply showing how his tactics violate basic human rights. In this, he is not alone. Extremist armed groups like the Islamic State (ISIS), autocrats like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and populists vying for political influence in Europe and the United States are distinguishable from one another in many important ways, but they all share a common feature with Duterte: a public embrace of policies that flout international human rights law.

“Naming and shaming,” an important tool for human rights advocacy, works best if advocates can raise the reputational costs of bad behavior by disclosing that individuals, armed groups, governments or corporations are breaking the rules or highlighting the devastating impact of their actions. But increasingly, it seems, some actors are almost completely immune to this kind of pressure. The shameless do not seek to hide their abuses or the policies that underpin them, but instead flaunt them as electoral or recruitment tools.

But this doesn’t mean the “shameless” are immune. We can challenge them by shifting our focus from their actions to the networks of financial enablers and arms suppliers who equip and sustain them. Some of these enablers may be more vulnerable to public exposure than their clients. Additionally, since enabling alone can amount to a serious international crime or human rights abuse, these enablers should also face coercive tools like sanctions and punitive measures like prosecutions.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone, for example, convicted Liberian president Charles Taylor in 2012 for aiding and abetting the war crimes of a brutal rebel group in neighboring Sierra Leone. The court pointed to Taylor’s role in providing arms and assistance to the abusive Revolutionary United Front and his participation in the blood diamond trade, which helped to fund this group during Sierra Leone’s armed conflict.

Of course, like all advocacy strategies, these tactics need to be calibrated to address the scale and nature of abuses being perpetrated and the degree to which enablers are complicit. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. But focusing on the networks of the complicit, instead of just frontline abusers or their commanders, offers an important vehicle to protect and promote rights.

Human rights advocates are adept at leveraging shame to press for change. Once exposed, governments or corporations can become so ashamed to be in the spotlight that they quickly switch tactics to avoid further criticism. But this doesn’t always work.

One of the frustrating moments human rights advocates face is when perpetrators issue denials. The Sudanese minister who refuses to believe that his government’s troops could use chemical weapons or rape hundreds of Darfuri women, or the Chinese Communist Party official who called the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 “much ado about nothing,” are obvious examples.

Blanket denials of months or even years of painstaking research are an everyday hazard of human rights work. But the shameless do not even bother with denials of this kind. They revel in being criticized. Responding to these shameless actors will require expanding the frontiers for human rights advocacy.

Worse, some abusers attempt to draw power from public attention to their abuses. When ISIS broadcasts its executions, it covers the faces of its fighters, but not their acts. This is not accidental. ISIS seems to have designed its fighters’ rape of Yazidi women in Iraq and the brutality of its rule in Libya in part as a magnet for recruits. A recent U.N. report on ISIS concluded: “By publicizing its brutality, the so-called ISIS seeks to convey its authority over its areas of control, to show its strength to attract recruits and to threaten any […] that challenge its ideology.”

There are many other less egregious cases where the same principle applies. Australia’s offshore detention processing centers for asylum seekers seem to be designed to be so inhumane that they dissuade others from seeking refuge on its shores.

During his campaign for the U.S. presidency, Donald Trump openly urged policies that would amount to war crimes under international humanitarian law. For example, he repeatedly lauded the benefits of waterboarding and “worse,” dismissing those who disapprove of using such techniques as “too politically correct.” When reminded that torture is illegal, Trump promised that he would work to change the law. He later told The New York Times that torture “is not going to make the kind of a difference that a lot of people are thinking.”

Rhetoric like this is a huge problem. Trump’s focus on whether the tactic is effective misses the point. International law makes it clear that that no national emergency, however dire, ever justifies torture. Further, Trump’s choice of retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as his National Security Advisor demonstrates a disturbing disregard for human rights principles and the laws of war since, even when asked directly, Flynn did not repudiate such tactics as waterboarding that clearly constitute torture.

For many populist politicians, such talk serves as an effective deterrence strategy and electoral argument, even if it draws criticism from human rights groups. These governments justify harsh policies that violate rights as necessary to counterterrorism or stem migration and dismiss rights groups’ criticism by pointing to the broad-based popular support of their citizens. Leaders rely on their followers and extremist groups depend on their recruits, so any comprehensive strategy to address the enablers of shameless leaders should consider how and why these messages resonate with voters, recruits, and supporters.

In regions with effective regional human rights courts like the European Court of Human Rights, litigation can offer an important vehicle for redress. But in many other regions, to effectively confront the shameless, advocates must look beyond shining a spotlight on what abusers are doing wrong.

A dynamic whole-systems approach, which confronts enablers, is not uncharted territory. In 1997, advocates seeking to end the abuses of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, an armed group founded in northern Uganda, appealed to the government of neighboring Sudan to end its support for the group.

Similarly, in 2006, Human Rights Watch examined how the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam of Sri Lanka, a group known for its use of child soldiers, employed coercive practices to extract money from the Tamil diaspora in Canada. The government of Canada and others subsequently prohibited this group fundraising on their soil. Almost a decade later, a Court of Appeals in The Hague found that five people who had raised millions of euros for the group were part of a criminal organization with the intent of committing war crimes. The enablers were not just exposed, they were also convicted for their role as a part of a broader “criminal organization.”

Drawing on research into ISIS crimes in Libya, Human Rights Watch has called on the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions, not just on ISIS and its members but also “those who intentionally finance or otherwise assist abuses.” This recommendation is grounded in the idea that sanctions on those knowingly financing abuses might stop them from continuing to enable these atrocities.

Even before human rights groups made this recommendation, global efforts to curb the spread of ISIS were already seeking to choke its financial networks. Similar tactics have been used to respond to North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programs. These inter-government initiatives are motivated by policy considerations that go far beyond the scope of human rights organizations work and mandates. But that doesn’t mean human rights advocates can’t learn from them.

Human rights research typically does not extend to doing the painstaking financial forensic analysis required to identify financiers and enablers. Venturing into this area will require harnessing the research expertise of accountants, arms experts, and others. Some are experimenting with this approach. The Sentry, for example, a new initiative led by actor George Clooney and activist John Prendergast makes policy recommendations that seek to alter the incentive structures that let enablers benefit financially and politically from abusive conflict and mass atrocities in east Africa.

One lesson from this kind of work is the importance of piercing the veil of plausible deniability. Human rights groups have an important role to play here by informing corporations of their possible complicity in distant abuses and war crimes. The other is that in situations where exposing abuses alone is not enough to effect change, advocates need to consistently adopt a wider lens and devote more energy to better understanding the expansive networks of financial backers and arms suppliers who enable abusers to continue their wrongdoing. Financial backers play a role in enabling the shameless. Additionally, for those conducting abusive military campaigns in Syria, South Sudan, or Yemen, arms suppliers remain among their most important enablers.

The use of coercion tools including targeted sanctions or asset freezes inevitably raises questions about unintended consequences, possible violations of due process, and mistaken identity. These risks are heightened because enforcement actions frequently occur without any kind of legal proceeding.

Fear of penalties for violating sanctions restrictions can also lead international businesses to simply stop doing business in “high risk” jurisdictions. This can unintentionally marginalize communities by limiting their access to financial services, preventing them from accessing critical remittances and atrophying their economic development.For example, Oxfam has campaigned against the U.S. government’s restrictions on informal money transfers to Somalia, pointing to the impact it had on Somalis access to the remittances they rely on to meet their basic needs.

There is a human rights case for caution, but also one for thoughtful sanctions enforcement against enablers who aid and abet or are knowingly complicit in abuses. These measures can play a powerful role in influencing behavior and should always be reversible, giving enablers who focus on their bottom line a reason to stop supporting abusers.

Finding ways to effectively freeze assets of enablers while not giving short shrift to due process is the key challenge for human rights advocates who need to adapt to the rise of a new generation of shameless abusers, whether they be autocrats or extremist groups.

Akshaya Kumar is the deputy United Nations director at Human Rights Watch, where she is responsible for conducting advocacy with members of the General Assembly and the Security Council, and other U.N. organs and agencies. This article is adapted from a longer essay to be published in its annual review, World Report 2017.

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