Hope for Human Rights

Hope for Human Rights

This article was adapted from The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear (Basic Books, www.theimpossible.org).


OK, maybe running a human rights organization isn’t a laugh a minute. The world can be an ugly place. I encounter more accounts of slaughter and cruelty in a week than most people would want in a lifetime. But that doesn’t lead me to despair, and it’s not because I have one of those glass-half-full dispositions.

For me, the key to hope is realizing that even in distant corners of the world, there are things we can do to curb suffering and end atrocities. That’s hardly self-evident. Most people never see past the horror stories. But one of the great privileges of working at Human Rights Watch is seeing what a small group of people, combining their voices, talents and financial generosity, can do to address even seemingly intractable problems.

Americans are particularly handicapped when it comes to understanding this power. We tend to look at human rights issues through “litigation blinders.” Living in a society with a strong and independent judiciary, we tend to think that the solution to rights violations is always to sue the bastards. Since most repressive countries don’t have functioning court systems, we despair.

The dictator-rattling innovation of the human rights movement is its development of ways to defend rights even in the absence of functioning courts. We begin with a moral universe in which most people view human rights violations as wrong. That’s why they tend to occur in the shadows. Human rights investigators operate in violent and repressive countries to document abuses, expose them to public opprobrium and generate pressure for change.

These exposés raise the cost of abuse–in terms of the reputation, pocketbook and liberty of those responsible. Because human rights reports receive broad press coverage, they tend to stigmatize abusive forces, depriving them of the legitimacy they need to maintain power. Because influential governments and institutions can be convinced to condition aid and loans on an end to abuse, atrocities can be financially costly to the perpetrators. And because venues are increasingly available to prosecute the worst human rights criminals, abusive leaders must now worry about their freedom.

The emotionally difficult part of this work is that we usually can’t offer immediate relief to the victims whose plight we record. But we can deploy their testimony to protect others from a repetition of their suffering. And we are moving closer to the day when their persecutors will be reliably punished.

Whether paramilitary leaders in Colombia or rebel groups in the Congo, whether the dictators in Beijing or the Russian generals in Chechnya, even the most recalcitrant abusers feel the heat. Indeed, when America’s own legal system fails–as it often does for prisoners, immigrants, gays and lesbians, terrorist suspects and victims of the drug wars, to name a few–the tools of the human rights movement can be an essential supplement to litigation at home as well.

Does this mean we are moving toward a day when there will be no more human rights abuse? I doubt it. Governments will always find it tempting to violate human rights. But we are well past the day when human rights can be violated with impunity. If we keep raising the cost of abuse, there is every reason for hope.

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