Human-rights organizations are supposed to defend universal principles such as the rule of law and freedom from state repression. But when they are based in the United States and become close to the US government, they often find themselves aligned with US foreign policy. This damages their credibility and can hurt the cause of human rights.
Recent events in Latin America have highlighted this problem. On August 29, the Brazilian Senate removed the elected president, Dilma Rousseff, from office, even though the federal prosecutor assigned to her case had determined that the accounting procedures for which she was being impeached did not constitute a crime. Moreover, leaked transcripts of phone calls between political leaders of the impeachment showed that they were trying to get rid of Dilma in order to protect themselves from investigations into their own corruption.
Michel Temer, who has already been banned from running for office because of campaign finance violations, replaced an elected president who had committed no crime. Everything about the process was political—and now the new government is trying to implement a right-wing agenda that was defeated in the last three presidential elections.
Part of that right-wing agenda is a close alliance with the United States and its Cold War strategy of “containment” and “rollback” with respect to the left governments in Latin America. And that is where Human Rights Watch, the most prominent US-based human-rights organization—its Americas Division in particular—comes in. HRW abstained from offering the slightest criticism of the impeachment process; even worse, the executive director of its Americas Division, José Miguel Vivanco, was quoted in the Brazilian media—on the day that the Brazilian Senate voted to permanently oust the president—saying Brazilians “should be proud of the example they are giving the world.” He also praised the “independence of the judiciary” in Brazil. Sérgio Moro, the judge investigating the political corruption cases, has been far from independent. He had to apologize in March for leaking wiretapped conversations to the press between former president Lula da Silva and Dilma; Lula and his attorney; and between Lula’s wife and their children.