When human rights activists become careerists (Hell freezes over)

The United Nations-declared International Human Rights Day was on December 10; just after that I started reflecting on my experience and work in human rights (which is not too in-depth, but in this field nevertheless) and wondered how effective the work of human rights organisations – including my work – is.

It brought to mind certain things I’ve read or heard about, and instead of talking about my work (which is largely frakkin’ worthless), I’d like to point out these other things to say how I feel about human rights work (mine and others’).

First, the novel A Spy’s Life. A Spy's Life

A plane crash involving protagonist Robert Harland as the sole survivor, the book follows his investigation into the true cause of the crash (classed as an accident), where it seems that his colleague and friend on the flight, Alan Grisworld, may have been the target of an assassination that killed everyone on board except Harland. Harland was an ex-spy for the British government and is now working in the UN as a specialist in water issues.

The plot brings in a figures from his past: a Serb war criminal, Harland’s Czech former lover, a young man who claims to be his son, and his former handler in the British intelligence service, among others. Griswald was investigating atrocities in Bosnia for the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, an investigation which the UN Secretary General hands over to Harland after he recovers from the crash.

The complex plotting and storyline is engrossing and sometimes a bit difficult to follow, but as I got deeper into it, I was struck by how certain individuals were doing so much more for human rights than certain so-called human rights organisations, a couple of which I’m personally familiar with.

Although a fictional creation, A Spy’s Life showed how courageous individuals work in various ways to bring justice to crimes like genocide, all at the risk of threats and danger to their own lives. This is in stark contrast to many semi-deskbound human rights “activists” I know, working in regional organisations, whose only only concerns are about their programmes and personal careers in the human rights field – and many of them are not even doing a competent or believeable job to advance, promote and protect human rights.

This, unfortunately, is a world-wide phenomenon that has even led some veteran human rights workers to label the field the “human rights industry”.

I agree with this self-criticism, and it hurts the cause of human rights everywhere. But it only goes to show, at least to myself, how bad it is when a novel can point out certain truths to me and give me a sort of wake-up call.

Going to non-fiction, I recently picked up the November (2006) copy of The Irrawaddy, a news magazine about Burma and Southeast Asian issues, published by the overseas Burmese community based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. In the November print edition, social, political and human rights news are covered, these themes also threading through the articles comprising the cover story: Terror in Southeast Asia, Indonesia: A Study in Military Manipulation, and Junta Climbs Aboard the ‘Anti-Terror’ Bandwagon.

Other interesting articles include:
Andaman Murder Mystery
Doing India’s Dirty Work
The Backpacker Medics

Not all the stories have a human rights perspective where they speak of basic rights of the people – and of course it wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, because The Irrawaddy is a news magazine covering many issues more than human rights. The main purpose of the magazine is news, and for that, it contains no-less interesting articles covering a wide variety of areas; articles that are informative, critical, emphatic, saddening and heartbreaking. Sometimes they are a call to action – which is a lot more than I can about how some human rights “activists” act and behave, being the mere careerists in the human rights industry that they are.

Heck, when even the Editorial, Burma’s Subtle Disobedience Campaign, is more interesting (and constructive) than the work of certain so-called human rights activists – and you are in the know about such matters – then you know that human rights activism is in trouble. Lots of trouble.

Better check to see if Hell is freezing over yet.


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