Moral Outrage in the Service of Empire

Human rights are worth defending. Human Rights Watch is not.

Portrait of Maduro

Illustration by The Diggers

The idea that human rights should be defended appears unobjectionable. In Latin America, the brutal experience of 1970s and ’80s military rule underscored the importance of protections against arbitrary detention, torture, and execution and convinced many on the Left that political rights that formerly might have been considered “bourgeois” — due process, freedom of speech and assembly, multiparty elections — were in fact critical, both in and of themselves and as necessary conditions for waging popular struggles to tame, transform, and transcend capitalism.

The fall of the Soviet Union and the failures of “actually existing socialism” only reinforced this view.

The record of leading human rights organizations in Latin America, however, show how hollow certain applications of the concept can be. The recent work of Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Venezuela offers an interesting case study. HRW has paid few states more attention than Venezuela: since 2014, it has issued three reports and more than sixty statements related to the country, documenting Venezuela’s worsening social (or “humanitarian,” as per HRW) crisis.

There is no doubt that Venezuela is experiencing a severe, multi-dimensional crisis. HRW’s work captures important aspects of this crisis, in particular appalling shortages of food, medicine, and basic goods; acts of state violence and repression; questionable decrees, such as indefinitely suspending regional elections and a recall referendum against President Nicolás Maduro, and recent actions targeting opposition politicians and the opposition-controlled National Assembly.The Maduro administration deserves to be criticized for its actions and inactions, above all its failure to take sensible policy measures to stem and reverse the country’s devastating downward economic spiral and its increasingly selective adherence to democratic norms and the rule of law. Yet one need not be a blind supporter of Maduro to note three profoundly troubling features of HRW’s coverage of Venezuela and other Latin American countries.


The government is portrayed as being responsible for all of Venezuela’s ills.

In HRW’s accounting of Venezuela’s problems, almost everything appears to be the fault of the Maduro administration. This omits the violent and illegal actions of the Venezuelan opposition and US government, which have repeatedly sought to topple the democratically elected Hugo Chávez and Maduro administrations — supporting the 2002 coup against Chávez and financing violent attempts to overthrow the government since 2014. Such actions have made it much harder for the government to implement needed economic reforms or resolve the country’s political crisis. Nor does HRW give much attention to Maduro’s prosecution of state security officials accused of violating human rights.

Human Rights Watch has one standard for left-wing governments and another for movements of the Right.

There is little doubt that HRW has singled out governments like Venezuela’s. While it relentlessly criticizes Caracas for any and all acts of “democratic backsliding,” it has been silent in the face of much more egregious violations of democratic norms elsewhere in the region.

The most obvious example is the parliamentary-institutional coup against Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s democratically elected president, which took place in two acts in April and August 2016. Amazingly, HRW did not issue a single statement discussing, much less condemning, the ouster. In 2012, when Paraguay’s president Fernando Lugo was removed in a similar parliamentary coup, HRW issued a single short statement expressing concern that Lugo’s impeachment “showed a lack of respect for due process.”

The contrast is notable with HRW’s relentless words and actions against the Maduro administration (like lobbying numerous Latin American governments to suspend Venezuela from the Organization of American States). Also note the organization’s total silence about the country’s success reducing poverty and inequality from 2003 to 2014.

Human Rights Watch’s policy goals conveniently dovetail with Washington’s policy preferences.

The third troubling issue is how well HRW’s work in Latin America as a whole aligns with US government interests. For instance, HRW has issued no criticisms of Argentina’s right-wing president, US ally Mauricio Macri (apart from a statement imploring Macri, “Don’t Ease the Pressure over Venezuela’s Abuses”), despite his firing more than a thousand public employees just after taking office and his recent harsh crackdown on Bolivian immigrants in Argentina.

Even more troubling was HRW’s appalling opposition to the historic peace process between Colombia’s government and the FARC, with HRW joining Álvaro Uribe in actively campaigning for a “No” vote, an outcome many observers felt would lead to a continuation of human rights abuses within Colombia.

Human rights are worth defending. Human Rights Watch is not.