The Moral Solipsism of Global Ethics Inc

Alex de Waal

  • Like Water on Stone: The Story of Amnesty International by Jonathan Power
    Allen Lane, 332 pp, £12.99, May 2001, ISBN 0 7139 9319 7
  • Future Positive: International Co-operation in the 21st Century by Michael Edwards
    Earthscan, 292 pp, £12.99, September 2000, ISBN 1 85383 740 7
  • East Meets West: Human Rights and Democracy in East Asia by Daniel Bell
    Princeton, 369 pp, £12.50, May 2000, ISBN 0 691 00508 7

‘Uhuru has a new name’, an advertising billboard for mobile phones announces in Dar es Salaam. ‘Uhuru’ – Swahili for ‘freedom’ or ‘liberation’ – is a sacred word throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa. It is an ideal for which Africans sacrificed much in their collective struggle against colonialism and racism. But almost two years after the death of Tanzania’s former President, Julius Nyerere, in the city that once hosted the OAU Liberation Committee, advertising of this kind passes without comment. In a globalised world, ideals become commodities along with everything else. The manufacture and dissemination of global ethics is a neglected strand of globalisation. We are all familiar with the core values embodied in human rights, democracy, ‘civil society’ and ‘governance’ – an aseptic word that seems to mean government minus politics. We also know the core institutions: the organisations, foundations and institutes that teach the world how to implement democracy and human rights. But do we, or the people who staff them, understand what they are up to?

The global ethical enterprise begins in moral solipsism. Most accounts of the human rights industry – including Jonathan Power’s Like Water on Stone, the history of Amnesty International, timed for its 40th birthday this year – have a whiff of Whig history about them. It is hard for those driven by conviction and concern to imagine what it might be like for those on the receiving end of the moral directives. And the more driven, convinced and concerned they are, the more solipsistic they tend to be. They find it almost impossible to listen to voices originating ‘outside the Anglo-Saxon intellectual fortress that dominates writing on foreign policy and international affairs’. This is Michael Edwards’s formulation, and his book, Future Positive, urges them to do better. Daniel Bell rises to this challenge in East Meets West, a series of fictional dialogues about human rights in East Asia. Bell’s East Asian interlocutors express some of the bewilderment felt by the recipients of America’s moral advice, and they offer a robust critique. ‘It’s not that your arguments are invalid, they just don’t apply in a Singaporean context,’ says the Seni0r Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. (Bell bases Lee’s arguments on his published writings and speeches, which he skilfully edits into a debate with an imaginary American interlocutor.) Lee may have an insalubrious human rights record, but the point he makes needs to be taken seriously. As do the voices of Lee’s victims and critics.

Human rights is an activity as well as a theory; it is an exercise in power. It’s not possible to do more than sketch out this activity or the institutions involved in it. At the centre, there are private organisations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (the US brand leader), intergovernmental bodies such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and a range of intermediaries, such as the International Commission of Jurists. In the last ten years the discourse of human rights has widened considerably and the activity now encompasses not only the old-style campaigns against manifest injustice, torture and political detention, for example, but the promotion of democracy, conflict resolution, ‘good governance’, humanitarian principles and the increasingly fashionable notion of ‘civil society’. This last is a catch-all term, about which Edwards says that ‘among writers and politicians doubly disenchanted with the ideologies of Left and Right, civil society has assumed the status of a “solution” writ large.’ Development agencies of all kinds, from Oxfam to Unicef, from Britain’s Department for International Development to the World Bank, have all embraced programmes that affirm the importance of civil society. Once inspired overwhelmingly by economics, overseas aid departments and multilateral lenders now recognise that ‘development’ is a social concept. Edwards summarises: ‘It’s the polity, stupid.’ Universities teach postgraduate courses on one or another branch of ‘human rights’; research institutes produce reports and analyses; and many of the major foundations, from established giants like Ford and Rockefeller to relative newcomers such as George Soros’s Open Society Institute, have committed themselves to the new agenda. Much of Amnesty’s recent campaigning has focused on international corporations, and it has succeeded in persuading several, including Shell, BP, Rio Tinto Zinc and British Telecom, to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though exactly what that amounts to remains to be seen.

If you belong to the network of private organisations, foundations, institutes and specialised departments in aid agencies and government offices that concern themselves with civil and political liberties worldwide, you will take the virtues of this enterprise for granted. The philosophy of the specialist ethics business is overwhelmingly liberal: opposed to censorship, repression and corruption; in favour of tolerance, pluralism, respect for all. The relevant activities include training lawyers, monitoring elections, supporting citizens’ organisations that campaign for women’s rights or the environment (all these are seen as laying the foundations for a strong civil society), sponsoring reconciliation between warring communities and documenting violations of human rights. In some ways, this activity resembles that of a marketplace; in others, it puts you in mind of an intellectual production line for the liberal imperium – Global Ethics Inc.

In its basic structure, the ethics business is like many global businesses. It has its headquarters in a handful of Western centres, notably New York, Washington and London. It acknowledges no boundaries and aims nowadays at the dismantling of the sovereign privilege of governments to regulate its product. On this issue, the key battle was won decisively a decade ago, when the UN Security Council endorsed the principle that national sovereignty did not entitle governments to abuse the rights of their citizens with impunity. And the human rights movement itself crossed a Rubicon when it endorsed the military-humanitarian interventions in Somalia, Haiti and the former Yugoslavia.

Another watershed was the Pinochet case. The fact that the former dictator, Cold War ally and friend of Margaret Thatcher, could be arrested on the instructions of a Spanish magistrate elicited guffaws of delighted disbelief from at least three generations of human rights activists. The principle of global jurisdiction covering outrageous human rights abuses, and rejecting the defence that raison d’état provides immunity for heads of state, was a leap forward for universalism. Pinochet ultimately escaped, as did Hissène Habré, former murderous ruler of Chad, now living in exile in Senegal. Slobodan Milosevic was not so lucky: the Americans used their economic muscle to ensure that he will be duly tried in The Hague. So the global principle now extends far enough to take care of war criminals hostile to the US. It is improbable on the other hand that the US will ratify the statute of the International Criminal Court, which will have global reach, fearful that its own soldiers (or Secretaries of State) might be called to account. There is no better illustration of the deeply ambiguous relationship between America and the human rights international.

One could argue that global ethics is a largely deregulated business. A globalising liberalism does not function like the old imperium, which kept its ideologues institutionalised in seminaries or propaganda departments, subject to the strictest control. True, some value-manufacturing institutes and academies conduct their affairs under close governmental scrutiny, but the market leaders – the most successful foundations and advocacy organisations – are independent. It is the logic of their enterprise, and the competitive market in which they operate, not the hand of government, which causes them to converge on a largely uniform product. Yet this analogy is also misleading: we are dealing with an apparatus of intellectual and moral production that conforms to no known model in social, political or market science. The simplest way to understand it is through its history.

The juridical and philosophical framework of human rights originated in the European Enlightenment, but as a practice it owes everything to the second half of the 20th century in Europe and the US. In the official version, virtue has (nearly) triumphed. The story can partly be told as an institutional history of Amnesty International, which is how Jonathan Power tells it. Amnesty began in 1961, with the simple and apparently absurd idea of Peter Benenson, a British lawyer, that governments could be persuaded to release political prisoners simply by ordinary people writing letters to them. This remains the core of Amnesty’s work.

Power’s is not an uncritical history. He refers both to the scandal of Benenson’s links with the Foreign Office (which brought the organisation to the point of collapse) and – glancingly – to the view that Amnesty’s focus on prisoners contributed to the preference of some Latin American dictatorships for having their victims ‘disappear’ instead. He charts the ways in which Amnesty has contributed to the march of human rights, sometimes dramatically but mostly modestly and quietly. And it is a truly impressive story, of many small, mostly invisible and unattributable victories, in the form of prisoners released or treated better, local human rights groups founded around the world, and legal reforms, all adding up to slowly raising the bar on what it is acceptable for a government to do. There are also failures – prominent among them, the continuing use of the death penalty in the US.

An alternative narrative would have to tell of the co-option of dissent by liberal governance: human rights work has long ceased to be a marginal, dissenting activity – we can now talk of a real ‘human rights international’. Although Amnesty is a key member of this network, global leadership belongs to American organisations. The immediate ancestor of today’s human rights international was the civil rights movement in the US, a classic case of people mobilising in pursuit of their rights, legitimately claimed. The movement’s success owed much to Martin Luther King’s strategy of non-violence, but it also had to do with the co-ordination between a ‘primary’ mass mobilisation of citizens and a skilful activist leadership, who could channel popular energy into sustained and effective campaigns, and build alliances with other civil liberties activists and with independence movements in Africa.

The men and women who emerged from the leadership of the American Civil Liberties Union went on to dominate human rights institutions in the US for a generation, putting their experience to work in pursuit of an international extension of the civil liberties movement. But the ‘global’ movement – a combination of creative ad hoccery and universal principles – didn’t get going until 1975, when the part of the Helsinki Accords dealing with human rights and civil society was agreed. At the time, Soviet concessions in this respect were seen as an empty gesture to the West: they turned out to be, in the words of Martin Walker in The Cold War (1993), ‘a time bomb planted in the heart of the Soviet empire’.

The story of the Eastern European dissidents is well known. What is less well known is that the Helsinki Accords were also a minefield of sorts for the American political establishment. After Helsinki, the human rights movement in the US operated by ‘mobilising shame’, relying on journalism and advocacy as a short cut to effecting change. This can be characterised as a phase of ‘secondary activism’, which saw the growth of institutions based on professional skills and institutional funding. There are precedents – the campaign against the colonialist crimes in the Congo chronicled in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost (1998) is one – but never before had such activism been so fully institutionalised or pursued with such ambition.

Throughout the 1980s, the American movement – exemplified by Human Rights Watch – continued to gather momentum. It was able to mount a sustained campaign against the duplicity and adventurism of both Reagan Administrations. It investigated, documented, exposed and condemned, and was all the more effective for being non-partisan – it also fiercely criticised abuses in the Soviet bloc. Human Rights Watch pioneered an adversarial strategy perfectly adapted to the decade, turning the rhetoric of right-wing liberalism back on itself. The target of the movement’s attention was always the US Administration. Even when a report addressed its recommendations to, say, the Government of Guatemala, the message was intended for Washington, and it got through because, during the Cold War, every country mattered to the US Government, no matter how small or distant. Each time human rights abuses were documented in a US-sponsored country, Americans were made to feel morally tainted on the grounds that their tax-dollars were financing death squads. The message therefore was simple: cut military (or economic) aid to El Salvador (or Chile, or Somalia). It helped enormously that the abuses were committed by states and against individuals, which meant that individual heroes – dissident writers, detained activists, courageous lawyers – could be celebrated. But this model has its limits. What happens if a human rights prize-winner also happens to be a nationalist or if a movement for civil rights is also pursuing a controversial economic agenda – seizing plantations from landowners, for example? Above all, what happens when states collapse into civil strife?

This gives us another perspective on the case against Pinochet. Was it not also an exercise in nostalgia? Arresting the old dictator reignited the passionate certainties of a generation ago, but Chile’s democratic institutions proved strong enough to handle the political strains that followed. Would it have been the same if it had been a serving despot such as President Charles Taylor of Liberia, whose skeletons are now bursting out of the cupboard? Many Liberians voted for Taylor because they believed that the only way to end the civil war was to choose the biggest warlord as President. Arresting him could start another civil war.

BBecause of the spectacular successes they had in the 1980s, exposure and condemnation remain the definitive weapons in the human rights armoury. But by the early 1990s, the adversarial model was becoming exhausted. It was still workable, of course, but in the last decade the human rights movement has lost much of its old fiery certitude. The problem is that it succeeded. Communism collapsed, and the dissidents moved into the castle. And, with the election of Clinton in 1992, a generation of American human rights lawyers and activists found that the doors of their own Government were open to them. Some took posts in the Administration; others found that their classmates and partners (professional and personal) were on the inside. Others still, in the satellite institutions – academia, foundations, law firms, the media – found that their opinions suddenly counted. Having called for their ideals to be made real, they now faced the challenge of satisfying their own demands.

The human rights movement could not find a way to function once so many of its members and peers were in government. At first, the Democrats got away with policies that would have drawn down the wrath of the human rights lobby had they been implemented by Republicans. But in due course, we began to see a combination of public debate and internal policy dialogue. The human rights industry has not become a servant of US policy, at least not in any simple way. At the same time, the values of the movement have permeated the system: the Bush Administration cannot turn the clock back entirely.

Yet, as Bell explains, the viewpoint only needs to shift to the periphery – to Africa or East Asia, or indeed the Balkans – for the modus operandi of the ethics industry to look rather problematic. Do influential activists in the West obey only the dictates of their conscience? Should this be the case? To whom are they accountable? And even if they proclaim their independence, just how closely tied up are they with the US Government? Why are they so culturally constrained in what they regard as ‘human rights’? Why are their proposed remedies so uniform and frequently so inattentive to local realities? Across the world there are many exponents of the basic values of liberal democracy who have profound anxieties about the way in which Western institutions pursue the human rights agenda overseas. They would appreciate more cultural sensitivity on the part of some of the movement’s emissaries and more acknowledgment that there are other points of view.

Bell’s imaginary dialogues in East Meets West take place between Sam Demo, newly-assigned East Asia programme officer for the (fictitious) US-based National Endowment for Human Rights and Democracy, and three East Asians. Demo is sympathetically portrayed: his desperately sincere commitment to liberal values rings true. He travels first to Hong Kong, where he discusses his programme with Joseph Lo, his most sophisticated critic. Lo has few disagreements with liberal values themselves. He does, however, disagree about how they should be ‘prioritised’ and how they should evolve. Part of the difficulty is simply that criticism is more likely to be productive if it comes from East Asians rather than Americans. But there is a deeper disagreement, too. East Asians recognise that Western-style civil liberties emerged in stable and prosperous nation states. They argue that a temporary downgrading of civil liberties may be necessary while developing states establish their authority and facilitate economic development: democracy and human rights can be attended to later. This is a shocking proposition to many Western liberals, who would insist that human rights are non-negotiable. In terms of political realities, the Western view is, of course, a fiction. Rights are often in conflict. Law and politics are to a great extent concerned precisely with determining which rights should have precedence when they appear to clash, and cultural factors are all-important in determining the outcome. Americans are characteristically ready to tolerate extremes of inequality and high levels of violence in their society in order to preserve the ideal of individual liberty, but East Asians may find this choice distasteful. Americans prefer legalistic measures to enforce rights: East Asians may seek social consensus in order to realise rights without resorting to the law.

The disagreement reflects a philosophical difference. American advocates of human rights tend to argue from principle: East Asians from how things currently are on the ground. Lo tells Demo: ‘What’s problematic is [your] assumption that only US-style political institutions can secure human rights.’ Lo is referring to the judiciary, but he could just as well mean American non-governmental human rights organisations, some of which appear to believe that their own existence and operations are synonymous with ‘human rights’. Many Confucians and Islamists, among others, argue that it is possible for social and religious institutions and networks, notably the family and organised religion, to achieve a consensus on basic values that can lead to social harmony and respect for rights. But Demo scores his points, too. Consensus may be achieved at the expense of pluralism and individual liberty. Deference and quiet diplomacy have a poor record in persuading authoritarian governments to stop abusing their citizens.

Bell’s central point is that the conversation must be more inclusive. Lo tells Demo: ‘Remember, the norms and institutions of human rights aren’t settled visions. They’re continually evolving, and East Asians may have something to contribute. If the aim is to formulate a truly universal human rights regime, I think it’s important to understand East Asian perspectives as well.’

Edwards’s Future Positive is a remarkably coherent account of complex and diverse issues such as the one I’ve just outlined. It is in two parts, one looking back, the other forward. Reflecting on international efforts to promote development and human rights over the last four decades is not an encouraging exercise. The constraints and obstacles placed in their way are oppressive, the catalogue of failures is long. Examining models that haven’t worked is a painful business, since there is no insolvency in the human rights and development industry: bankrupt institutions remain viable because people hang onto old beliefs and donors continue to fund them.

Edwards’s starting point is not how to make existing institutions work, but how to solve the real problems of poverty, ecological crisis and abuse of human rights. He argues that emancipatory change comes about through broad-based coalitions, such as the women’s movement, Greenpeace, Amnesty International and the campaign to ban landmines. The basis of any such coalition is mass mobilisation, with journalists, lawyers, clergymen, academics, trade unionists providing the organisational skills, the national and international networks and the long-term strategy to keep a social movement alive and on track. Edwards quotes Arnold Toynbee: ‘Apathy can only be overcome by enthusiasm, and enthusiasm can only be aroused by two things: an ideal which takes the imagination by storm and an intelligible plan for carrying that ideal into practice.’

What of the relations between social campaigns and political parties? Vexed, Edwards concedes, but nonetheless crucial, since civic mobilisation breathes life into parliamentary democracy, while party manifestos provide the best chance for enacting progressive social policy. But party leaderships are always struggling to break free of the claims of autonomous groups that have won the allegiance of their members and voters, while activists fear – usually with reason – that their political allies will betray them once they are in power. A real threat to those in power is the best guarantee of change. Fear of anarchy, disease or revolution has often been the sharpest stimulus to progressive legislation. As politics becomes more democratic, lesser degrees of threat are needed to force change: the prospect of losing votes or suffering public embarrassment may be enough. It remains the case, however, that in undemocratic systems, rulers respond to organised numbers, and in democratic societies, governments respond to voters: the larger the numbers and the more significant the vote, the quicker they react. Building coalitions is about finding the best ways of exerting political pressure. This may be done with a light hand and good humour, but every politician will recognise it for what it is: a challenge to power. These basic rules haven’t changed much in a long while. The campaigns against slavery or mass murder in the Congo were truly international. Indian and Irish nationalists made common cause. Political parties on the Left still uneasily join hands with social movements, but globalisation bypasses the town hall meeting. Communication technology opens the possibility of virtual rallies, global mobilisation of the e-networked.

What have development agencies contributed to the social pressure for global change? Not much, Edwards concludes: ‘Foreign aid has done little to foster these coalitions and much to destroy them.’ Donated money corrupts. It militates against ‘partnership’ and ‘co-operation’ (both favoured concepts in the global ethics industry). The simple reality is that most Western aid treats receiver-country institutions as instruments to deliver objectives defined by the donor instead of decision-makers in their own right. Power resides with the donor, and the recipient’s autonomy and creativity gradually drain away.

More subtly but perhaps more significantly, the developmental arm of global ethics has adopted an operational definition of ‘civil society’ that includes nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) in various forms, but rules out political parties, businesses, and often even trade unions and newspapers. ‘Civil society’ is instrumentalised as anything the World Bank or DfID believes it can safely fund. And donors are primarily interested in NGOs as public service subcontractors. The serious money and the measurable performance indicators are in service delivery: no bureaucrat in a donor country can quantify the value of advocacy. But what social leader is going to be thrilled if her role is confined to contracting social welfare, with no room to work to achieve her political ambitions? Such is the influence of the ethics industry, however, that the apolitical definition of ‘civil society’ is becoming accepted in many poor countries.

How can a development agency build a constituency for real change? Some seek to do so by means of scams such as child-sponsoring, creating brand names for themselves and acquiring loyal patrons – but that way, they merely institutionalise themselves as peddlers of comfort to rich sponsors and contributors, and do nothing to solve the problems they appear to acknowledge. Edwards advocates a radical alternative in which the fashionable ideas of civil society and ‘good governance’ make them radically accountable, as

NGOs become equal members of networks spanning the globe, coalescing around common goals and values but working synergistically to achieve and advance them. This is the lesson to be learned from the environmental and women’s movements, which have been much more successful in creating change than any development agency. They have achieved all the things that development NGOs have not: a focus on attitudes, not projects; a spirit of collaboration; powerful connections from their supporters out into business, government and other areas of civic life; and a genuine global reach, not a cancerous division between donors and recipients. As a result, they have … changed all our lives for the better. By contrast, international development remains a boring backwater dominated by a narrow professional elite.

Note that the networks and coalitions Edwards has in mind include members of the elite from foundations, business and government. Many of the struggles fought in societies at large are replicated within the dominant human rights institutions themselves. But understanding the permeability of these institutions is a radical step for the Left to take. Unreconstructed Leninists may still argue for the capture and autonomous use of state power to enforce change. Others will contend that globalisation is a conspiracy, a ‘war’ waged by corporations and governments against ‘the people’ and that in such a struggle, there is no room for collaboration with the agents of the state, business and their respective praise-singers.

Flawed though they are, the concepts of ‘civil society’ and open government nonetheless give legitimacy to the collective activities that help to bring about change. Abused though they are, the ‘core values’ of human rights, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic accountability and protection of the environment are all issues which concern millions of people – many of them directly, by force of circumstance. The power of our ethical policy-makers is already too great: they need to be locked into wider alliances if they are to play the role that some of them, no doubt, aspire to. Globalisation offers both real and virtual opportunities for the kinds of mobilisation that can force them into these alliances – with labour unions, trade co-operatives, professional bodies appointed by teachers, health workers, lawyers, civil servants, and with local representatives of the large numbers of people whose interests the human rights industry purports to defend. The achievement of consensus on the basic tenets of human rights can provide the framework for a world in which they are more readily respected. Mobile phones can be an instrument for social emancipation, but Uhuru need not be a commodity.