Deafening Silence

by Nathan Hamm on 9/10/2004 · 7 comments

HRW’s latest context-free critique of Uzbekistan is up now. Maybe it’s because I just read Them: Adventures with Extremists and am now reading Radical Son, both of which deal with the use of “code words,” but I can’t help but notice how Human Rights Watch fudges the issues by failing to be clear about what they mean when they say “Muslims who practice their faith outside state-controlled religious institutions.”

Kind of like how Students for a Democratic Society substituted “participatory democracy” for workers’ soviets (denotative meaning) socialism, Human Rights Watch makes Hizb ut-Tahrir’s hatred of Jews, desire for global Islamic theocracy, and rejection of democracy and human rights palatable by calling them independent Muslims.

If you want to see an interesting double standard, look at HRW’s Germany page. No concern about the German ban of Hizb ut-Tahrir there.

As a side note, let me clarify my position about Russia as I can see how I could be accused of a double-standard myself.

When he says that giving moral support to Chechen fighters unintentionally helps them, Putin is correct. That’s pretty similar to my position about Human Rights Watch’s moral support of Hizb ut-Tahrir.

When Putin suggests that the West uses Chechen terrorists to undermine Russia’s power, I understand that to mean that we are offering direct support. That, I think, is a load of crap. I don’t like Human Rights Watch, but I would not accuse them of offering direct support to extremist groups.


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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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{ 7 comments }

upyernoz September 10, 2004 at 10:50 am

i think you’re off base here in your criticism of human rights watch for failing to provide “context” in their report. HRW’s job is to point out abuse of people by governments. that’s it. it doesn’t matter who those people are or what they believe. the underlying philosophy behind HRW is that even the most odeous people are entitled to basic human rights. when those rights are violated, it’s not relevant whether or not they are bad people. i happen to fully agree with HRW on that point. the context does not excuse any human rights violations in my opinion.

besides, the demand for “context” is a standard that can never fully be met. you can always demand more context. if HRW detailed HT’s beliefs every time they criticized karimov to give the context for his actions against them, then they should also provide the context of why HT is appealing to some people in uzbekistan. if you follow this to its logical conclusion, you end up talking more about economics and history than human rights. and HRW’s only purpose to to note when regimes violate human rights. to demand more from them is simply not fair.

but you are right to criticize HRW for not criticizing germany for banning HT. i’m with you on that one.

Nathan September 10, 2004 at 11:33 am

I fully understand where HRW is coming from, but context or not, they’re being dishonest by using euphemisms. Someone who doesn’t know a damned thing about Uzbekistan (most of the blogosphere that weighs in on the country, for example) could easily read HRW’s statements as meaning that the Uzbek government is trying to eradicate Islam.

You’re right that demanding context can be never-ending, but at the very least, there needs to be some kind of recognition that there’s been improvement. HRW won’t do that because, well, tragedy pays the bills. (I’ll make this as a blanket criticism of the entire NGO/nonprofit sector. The only aid organization that I’ve ever heard of working itself out of a job consistently is the Peace Corps. Feel free to add others.)

I’m one of those who is much more interested in the economics and politics than the vague generalities because the right policies are the key to securing human rights. I have, in the past, said that HRW is valuable if you strip away all the bullshit and just leave the facts they report (though they were wrong in the Shelkovenko casealternate link). Maybe I’m hopelessly wedded to fact-driven policies to achieve the best long-term outcomes, but HRW’s way of bringing about change strikes me as masturbatory–a “wish with all our might” approach.

I also think that the double standard and their sudden interest in Uzbekistan after the US set up a military base speaks volumes about HRW’s agenda. You don’t see me going after Amnesty so much for some very good reasons.

Laurence September 10, 2004 at 11:36 am

Upyernoz, I think what Nathan means is that HRW should be honest, instead of lying about “independent Muslims” who are not independent at all, since they are members of a secret, extremist, supremacist organization banned in Germany and Russia, just like the Nazis. And according to some religious scholars, not truly Muslim, either… That’s what Nathan meant by context. Further, the press release is dishonest because the Uzbek government — at the urging of the US — did NOT roundup thousands of bystanders, but just some 300 people who have family or other suspicious connections. And, Human Rights Watch ignores the fact that their heroes are opposed to the notion of universal human rights in principle. That the Uzbek government should stop torturing prisoners is a given–but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all of the people they have arrested are innnocent…

upyernoz September 10, 2004 at 5:36 pm

nathan,

you’re follow-up comments (as usual) are reasonable. maybe i don’t disagree with you that much after all. the one beef i still have is this sentence:

“HRW’s way of bringing about change strikes me as masturbatory–a “wish with all our might” approach.”

HRW’s role, as i see it, is not to bring about change, per se, but to rather report about abuses as they happen. obviously, reporting abuses does not equal ending abuses. it’s up to someone else to actually do something with the information in their reports. so reporting on problems is not trying to “wish away” anything. it’s just reporting on a problem. your criticism here is like faulting a t.v. weatherman for not helping with a hurricane evacuation. at least that’s how i see it.

lawrence,

“independent Muslims” who are not independent at all, since they are members of a secret, extremist, supremacist organization banned in Germany and Russia, just like the Nazis.

maybe i’m wrong, but my reading of the report is that HRW is faulting the karimov government of branding any independent muslim as HT and/or a terrorist. HT itself is never mentioned in the report. also my understanding of HT is that it claims to be a non-violent organization, which is an important difference from a nazi group. and secrecy should not be held against HT since the organization is banned.

when i was in uzbekistan i met a guy who, perhaps, was an HT member. i’m not sure if he was an actual member or just a sympathizer. my impression is his support for the group was mainly because he saw it as the best way to get rid of karimov. the guy was no nazi

And, Human Rights Watch ignores the fact that their heroes are opposed to the notion of universal human rights in principle. That the Uzbek government should stop torturing prisoners is a given–but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all of the people they have arrested are innnocent

you are totally missing my point here. first, nothing HRW says indicates that HT is their “heroes.” HT is not mentioned anywhere in the report. second, as i said in my first comment, what HT or anyone advocates is simply not relevant for a human rights organization whose only role is to publicize human rights abuses. torturing someone is a human rights abuse even if it happens to a despicable person. HRW’s only role is to notify the world about human rights violations. it’s still a human rights violation even if the victim is a terrible person. innocence or guilt simply does not enter into it.

Darr September 10, 2004 at 6:51 pm

The real point here is that NGOs exist to make money. This NGO was not PAID OFF ENOUGH. They got money and wanted more to do the monitoring.

The vote in the US should be interesting if the Dems still want the UN monitoring.

Nathan Hamm September 10, 2004 at 6:56 pm

HRW’s role, as i see it, is not to bring about change, per se, but to rather report about abuses as they happen. obviously, reporting abuses does not equal ending abuses. it’s up to someone else to actually do something with the information in their reports.

Depending on which way the wind blows, I might agree. On the one hand, their mission only mentions giving out information. On the other, part of that same mission is to suggest policy changes and they’ve taken active roles in certain cases. The latter, as well as their overarching philosophy (which are fittingly nebulously stated) suggests they have goals in mind.

All such groups kind of get under my skin. There is a tension between claiming to just distribute information and trying to realize a vision (and they obviously are trying to). We can disagree about what their role should be or is. It remains that I find it annoying that HRW’s very nature allows it to so conveniently absolve itself of responsibility for the impact of its words.

As for your points to Laurence, I must mention that one of my points here is that the press release specificially avoids mentioning HT. This is part of a larger pattern of avoiding the mention of HT in favor of talking about the persecution of “independent Muslims.” The fact of the matter is that any independent practitioner of any faith is in for trouble, but the treatment of alleged HT members is of a much worse nature. This lumps two slightly different persecuted groups together, mischaracterizes the situation in Uzbekistan*, and dishonestly glosses over the nature of those Uzbekistan’s government worries about. I share HRW’s commitment to promoting human rights, but they should be honest. When Nazis march in the US, would you agree with them being referred to as simply “an independent political opposition group?”

* I don’t think HRW loses any sleep about over-dramatizing the situation in Uzbekistan. As near as I can tell, they are the source of the characterization that Islam Karimov “boils his opponents.” I’ve only seen, at most, two cases of this hideous form of torture. If HRW wants to distribute information, they should do it coolly and accurately so that policy-makers are best equipped.

Nathan Hamm September 10, 2004 at 6:58 pm

Darren, I disagree. I work for a nonprofit. I’m the fundraiser actually. There’s an institutional inclination to trump up both the problem and our potential for impact because we want to attract $$. I think HRW’s heart is in the right place, but they are under the same institutional pressures I am.

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