The Path of Least Resistance Human Rights Activism

I’m not a particularly regular visitor to what is nauseatingly referred to as ‘the blogosphere’, but one of my irregular haunts is Harry’s Place.  There is some amusement to be found baiting the the more lunatic right-wing maniacs inhabiting comments, but it also hosts a number of posts from commentators from what might be called the more thoughtful pro-interventionist left (for want of a better term; I realise many of their critics will prefer more measured terminology such as ‘bloodstained criminal apologists for the Bu$h-Bliar Axis of Zionist-Crusader imperialist aggression’).  One of ‘these’, in the sense that is questions received leftie wisdom rather than advocating inteventionism per se,  is a recent post by Sackcloth and Ashes.  This raises the issue of selective human rights activism – in this case the attempt by Edward Snowden to claim asylum in Russia, a country noted for brutal repression and murder of political dissidents.

On the face of it, this is clear hypocrisy.  Well, not just on the face of it.  But it indicates a core rationale which remains unspoken but is, in my opinion, at the heart of why human rights activists often display a clear preference for scrutinising and attacking western liberal governments in particular.

I should make it clear that I’m not claiming that human rights activists do nothing but attack western liberal governments, or that the conduct of western liberal governments does not warrant their scrutiny.  What I am discussing is something which I came across as a young man in the military and which I felt demanded some kind of explanation, namely the corrosive cynicism expressed by all ranks in an infantry unit to human rights activists and lawyers infrequently encountered in Northern Ireland.  I asked about this, only to be told by one NCO that such people had no interest in the human rights of soldiers, local policemen or even civilians murdered by local paramilitaries.  However, they had a great and abiding interest in potential human rights violations alleged against the security forces.  The explanation for this, he believed, came down to two fundamental reasons.

Firstly, a settlement made against a government agency promised big money payouts, while expenses could often be covered by government benefits (such as legal aid).  A claim pursued against an illegal paramilitary organisation had no such prospect of cash reward, despite the incongruous fact that most of the high-profile IRA members thereabouts seemed to own quite successful small businesses and farms which received significant amounts of money from local and central government grants (never mind illegal smuggling operations) while some demonstrated their implaccable opposition to the rule of the British state by accepting welfare benefit from that same state.  As a side note, please don’t assume that I am asserting that loyalist paramilitaries were believed to be any better.

Secondly, pursuing the British government for a compensation settlement involved no greater risk than turning up to interview civil servants or the police in office accomodation or, if the worst came to the worst, in court.  Pursuing paramilitaries for similar settlements risked a beating, a kneecapping, a bomb under the car or a bullet in the head.

Therefore, I was told, human rights activists adopted an unspoken but nonetheless obvious cost/benefit analysis when pursuing cases, the outcome of which was that universal human rights were not in fact universal, but heavily discounted if your human rights were violated by an agency which it was just too inconvenient or risky to pursue.

I wasn’t entirely sure about this at the time, but as time has passed I believe this offers a contributory explanation as to why a British soldier or local civilian murdered by terrorists counted for less with human rights activists than a civilian whose human rights were violated by state agencies.

This is not to say that the treatment of victims of Bloody Sunday, for example, was justified or excusable, or that the manner of their killings or the manner in which the state sought to avoid the truth until the Savile inquiry can be justified.  It is merely to observe that every victim deserved the same level of attention from human rights activists; something that anybody in my unit at least believed was disproved by their direct experience.  I have met several so-called ‘human rights activists’ in my time.  All impressed me with their sincerity, but few had made any efforts to challenge human rights abuses anywhere but against the agents of the state in a western liberal democracy.

What this meant in practice was that the vast majority of the murders which characterised the Northern Ireland conflict were almost ignored beside the minority attributable to state agency.  This dangerously distorted the nature of the conflict and did a genuine disservice to victims of human rights abuses who had the misfortune to suffer at the hands of other agencies.  Agencies which just weren’t as convenient for activists to bother themselves about.

A variation on this theme can be extended to agencies like Wikileaks.  Putting to one side for a minute the egocentric Assange extradition issue, it remains a fact that projects like Wikileaks are governed by their access to material.  Leakers and whistleblowers who provide this material tend to be harder to find in repressive and closed societies to start with.

That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be cultivated.  But if they are, it will be by the CIA, while Wikileaks and the like confine themselves to castigating the CIA because it’s just a hell of a lot easier and less dangerous.  This selective treatment means that repressive regimes get what amounts to preferential selective treatment over western liberal democracies when it comes to the abuse of human rights which are supposedly universal.

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Ed Miliband and Tony Blair vs nonentities, fanatics, cranks and extremists

I’ve been thinking a little about Blair and Miliband as Labour Party leaders, particularly as self-described ‘Blairite ultra’ John Rentoul has just published a second edition of his biography of Blair with a post-2001 afterward (extract available here).  What strikes me is that Rentoul (who is by no means entirely uncritical of Blair) has to resort to self-parody when dealing with the most successful Labour Prime Minister since Clement Atlee in policy and achievement terms; and since, well.. nobody else in terms of his electoral success.

The subject of Tony Blair really serves to indicate why I originally chose to post anonymously, given that it’s a guaranteed provocation much like the Second Amendment or Right to Life ‘debates’ in the United States, in as much as it doesn’t provoke debate (in the sense of an exchange of views with the potential for establishing common ground for possible mutual agreement) but rather provokes litanies of received truth which can never accept modification or even admit the legitimacy of alternative points of view.

The negative positioning of Blair has largely been established by a popular narrative of ‘lies’ over Iraq, the ‘privatisation of the health service’, the adoption of centrally-controlled targets in the NHS, the introduction of student fees, etc, etc. Much of this I regard as willfully mistaken, and even delusional, but that’s not the point I wanted to deal with here.  Aside from the ‘presidential style of premiership’ which is usually peddled by right-wing commentators, what strikes me about this narrative is how far it has been originated and shaped by left-wing commentators and notably within the Labour party itself.

This only serves as a reminder that the ‘New Labour’ project was never fully accepted by many in the Labour party, even after the humilating electoral defeats of 1987 and 1992 which made New Labour a practical necessity and gave Blair his authority before disillusionment set in.  The lack of understanding and, ultimately, support for New Labour policies within the party lead to the post-Iraq adversarial positioning of Gordon Brown as ‘authentic Labour’ to gain legitimacy for the putsch which eventually toppled Blair, and the positioning of Ed Miliband as less ‘Blairite’, in terms of message and use of ‘old labour’ union support, than his brother David in the post-Brown leadership contest.

But the conflict between moving Labour away from the left and towards the centre in policy terms (a.k.a. ‘making the party electable’) was never a unique feature of the New Labour era, and in many respects goes back to the Gaitskill/Bevan and Healey/Benn struggles of the sixties and seventies.  Those struggles, just like the Blair/anti-Blair tensions decades later, hinged around a Labour party which sought to establish legitimacy internally, from selective group of Labour activists or major union leaders, and one which sought external legitimacy from the larger British electorate.  In those terms, Blair’s unpopularity was due to the endless and cyclical struggle between the evangelists and the wider public; that Blair was prepared to alienate the former rather than the latter indicates his lasting stature as a social democrat politician.

The problem for the Labour party, as Ed Miliband’s recent tension with union leadership over the selection of local candidates indicates, is that this eternal conflict between ideology and realism endures.  Even if he does succeed in internal reform of the selection process, the larger problem will endure, as Denis Healey quoted Sidney Webb from 1930 – ‘…the constituency parties are frequently unrepresentative groups of nonentities dominated by fanatics and cranks, and extremists; if the block vote of the Trade Unions were eliminated it would be impracticable to continue to vest the control of policy in Labour Party Conferences’.

Blair’s record of taking them on goes all the way back to Clause 4 debates; Ed’s goes back to… well, nowhere, given that whatever reforms actually go through will be taken as alienating the old Labour machine which secured him the leadership in the first place.  But better a late convert to the ranks of the realists than another Michael Foot-esque kamikaze joyride into electoral oblivion cheered to the echo at the party conference.