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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