The Human Rights Army

The Human Rights Army

The subject of this essay concerns the historical development of a militarized human rights movement.  It is general in scope and limited to a few considerations.  I attempt to link truth-telling in post-traumatic societies to propaganda efforts preceding international military intervention where the civilian populace is being terrorized.  While doing so, I address briefly the difficulties of establishing collective or individual guilt as a method of social reconstruction in the “aftermath of evil.” I contend that the international community substantiates its legitimization of humanitarian military action if the emphasis is placed on individual guilt.  After all, it is the moral duty of every democratic nation to prevent evil.

Aryeh Neier argues that human rights advocates are increasingly emphasizing justice as their method of reconciliation.  In Latin America, where state-sponsored actors concealed their identities as they spirited away civilians toward an unknown tomb, establishing the truth was paramount to achieving a public sigh of relief.  Not only could the dead be put to rest and eulogized, but the living could find solace in revelation as bureaucratic mechanisms established a truthful record.  Such records could be used to pursue criminal indictments of senior officials as accountability gained support and state acknowledgment manifested itself in public apology.  A combination of truth-telling and limited punishment was considered satisfactory to reconcile victims and perpetrators.

Conversely, situations exist where the absence of information is unproblematic in the presence of a horrible, incontestable truth.  Neier evinces that events during the early 1990’s in Bosnia and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda exemplify his assertion that human rights advocates modified their reconciliation model with justice as its telos.  As Hutus were exhorted by radio announcers to murder Tutsis and Christian Serbs directed an ethnic cleansing campaign against their Muslim neighbors, truth-telling became superfluous.  Criminal justice was heralded as the critical mode of establishing accountability, of punishing the perpetrators in order to signal the unacceptability of terror qua administrative policy.  This underscores the belief that punishment would serve as a deterrent against future genocidal campaigns.  Of course, this ignores the potential opposite, that a leader’s fear of incarceration would drive him to cling to power.  Fearing capture, such a leader might expedite genocide with increased speed and ferocity.  Established by the UN in November of 1994, the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) seeks criminal justice.  Approximately 100 days of public horror need not be distracted by truth and reconciliation commissions (TRC).  Once legal justice has quelled the thirst for revenge, a TRC could be established to encourage a conciliatory spirit.  Which strategy should be used to mete out justice in order to prevent future human rights abuses?  One strategy of the international community is to exonerate the collective and inculpate the individual.

Suppose a homogeneous group victimizes another utilizing the most pernicious means.  Reviving a rhetorical component of the unifying ideology representing this group, permits it to mobilize a death machine.  This machine could be the Christian European annihilation of Jewish Europeans or the politicized Hutu contra the Tutsi.  Post-WW II literature tends to focus on the German (more specifically the Nazi) participants in the Holocaust, which simultaneously exonerates the rest of Europe’s contribution to the Nazi mobilization of the Final Solution.  Collective guilt is rejected in favor of individual guilt, the perpetrator is particularized.  In so far as this is accomplished, the Christian Europeans and the German people are absolved of guilt in the criminal sense while some individuals are inculpated and sentenced to death or imprisonment.  In some cases, others are intrinsic to the transitional government and allowed to hold office and rebuild the war torn countries.  The goal is to describe the bureaucratic genocidal event as a singularity, not a manifestation of cyclical violence (for example, the Christian versus the Jew or Hutu versus Tutsi).  If the Christians were never guilty and the Germans could be “cured”, as they are considered to be, then a similar technique could be used in the Balkans or Africa, which are viewed generally as locations of cycling genocide.  Ignoring deeper causal factors, the international community chronicles the 1990’s tumult as resulting from individual megalomaniacal leaders.  The us-and-them category created along ethnic or religious lines by villains vanishes as good and bad persons are distinguished.  Neighbors are assumed to be capable of living in peace thereafter.  This suspends the unifying ideological component.  It does not eradicate it, which means it remains a nascent vehicle for future genocide.  For instance, if WW II were interpreted as another Christian pogrom against the Jews, then the Final Solution could be reinstated at anytime.   It is Christian theology that must undergo a transformation in order for the non-Christians to be safe.

The Rwandan case individualizes a group activity in the sense of the weapon (machete, gun, or rock) being wielded by a person to kill another.  How does the human rights advocate seek justice in this context?  Hundreds of thousands of Hutus are purported to have committed murder.  In excess of 100,000 Hutu génocidaires are imprisoned awaiting trial; the remainder hides in refugee camps or live among their victims.  Perhaps another method of reconciliation must be formulated, for punishing a few of the many may not be acceptable or sufficient in the village where survivors draw water alongside the killers.  It is Gourevitch, who chronicles the efforts underway in Rwanda to punish the few, forgive the many, put the past in the past, and unite as Rwandans to secure a stable future.  In this manner, the Rwandan leadership is attempting to depoliticize collective guilt of the perpetrators and victims.  They are effacing the politicized ethnic distinction (deracialization), thereby giving birth to the “new” Rwandan.  Only time will tell whether this policy will be successful.  For now, it is the subject of philosophical investigation.  Let us consider another case, one in which there is no truth-telling, no punishment, but a state inveiglement to forget the past.

Kenneth Roth devotes an essay to the history of state terror in Haiti and the coeval lack of criminal prosecution, which, he argues, set dangerous precedents that undermined the process of reconciliation.  Haitians had no collective memory of a law abiding society.  Successor regimes committed human rights abuses without judicial repercussions.  At each transition phase Haitians were encouraged to forget the past.  Therefore, in the absence of systematic accountability, citizens expressed their rage periodically inciting extralegal violence.  The formula of revenge equals justice resided in the civilian esprit de corps.  Roth concludes that forgetting the past as an instrument of democratization in Haiti merely reinforced and fostered a spirit of impunity intrinsic to political and retributive violence.  Thus, Roth’s state reconstruction paradigm requires truth-telling (not amnestied, but indictable) and justice as reconciliation.  It is punishing the guilty in a public process, whereby no unreconciled victims can “haunt” the progress toward a safe civil society, that is striving toward a moral social order devoted to the rule of law.  The reconstituted Haitian would be healed by recalling the past as one of injustice tempered by judicial punishment, not of unpunished spiraling human rights transgressions.  This would occur for Roth in the presence of an energized UN military force accompanied by legal advisors facilitating the criminal proceedings in a transitional regime.  Overtime, then, Haitians would not be living in the past, nor would they be induced to remember to forget the past.  On the contrary, in the wake of criminal indictments and state apologia for past systems of violence, they would gradually forget the past as social shifts direct their attention toward employment, education, and progress.

The three cases above should bolster Neier’s contention that more attention is being directed toward punishing individuals and absolving the collective. Such is the effort to effectuate a transition to peaceful coexistence and governance after systematic atrocities have occurred.  An integral component of long term peaceful development would necessitate the eradication of existing ideologies which promulgate genocide and crimes against humanity.  I will sketch below an evolving paradigm dedicated toward that goal- it is widely referred to as the human rights movement.  I refer to it here as the human rights army.

The Human Rights Army

The aforementioned themes of truth-telling, collective versus individual guilt, and reconciliation as truth, justice, or a mixture of both should be useful in examining the operations of a transnational movement attempting to codify a final statement regarding the laws of humanity.  Human rights activists, humanitarian aid workers, and liberal democratic states comprise a multinational coalition with vast resources.  These resources include the media, court systems, the United Nations, and military associations.  Persons engaged in advocating human rights ideals represent citizens from many regime types (industrialized, developing, and authoritarian).  These activists form the moral vanguard of the human rights army.  The army- currently represented by NATO, UN peacekeeping troops, or ad hoc multilateral military forces- envisions the defeat of evil.

Although the human rights army’s origin are more complex than indicated here, one facet of the story is embedded within the confusion of a post-WW II military tribunal world.  Cohen argues that the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals punished defendants based upon inconsistent theories of collective and individual guilt.  Yet it may not be necessary to resolve the tension between these two approaches because the context may determine the more expedient political stance.  For example, it may be more expedient in the case of Kosovo to individualize guilt and arrest the significant perpetrators- the goal being to halt the cycle of retribution between Christian Serb and Muslim Albanian.  However, the Taliban may remain a short-term collective entity in order to justify their eradication by the human rights army.  Upon conclusion of the war, the human rights army could identify the good Taliban; i.e., Afghan, who could become a governing council member in a post-bin Laden-inspired-Taliban Afghanistan.

It is plausible that Western guilt drives the urge to declare all human rights abusers the enemy.  This guilt derives from European shame of perpetrating genocide and American shame of joining the ‘fight against evil’ too late, with respect to WW II.  Compounding this shame and guilt is the failure of the Europeans and North Americans to prevent the atrocities in Bosnia or Rwanda.  Shame and guilt are factors generating the current proactivity of the human rights movement.  In addition, Soviet domination eliminated identity politics behind the Iron Curtain by establishing a new identity, the Communist.  The Communist Party prevented ethnic warfare by relegating the dialectic of violence to the formation of capitalist history, which is to say that it is the past.  Therefore, the post-Cold War vacuum ushered in a murderous force that can only be contained by another identity- the human rights ideology supported by military intervention and economic sanctions.  In any case, there is a new foe for the West.

Carl Schmitt’s lesson informs us that liberal society supplants the state as it strives to seize control of the state’s monopoly of force- “the state turns into society: on the ethical-intellectual side into an ideological humanitarian conception of humanity, and on the other into an economic-technical system of production and traffic.”  However, the state does not just relinquish political; i.e., military power, it manipulates the public into supporting military activity in the name of human rights.  The state’s foe, minus the communist threat, has been transformed into the human rights abuser.  The state acts on behalf of its public to politicize, in Schmittian terms, the human rights movement, which is to establish a human rights army replete with propaganda machine, economic imperatives, judicial review, and military consequences.

The moral vanguard of the human rights army uses propaganda within the truth-telling narrative.  Roughly speaking, non-governmental organizations (NGO) report abuses, identify the perpetrators, enlist the UN, and advocate military intervention.  For example, the 1995 Dayton Accords did not result (as some had hoped) in Slobodan Milosevic’s apprehension and imprisonment for his role in the Bosnian conflict.  It was not until the Kosovo Liberation Army’s (KLA) assassination of Serb families, businessmen, and politicians provoked a significant military response by Yugoslavian government forces.  Late 1990’s KLA terrorist activities went largely unreported in the in Western media.  Neither was it reported that the Albanian government had been arming the KLA in the hope of annexing Kosovo, a legitimate enterprise for Albania considering the fraudulent division of Albania by the Great Powers.  This changed ultimately in 1999 when Milosevic entered the human rights army radar.  Milosevic was accused of implementing ethnic cleansing measures on a defenseless ethnic Albanian minority (the majority in the Kosovo region).  According to Western media reports, the KLA “freedom fighters” acted in self-defense in order to prevent their extermination.  In the aftermath of Bosnia and the failed enterprise of the “peacekeepers”, NATO led a humanitarian military attack in order to save the Albanians from the Serbs.  The UN delayed establishing their typical humanitarian infrastructure in order to allow NATO military forces to establish a refugee camp system, thereby establishing their humanitarian credentials and legitimacy.  Many reacted with approval regarding this act of compassion, although it was not without its detractors.

Within a few months after the June cease-fire accords, the UN publishes various reports on the Kosovo genocide- approximately 2,000 bodies are exhumed from various mass graves.  This could have been announced to prove that NATO forces had prevented the annihilation of the Albanians, but it was not.  One possible answer why it did not receive significant media coverage could be that the earlier media portrayals of genocide and ethnic cleansing had been exaggerated in order to justify and establish international consensus for the human rights army’s invasion of a sovereign state reeling from civil conflict.  Lest we forget, there is now a $30 M American military base in Kosovo, perhaps to ensure that the newly democratized Soviets would not consider a future return to their Cold War buffer zone.  Shortly after liberation from the Serb threat, the KLA commenced their ethnic cleansing of Gypsies and Serbs.  NATO’s KFOR (Kosovo Forces) was now entrusted with protecting churches and non-Albanian minorities in Kosovo.  Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright addressed the Albanian crowd in Pristina, Kosovo by condemning the Albanian ethnic cleansing campaign while qualifying her condemnation with the statement: ‘…but let us not forget what they were just doing here.’  In addition, KLA leaders refused to accept UN governing authority.  Their rhetoric suggested that the foreigners had no right to govern the region, that it was an Albanian matter.  Therefore, KLA directorship began to establish parallel systems of governance.  Ironically, UN forces in Mitrovica are being attacked as Muslim Albanians seek to ethnically cleanse their Christian Serb neighbors.  Another astonishing phenomenon is that international aid workers have been killed by Albanians, who were convinced Serbian was being spoken (in actuality the persons where speaking other Eastern European languages).  A year later the KLA insurgency commences in Macedonia, absent the commensurate response from the humanitarian army.

The Kosovo events remind us of Schmitt’s friend and enemy distinction when he says that it is “…to be understood in [its] concrete and existential sense, not as metaphors or symbols, not mixed and weakened by economic, moral, and other conceptions…”  He was mistaken, for the human rights movement rejects Schmitt’s statement, morality has been energized politically (not the first time in history).  The human rights army can be used to refute Schmitt’s observation that “liberalism…has attempted to transform the [economic] enemy…into a competitor and…the [intellectual enemy]…into a debating adversary.”  The state can disguise its treatment of economic and intellectual enemies via the human rights coalition, in the name of human rights.  Hence, the state does not relinquish its war-making power, nor does it abandon its role in determining friends and foes.  The human rights army is on the march.


It is not my contention that the human rights movement has pernicious intentions vis-à-vis humanity.  I was merely reflecting how it arrives at using force.  The role of truth-telling in identifying the perpetrators of human rights abuses, where individual guilt is assigned, allows an external savior to intervene.  Once victorious, the model encourages international criminal tribunals.  A TRC may become a historical artifact as criminal courts gain preference.  Or it could become the second stage in a recovering nation strategy.  It is clear that the use of military intervention to promote human rights has gained acceptance to a significant degree- for now at least.  How this is going to alter the balance of power on this planet remains speculative.  The question of how the international community’s actions during the past 20 years will nurture democratization and peaceful coexistence remains the subject of an interesting debate.  I wonder how different the human rights army tactics are from those of Che Guevara in South America or the Jihad warriors in Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan.  One could remark that the CIA is not behind the increase in contemporary warfare, it is the NGO community that propels the human rights army.


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