The Uses and Abuses of a Concept: Human Rights in Latin America

Gabriel Hetland
University at Albany, State University of New York

The idea that human rights should, indeed must, be defended appears unobjectionable and beyond question. During the 1970s and 1980s the concept of human rights played a key role in struggles against military rule in Latin America. The most famous case may be Argentina, where the Mothers (and later Grandmothers) of the Plaza de Mayo waged a decades-long struggle to bring Argentina’s military to account for widespread human-rights violations. This struggle was a key part of the broad popular movement that topped Argentina’s dictatorship and led to the restoration of democratic rule in 1983.

Human rights struggles were important in many Latin American countries during this period. The brutal experience of military rule convinced many popular organizations and leftist political parties that human (and political) rights that formerly might have been considered secondary or “bourgeois” – in particular the right to due process, and protection against torture, execution, and unlawful imprisonment (along with access to voting, and rights to freedom of speech and assembly) – were in fact critical, both in and of themselves, and as necessary conditions for waging broader struggles to tame, transform, and transcend capitalism. Evidence of the systematic denial of human rights in the former Soviet Union, Cuba, and other countries claiming the socialist mantle convinced many on the Left, in Latin America and elsewhere, that human (and political) rights could not be set aside in the name of socialism or revolution.

There are compelling reasons then, for anyone seeking a more egalitarian, democratic, and fair society to support the notion of human rights. At times, however, the concept has been used in highly questionable ways. Take how one of the world’s leading human rights organizations, Human Rights Watch (HRW), has employed the idea of human rights in the case of contemporary Venezuela, alongside and in contrast to other Latin American countries. Close examination of HRW’s statements and actions towards Venezuela (and Colombia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina) show how struggles over human rights may serve organizational and imperial interests over and above the interests of the downtrodden, forgotten masses whom human rights organizations claim to defend.

Few countries in the world have been subject to more attention from HRW in recent years than Venezuela. Since 2014, HRW has issued 3 reports and more than 70 statements (op-eds, commentaries, dispatches, news reports, etc.) related to Venezuela, more than any other Latin American country, except Brazil. These reports and statements document the worsening political and socioeconomic (or “humanitarian” as per HRW) crises that have engulfed Venezuela since 2014. As anyone familiar with the news is likely to know, Venezuela is currently in the midst of a severe, multi-dimensional crisis. HRW’s work captures important aspects of this crisis, such as severe and appalling shortages of food, medicine, and basic goods, acts of state violence and repression, and the government’s increasingly select adherence to democratic norms (visible in the decision to suspend constitutionally mandated regional elections for over a year).

There are clear grounds upon which HRW and others can legitimately criticize the Nicolás Maduro administration. Yet, one need not be a blind Madurista to find HRW’s work vis-à-vis Venezuela and other Latin American countries troubling in three ways.

The first is the openly partisan nature of HRW’s criticism of Venezuela, which is directed exclusively at the government, making it appear that the current crisis is entirely the fault of the Maduro administration. This omits the broader historical, economic, and geopolitical context in which Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution” has taken place. As scholars of Venezuela have shown (but HRW seems to ignore in its work), the Venezuelan government has not acted in a vacuum but under significant constraints, most notably the constant, often violent opposition of domestic elites and the US government, which have repeatedly sought to destabilize and remove Venezuela’s government. By neglecting to criticize human rights violations perpetrated by the opposition (and often supported by the US) – e.g. recent instances of low-income Venezuelans, often people of color, being burned alive by opposition protesters; and destruction of badly needed food stored in government buildings – HRW has undermined its credibility. The organization thus appears less as a universal defender of human rights than a partisan actor.

The second is the double standard by which HRW has treated Venezuela and other Latin American countries. While Venezuela has been relentlessly criticized for any and all acts of “democratic backsliding” (some of which, to be sure, merit critique), HRW has been silent in the face of arguably more egregious violations of democratic norms elsewhere. The most obvious example is the Brazilian parliament’s removal of Brazil’s democratically elected president, Dilma Rousseff, in what critics label a “parliamentary-institutional coup,” which took place over two acts, in April and August 2016. HRW did not issue a single statement discussing, much less condemning, Rousseff’s ouster. HRW’s (non)actions were similar with respect to the similar parliamentary “coup” that removed Paraguay’s president Fernando Lugo in 2012. HRW responded to this with a single short statement expressing concern that Lugo’s impeachment “showed a lack of respect for due process.” The contrast with HRW’s relentless words and actions against the Maduro administration (e.g. lobbying numerous Latin American governments to suspend Venezuela from the Organization of American States) is notable.

The third troubling issue is the fact that HRW’s work in Latin America overall (and not just regarding Venezuela) appears to align very closely with the interests of the US government. (This is troubling for multiple reasons, not least the fact that the US does not have a sterling record of supporting human rights in Latin America, to say the least.) HRW has, for instance, issued no critiques of Argentina’s conservative president and stalwart US ally, Mauricio Macri (apart from a statement imploring Macri, “Don’t Ease the Pressure Over Venezuela’s Abuses”), despite Macri’s firing of over 1000 public employees just after taking office, and recent harsh crackdown on Bolivian immigrants in Argentina. It is also worth noting that HRW aligned itself with former US ally Álvaro Uribe (a notorious human rights abuser, whom HRW criticized in the past) to oppose the historic 2016 peace accord forged between Colombia’s government and the FARC. HRW actively campaigned for a “No” vote in public referenda on the accord, an outcome many observers felt would lead to a continuation of human rights abuses within Colombia.

This brief examination of the contrasting ways the concept of human rights has been used and abused in Latin America over the past forty years has two broader lessons. The first is the need to situate concepts, like human rights and democracy, within broader historical, regional, and global context. The analysis presented shows the concept has been wielded in very different ways by grassroots activists (e.g. the Plaza de Mayo Mothers/Grandmothers) and powerful, transnational organizations (HRW). The second, related, lesson is the need to examine the webs of power within which concepts like human rights (or liberty, freedom, etc.) are wielded. In other words, comparative-historical sociology is needed to differentiate the use and abuse of such concepts.

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