Billionaire-backed Human Rights Watch lobbies for lethal US sanctions on leftist governments as the Covid crisis rages

by | Apr 8, 2020


Human Rights Watch, the leading so-called rights organization in the United States, has actively lobbied for Washington to impose suffocating sanctions on leftist governments in Latin America. The group has even praised the Donald Trump administration for ramping up its aggressively destabilizing regime-change measures.

NGOs like Human Rights Watch (HRW) depict targeted sanctions as a more palatable alternative to military action, although these measures are widely recognized by international legal experts to be a form of economic warfare that have led to the deaths of many thousands of civilians, destroyed the livelihoods of countless people, and devastated entire nations’ economies.

As the coronavirus pandemic spread across the globe, HRW operatives took credit for new sanctions the Trump administration had imposed on Nicaragua’s democratically elected leftist government. Among those cheering on the escalation of economic warfare was HRW Australia development and outreach manager Stephanie McLennan, who chirped that the fresh round of sanctions were “great news!”

Unilateral sanctions are designed to cripple the economies of countries whose governments are being targeted for regime change, locking them out of the US-dominated financial system and collectively punishing the entire civilian population, depriving them of basic human rights so that Washington can install a more friendly regime. The US government routinely implements these coercive measures without the backing of the United Nations or other international bodies.

Rather than challenge the unilateral economic war waged across the globe by the US, Human Rights Watch is taking credit for the escalation of Washington’s assault on Nicaragua – and at the very moment when the small country of just 6 million people grapples with the deadly Covid-19 outbreak, and an arduous peace and reconciliation process.

In 2018, the Trump administration backed a bloody coup attempt in Nicaragua, in which right-wing extremists shot, tortured, and killed state security forces and leftist Sandinista activists, burning down buildings and setting people on fire, in hopes of destabilizing the government. When the putsch fizzled out, opposition groups funded by the US government turned to economic warfare and sanctions as the next weapon in the regime-change arsenal.

Purported “human rights” organizations in Nicaragua that work closely with the right-wing opposition played a major role in this coup attempt, selling outlandish, fabricated statistics that were eagerly regurgitated by the corporate media and international NGOs like HRW.

HRW’s staunch support for US sanctions clearly demonstrates how the group has been instrumentalized as an arm of US pressure against independent states in the Global South, especially socialist ones. NGOs like HRW provide cover for economic warfare, preventing nations like Nicaragua from rebuilding and healing the social divisions that have been exacerbated through successive US-backed destabilization campaigns.

The same strategy is apparent in Venezuela, another leftist country in Latin America targeted by an ongoing US coup attempt. Having spent over a decade demonizing the socialist government in Caracas, HRW is now calling for more painful sanctions to be levied against the country, which is already under an illegal, unilateral US blockade that has caused the deaths of at least 40,000 civilians, and perhaps as many as 100,000.

Scholars and independent human rights experts have long criticized HRW for its blatant double standards against Venezuela. In 2008, following a wave of sabotage and violence by the country’s US-backed opposition, HRW published a massive report uncritically echoing the unsubstantiated claims of right-wing activists as supposed facts, while systematically whitewashing their violence. The dubious report prompted more than 100 scholars to pen an open letter panning HRW for its failure to meet “minimal standards of scholarship, impartiality, accuracy or credibility.”

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth has led the charge for more sanctions on Nicaragua and Venezuela. His pleas for escalating the US economic war have been vociferously amplified by José Miguel Vivanco, the director of HRW’s Americas division.

Vivanco is a close ally of the right-wing opposition forces in Latin America, and is notorious for advancing their most maximalist positions under the guise of human rights concern. He rejects virtually any effort at negotiations with the leftist states that comprise the Trump administration’s “Troika of Tyranny,” insisting that sanctions are “the only language they understand.”

Vivanco has spilled oceans of ink lobbying the US Congress to drop the economic hammer on the few remaining socialist governments in Latin America. His behavior is part and parcel of HRW’s historic mission to destabilize virtually any government the US State Department deems to be insufficiently democratic, and to do so behind the veil of performative concern for the oppressed.

HRW, a coup-supporting ‘human rights’ group funded by a billionaire cold warrior

Since its founding days, Human Rights Watch has functioned as a revolving door between the NGO sector and the US government. It has repeatedly refused to oppose American wars and military interventions, and displayed clear double standards toward Washington’s allies, while fixating obsessively on the supposed misdeeds of independent nations targeted by the US for regime change.

HRW was founded during the height of the Cold War as Helsinki Watch, an anti-Soviet lobby group closely linked to the US government and funded by the Ford Foundation, which served as CIA passthrough.

Ken Roth has directed HRW for 27 years – far longer than most leaders he derides as dictators. Having begun his career as a federal prosecutor in the US Attorney Southern District of New York Office, Roth has not deviated much from Washington’s foreign-policy agency.

Roth supported the far-right military coup in Bolivia in November 2019, and subsequently downplayed the junta’s massacre of indigenous protesters. Back in 2011, the HRW director wrote an op-ed glorifying the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, which holds that the US and its allies must dispatch their military to destroy governments that supposedly threaten civilian populations. He deployed the thin cover for imperial conquest to justify the NATO military intervention in Libya, which transformed the previously prosperous country into a failed state that was home to open-air slave markets.

This January, Roth helped justify the Trump administration’s extrajudicial execution of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, a brazen act of war that nearly plunged the region into a catastrophic conflict. In recent months, he has taken his longstanding resentment of China’s government to unhinged levels, likening Beijing to Nazi Germany and spreading a fake video of a special effects training which he implied depicted Chinese “killer robots.”

All the while, Roth’s organization has marketed itself as a noble and absolutely impartial defender of human rights. Its disingenuous global branding campaign has been possible thanks to a $100 million grant from anti-communist billionaire George Soros. Soros is a key financier of the regime-change industry and a zealous cold warrior who worked closely with the United States and Western Europe to help overthrow socialist-oriented governments in Eastern Europe through a series of “color revolutions,” privatize their economies, and integrate the newly capitalist states into the European Union and NATO.

The Washington Post’s David Ignatius named Soros in 1991 as a key figure among a coterie of “overt operatives” who “have been doing in public what the CIA used to do in private – providing money and moral support for pro-democracy groups, training resistance fighters, working to subvert communist rule.”

While Soros has become something of a bogeyman for the right-wing, targeted with inane conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic vitriol, the oligarch has been granted broad cover from center-left forces across the West to finance pro-neoliberal regime change operations.

One of the two co-founders of HRW, Aryeh Neier, went on to become the president of Soros’ Open Society Foundations. The other co-founder, Robert L. Bernstein, gave Neier most of the credit for the organization’s genesis, writing in his memoir, “It would be hard to overstate the role that Aryeh Neier had in the development of HRW.”

Like Roth, HRW’s billionaire sponsor has taken a hardline position against China, calling it a “mortal danger” to neoliberal capitalist democracies, pouring money into groups to try to weaken and destabilize Beijing and remove the Communist Party from power.

Wall Street’s favorite human rights group speaks for its billionaire patrons

Thanks to the generous patronage of billionaire oligarchs like Soros, HRW operatives hobnob with fellow elites in the organization’s opulent office space in New York City’s Empire State Building. From these lavish headquarters, HRW operatives look down from their three entire floors as they plot ways to turn up the heat on foreign governments they consider “authoritarian.”

The Empire State Building in fact honored these tenants in 2013 by turning “a bright blue to honor Human Rights Watch.” Four years earlier, HRW officials sent an indignant open letter to the building’s management condemning its decision to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

HRW’s neoliberal political orientation reflects the ideology of its billionaire sponsors. The group has a very limited understanding of human rights that excludes the right of colonized peoples to resist their occupiers with force or the right of workers to organize and form a union.

HRW is muted in its concern for inhabitants of the Global North, saying far less about Black Americans brutalized and murdered by US police than it does about the repression of participants in NATO-backed color revolutions in Eastern Europe.

While it actively undermines socialist governments and their worker-based constituencies, HRW has collaborated closely with corporate America. In fact, it celebrated its 40th anniversary on Wall Street in March 2018, ringing the bell that opens the NASDAQ stock exchange.

“At Human Rights Watch we know business prospers where human rights & the rule of law are protected,” tweeted Minky Worden, its director of global initiatives, without a hint of irony.

Soros is not the only billionaire signing checks for HRW. The group has also come under fire for taking huge sums from a Saudi oligarch as apparent hush-money after documenting the abuse of his employees. Ken Roth personally oversaw the $470,000 grant from the Saudi billionaire, and accepted responsibility for the highly questionable decision only after it was publicly exposed.

While conservatives have on occasion attacked Human Rights Watch because of its links to liberal organizations and its criticisms of Israel’s atrocities in the illegally occupied Palestinian territories, HRW has paid tribute to one of the most militaristic senators to serve in Congress.

When Sen. John McCain died in 2018, HRW lionized the Republican politician, a stalwart champion of American wars of aggression, as a “compassionate voice” whose legacy was defined by his supposed “defense of human rights.”

In the same vein, HRW refused to oppose the US invasion of Iraq, which was blatantly illegal under international law. (Only after the start of the Iraq War did the NGO finally speak out, when it was safe — and guaranteed to not have a tangible impact.)

Similarly, HRW has repeatedly declined to call for an end to the US-backed Saudi war on Yemen, even while it has documented the Washington-backed Saudi forces’ horrendous atrocities in the country.

As it shrinks from vocal opposition to Washington’s regime-change wars, HRW actively lobbies the US and other Western governments to impose sanctions on nations it claims are rights violators.

HRW insists the sanctions it lobbies for do not hurt civilians because they are “targeted” against government officials and institutions. The best evidence debunking this claim is the reality for inhabitants of Venezuela and Iran, where US sanctions have made lives hell for much of the population, particularly the poor, by locking these countries out of the international financial system, depriving them of the assets they need to import food, medicine, and medical equipment.

And even when HRW has, in very rare cases, acknowledged the destructive impact on US sanctions, as it did in a one-time report on Iran, it has expressly refrained from calling for an end to them. Instead of opposing sanctions on principle, it has simply criticized the way they are implemented, calling for “clarifications” on the measures that already exist.

Meanwhile, as Human Rights Watch lobbies for even more aggressive sanctions on Washington’s Official Enemies, it has not demonstrated a fraction of the same concern for repressive right-wing regimes backed by the US. HRW does sporadically report on these countries’ abuses, but not nearly as consistently.

Reprinted in part with permission from the Grayzone Project.
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  • Ben Norton

    Ben Norton is a journalist, writer, and filmmaker. He is the assistant editor of The Grayzone, and the producer of the Moderate Rebels podcast, which he co-hosts with editor Max Blumenthal

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