George Soros’s enormous gift of $100 million to the non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch is a serious shot across the bow for Republicans and conservatives. Billionaire Sheldon Adelson once said he would become “the Right’s answer to George Soros,” but he has not. Although “human rights” is the most powerful political currency of our time, no one on the right has stepped up to the plate, and Soros has the playing field to himself.
The significance of his gift can be understood only by appreciating the web of connections associated with this human-rights organization and its resulting influence.
Thirty years ago, the undisputed leader among international human-rights NGOs was Amnesty International. Founded in order to shine a spotlight on individual prisoners of conscience and victims of torture, Amnesty had a focused purpose and succeeded in pressuring governments and liberating real people.
But corrupt governments in developing countries, Communist regimes, and the despotic rulers of Arab and Islamic states pushed back. Under the guise of protecting their sovereignty and natural resources from the ravages of Western imperialism, they commandeered the United Nations, disputed its foundational human-rights framework, and rolled out new and improved “human rights,” such as the right to development, the right of peoples to “international solidarity,” and the right to be free of “the adverse effects of toxic wastes.” No matter that the beneficiaries of such rights were essentially governments and not individuals, or that the rights of women and minorities were then trampled for the sake of maintaining a united front against the West.
Amnesty International jumped on the bandwagon. It expanded its original mandate to include rights violations which it says result from globalization, “business,” and a wide gambit of social issues. Amnesty’s leaders, who bear the title of secretary general, harbored an anti-Western bias and a penchant for conceiving of developing countries as sympathetic underdogs whose inability to institute the rule of law was permanently someone else’s fault. In 2005, Secretary General Irene Khan, from Bangladesh, likened Guantanamo Bay to the Soviet Gulag. In 2010, after the head of Amnesty’s gender unit criticized Amnesty for its links to a major supporter of the Taliban, Amnesty reacted by suspending and then severing its relationship with the employee, not by severing its links to the Taliban devotee.
Arab and Muslim states were masters at this form of political gamesmanship. Anxious to rid themselves of the presence of a Jewish and democratic state uncomfortably close to them, and worried about the threat that universal human-rights norms posed to their legitimacy, they recast their extremism in terms of human rights. Though one-fifth of Israel’s people are Arabs, and they have more democratic rights than they would in any Arab state, these states accused Israel of apartheid. Arab and Muslim states, meanwhile, rendered themselves Judenrein, outlawed public displays of Christianity, and turned non-Muslims into second-class citizens in the name of protecting cultural rights, religious identity, and “national particularities.” To complete the metamorphosis, the Organization of the Islamic Conference seized effective power at the U.N.’s lead human-rights body, the Human Rights Council.
As human rights were being rewritten, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch wrongly believed it had only two options. It could find itself defending the governments of the United States, Israel, and other allegedly colonialist-imperialist regimes — a tack that seemed to be at odds with the mandate of a human-rights NGO, for which governments are supposedly the adversaries by definition. Or it could join the party, trash Israel and America, and prove its bona fides on the world stage.