Should Human Rights Groups Support an Army?

As a 50-year veteran of the human rights movement, I was surprised to hear human rights groups' responses to President Obama's recent announcement that the U.S. would send 100 military advisers to central Africa to aid the fight against the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

Extreme pro-interventionist groups, such as the ENOUGH Project, unequivocally cheered the decision as an "important step towards a more effective approach" and called for the U.S. to provide an additional "surge of military, intelligence, logistical, and diplomatic support." Tom Malinowski from the more moderate Human Rights Watch commented in the New York Times that Human Rights Watch had "been advocating for such a deployment."

This endorsement of military action illustrates a lot about how the human rights movement has changed. During the Cold War, when I was the executive director of Amnesty International U.S.A., special caution was made to ensure that we were a neutral voice in conflict. In fact, in the early days of Amnesty International, members would send an equal number of letters supporting political prisoners in the communist, capitalist and third world blocs.

When the Cold War ended, political distinctions were less clear and the human rights movement began to strategize around how to leverage power to hold human rights abusers accountable. This turn presented new challenges for those who advocate universal human rights. Who would be the enforcer of global accountability? For those skeptical of any one country having the power of enforcement the International Criminal Court seemed to be a good solution. However, others were comfortable leveraging unilateral U.S. action. The conversation around Obama's recent deployment illustrates the challenges of this new approach.

There is no question as to the wickedness of the Lords Resistance Army. However, the militaries of Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan themselves have very spotty human rights records. After supporting U.S. military advisers to these countries, the human rights community now has a vested interest in portraying their mission as a success. What does it mean when the groups that are supposed to be referees now have a horse in the race? Who will make the condemning declarations if the well-intentioned training that the U.S. is providing is used against the innocent? The problem of vested interests goes deeper.

For the United States, this mission is not strictly humanitarian. As Jendayi Frazer, the former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, recently noted on Public Radio International, the U.S. military advisers are partly a reward to the Ugandan military for being a good ally to the United States in its global war on terror. There is a danger when human rights groups ally themselves too closely with U.S. security interests that they may lose their legitimacy as neutral actors.

The United States' position in this effort becomes increasingly muddied when understood in the context of renewed focus by the U.S. military on the continent of Africa. In 2008, for the first time in history, the United States set up a military command solely to monitor its operations in Africa. AFRICOM was created to help facilitate the U.S. war on terror in Africa but also to secure access to natural resources. (The United States now gets more of its oil from Africa than it does from the Middle East while many of Africa's most oil rich regions suffer great political instability.) Surely, the United States has the right to pursue its strategic interests around the globe. When these interests seem to align with killing very bad people it is understandable that human rights organizations may be excited to back them.

My recommendation is that human rights groups stick to what they were good at, calling all sides out for their abuse and advocating sound policy that promotes human rights for all. Their policy recommendations however, should stop sort of advocating unilateral military programs. Doing so compromises the very mission of these organizations, whose value lies in their capacity to be a neutral and universal advocate of all victims of human rights abuses.

Jack Healey was executive director of Amnesty International U.S.A. from 1980-1993. He currently heads the Human Rights Action Network.