Argument

Why I'm Leaving Human Rights Watch

A once-passionate defender of liberty calls it a day.

Today is my last day at Human Rights Watch. After a decade of helping the organization advance its goals -- an end to genocide, torture, and repression, and respect for the dignity of all men and women -- I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people, and its identity. And I can honestly say that if the struggle for human rights and human liberty is taken to its logical conclusion, it will destroy everything that gives meaning and richness to our lives.

These thoughts began to crystallize in my mind last year, when I traveled to eastern Libya, after the start of the revolution that would end the dictatorship of Muammar al-Qaddafi. It had been years since I had seen so many people so happy, so selfless, so hopeful, so intellectually curious, and so eager to serve their country. Volunteers cleaned up the streets, directed traffic, took care of the sick, and performed countless other tasks without pay. Young Libyans who had once seemed apathetic were debating politics in public squares and starting newspapers and NGOs. Under normal circumstances, Libyans and the foreigners who worked among them might have remained separated by barriers of culture and faith; but now, under fire, sharing in the exhilaration of the cause that brought them together, I saw them making friendships that will last a lifetime.

And then it came to me: None of this joyful liberation would have been possible had Qaddafi not given his people something to be liberated from. Had he not stolen their freedom, they would not be cherishing it. Had he not shown them the worst of what people are capable of, they would not be showing us the best. Yet if human rights groups like mine had their way, there never would have been a dictator like Qaddafi! And what would happen if Libya's idealistic revolutionaries won? Soon enough, they'd go back to their day jobs and get bored with their lives.

Let's face it: much of what we truly value in life is rooted in our experience of repression and conflict. Consider great literature and film. Would we remember War and Peace if it had just been Peace, or been moved by All Quiet on the Home Front? Would we care about Winston Smith without Big Brother, Harry Potter's life without Voldemort, or Frodo's journey without Sauron? With no guillotine, A Tale of Two Cities would have been a travel guide. With no revolution, Dr. Zhivago would have been a talk show. With no Nazis, Schindler would have had a shopping list. Yet if human rights activists succeed -- not to mention people trying to end poverty and war -- that's the kind of inspiration our future storytellers will have to draw from.

Perhaps we could do without tragedy in art -- but what about comedy? Is it a coincidence that so many of the best American humorists have been Jewish and African-American? We learn to laugh from the cultures that suffered most -- from the Russians, Poles, and Irish -- not from Sweden or France (the French go for Jerry Lewis - enough said). Amnesty International just raised a lot of money by staging a "Secret Policeman's Ball," featuring a Burmese comedian (who spent 11 years in prison for making fun of his government) as well as other famous entertainers -- none of whom apparently knew that Amnesty International is trying to kill comedy. If groups like Amnesty got what they wanted, the supply of jokes in our lives would depend on comedians who never experienced adversity.

What of the spirit of service to others that we imbue in our children? Young people who return from the Peace Corps, work in refugee camps, or teach in underserved communities, often say that the experience was the most meaningful of their lives. Yet if all the people of the world secured their right to food and shelter and education, if they were never driven from their homes by heartless governments and rebel groups, who would be left for our children to serve?

And how about friendship? Isn't the truest fellowship between human beings that which is forged in shared struggle, against odds, for causes larger than ourselves? Isn't it then that we feel most alive and connected to the people in our lives? Remember the words Shakespeare gave to King Henry as he exhorted his troops before Agincourt: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition." If the human rights groups got the world of their dreams, there would be no reasons left for people to come together to fight for justice and truth. Bands of brothers would give way to flocks of Facebook friends. And Facebook really would be just for posting videos of kittens, rather than organizing revolutions.

Now, you probably think you have spotted the flaw in my argument. Since we will never actually attain total freedom from tyranny and injustice, we need not worry about losing all sense of purpose from our lives. Not so fast. Though few human rights advocates would admit this, we may be winning. With the fall of communism, and now the new democracies of the Arab Spring, the portion of people living in, or on the verge of achieving, liberty keeps rising.

And look what we've done to American foreign policy! Barack Obama was supposed to be a Kissingerian realist. But he's already launched one war in the Middle East solely to protect people from atrocities, and between Libya, Egypt, Yemen, the Ivory Coast, and hopefully Syria, he's been helping to remove dictators at a rate of more than one a year. Sure, people at the State Department can still get away with saying things like: "We share your concerns about the terrible human rights abuses in Fredonia. But our influence is limited, and we feel we can engage most constructively through quiet diplomacy while balancing our values against the range of interests we share with the GOF." But these days, such arguments work only, like, three-quarters of the time.  

Yet my now-former colleagues at Human Rights Watch seem utterly oblivious to the implications of what they are doing. I have attended dozens of staff meetings in the last year in which not one single minute is spent reflecting on how it is the pursuit of human rights that makes life worth living, not its attainment. It's purely about how we can get this political prisoner out of jail today, or get that abusive government condemned tomorrow. If you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that we gave no thought at all to what the world would be like if we actually succeeded, god forbid.

I hope this can be a wake-up call to the board of directors. As for myself, I can no longer be part of an organization that is advancing the day when it will be impossible to live life to the fullest. And so, I must dedicate the rest of my years to delaying that calamity. Tomorrow, I will send my resume to the firms of Patton Boggs, Qorvis, and White & Case, which have lobbied for dictatorships such as Qaddafi's Libya, Mubarak's Egypt, Bahrain, and Equatorial Guinea. Having worked to bring effective pressure against their clients in the past, I believe I can help them to counter that pressure. And if they won't have me, well, there's always Goldman Sachs.

[Ed.: April Fools!]

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Democracy Lab

Letting Burma Back In

Experts debate whether the role of sanctions was successful in opening up Burma. But with the up-coming by-elections and the release of political prisoners, the greater challenge may be how to lift them.

An hour after landing in Burma this January, I sat on the floor of a tiny bamboo house in a suburb of Rangoon, sharing lunch with a half dozen women who had just walked out of prison following an amnesty of political prisoners.  There was much I wanted to ask them:  about their treatment (it got better over time, thanks, they all insisted, to international pressure), about their plans (get a good night's sleep, and then right back to political work), and their fears (chiefly, that with dissidents streaming out of prisons and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi heading into parliament, the West would declare Burma a success and move on).  But there was one question to which I kept coming back:  "Why are you free?"

I posed a variation of that question to everyone I met in Burma -- dissidents, government officials, journalists and academics.  Why is the Burmese government promising now rights and freedoms that, for decades, it sent people to prison for demanding?  Why is it so eager now to draw Aung San Suu Kyi into the country's political life, after so many years of trying to blot her out?  Not everyone agreed on the precise reasons.  But there was a common theme to their answers:  After years of serving a military that was shunned, hated, or ridiculed for running Burma into the ground, "they" -- Burma's president, Thein Sein, and those behind him -- want "legitimacy and respect."  They want to be on better terms with their people, and for Burma to be on better terms with the world.

It is plain that the Burmese people deserve most of the credit for their rulers' change of heart.  For years, they faced unrelenting brutality from above, yet sustained a political movement dedicated to non-violence and national reconciliation. Time and again, they organized themselves in sophisticated and principled ways, not just to demand political freedom, but to respond to natural disasters, to deliver to themselves the basic services their government neglected, and to remain connected to the outside world.  In Aung San Suu Kyi, they also had something that dissident movements in most dictatorships lack -- a leader clearly capable of unifying their country and leading its government.  The military may have held all the power in Burma.  But she and her movement held all the legitimacy.

Even in the years when Burma's democracy movement seemed silenced and defeated, pressure from below manifested itself in conversations in marketplaces and monasteries, in acts of passive resistance, in the flight of talented people from the country.  Then, every so often, it would burst into the open, as it did in the 2007 Saffron Revolution.  With brute force, the military survived that challenge (a reminder that the road to change in Burma has been far from peaceful).  But many Burmese believe that some army officers felt shame about the violence they inflicted on the revered Buddhist monks who led that uprising, and about their government's deadly incompetence the following year when a cyclone ravaged the country.  When Burma's long-serving dictator Than Shwe retired in 2010, the generation of officers that succeeded him undoubtedly included some men affected by Burma's traumas who wanted a way out of the morass it was in.

The more controversial question is whether pressure from outside, including Western sanctions, also contributed to these changes.  I've hesitated to weigh in strongly on this debate, partly because it is hard to set aside one's own bias (those, like me, who supported sanctions naturally want to believe that they helped -- and vice versa), and partly because it's premature to argue about what caused Burma's transition to democracy when that transition is not remotely complete.  Perhaps in twenty years, when archives are studied and the key players have told their stories, a consensus will emerge.  And then someone will come along to disprove it.

At the same time, I have found it disconcerting to hear diplomats and other observers assert with certainty that sanctions had nothing to do with Burma's political opening.  After all, the United States and other countries imposed sanctions to promote a particular objective in Burma, and now that objective seems on the verge of being achieved.  It's as if we had turned a hose on a raging fire and, after seeing the flames subside, said:  "How did that happen?  It couldn't have been the water we sprayed."  In neither case does correlation prove causality - a sanctioned state can change course for reasons unrelated to sanctions, just as a doused fire can burn out on its own.  But it is strange not to consider that one's efforts had their intended effect.  

One reason why the Burma sanctions are often discounted is that many officials who imposed them over the years themselves lacked faith in the strategy they were pursuing.  Bill Clinton and George W. Bush pushed through sanctions mostly to express solidarity with Aung San Suu Kyi; others in the U.S. government saw them as a symbolic expression of America's disgust with the Burmese junta, or simply as a way of appeasing Congressional and public concerns on an issue that was not strategically important.  Few of them actually expected that sanctions might work!

But some advocates of sanctions had a more reasoned theory of the case. 

First, they believed that Western sanctions would create at least some objective difficulties for the Burmese government.  The generals might not care at first about sanctions' impact on Burma's economy as a whole (which was always harmed more by their own mismanagement), and they might compensate for any harm to their personal finances by doing business with China.  But the argument that sanctions would drive Burma into the arms of the Chinese turned out to be an argument for sanctions, not against them, since that was not a place where Burma's nationalistic military leaders wanted to be for long.

Second, sanctions proponents expected that eventually, Burma's leaders would want to develop their country's economy and to improve their standing in the world.  To achieve those goals, they would need access to the very things that sanctions had denied them:  Western investment, markets and banks, and better relations with the United States.  At that point, as I argued in testimony to the Congress in 2004, the U.S. would say to the Burmese government:  "You cannot make a separate peace with us.  Reach a compromise with your opposition first." The idea was that sanctions would give the U.S. negotiating leverage, which it could transfer to Aung San Suu Kyi and the democratic opposition.  The government would need their support to win relief from international pressure, and to get their support it would have to satisfy some of their basic demands, including the release of political prisoners, and ultimately to bring them into the political system.

Of course, no one had a clue when any of this might happen.  After Burma's deeply flawed 2010 elections, I thought sanctions would likely have to be tightened further to produce the desired effect; I was wrongly dismissive of those who argued that a new generation of military officers with a new outlook might already be coming to the fore.  Exactly how and why that happened will be for historians to answer.  But once it did, the Obama administration reached out to them, and Burma's leaders acted as we had long hoped:  they started talks with Aung San Suu Kyi, and engineered new elections designed to bring the democratic opposition into parliament.  And they acknowledged that they were doing this in part because it was necessary to improve relations with the outside world, and to get sanctions lifted.

Everyone I spoke to in Burma, whether they had supported or opposed sanctions in the past, assumed that the reformist president Thein Sein was using the promise of relief from sanctions in his arguments with hard liners in the government.  All argued that the international community must now find ways of rewarding Thein Sein to help him win those arguments.  And they acknowledged that Western countries only have carrots to offer today because of the sticks they employed in the past -- every diplomatic and economic sanction they imposed created a card they can play now, as serious political negotiations finally get underway in Burma.

Burma's April 1st parliamentary by-elections are the next important milestone in that process, and should, if they go well, trigger additional rewards from the West.  But the elections are not the next big test of reform.  Both Burma's opposition and its president want Aung San Suu Kyi to win a seat -- they need her to champion their cause in the government, and he needs her to legitimize that government.  And if her party wins, it will control only a tiny fraction of seats in the current parliament.

As remarkable as the changes in Burma have been -- with some political prisoners walking free, and real debate breaking out from the front pages of the country's newspapers to the hearing rooms of its parliament -- the big tests lie ahead.  Laws that criminalize dissent are still on the books.  Burma's military continues to commit war crimes against ethnic minority populations on the country's frontiers, and still does not answer to its president, parliament or judiciary.   Burma's Constitution gives the military unchecked authority over all matters of internal security, the power to veto constitutional changes and even to dismiss the president.

The elections that really matter in Burma will not come until 2015, when most of the parliament will be up for election.  If that vote is free and fair, the opposition will be in a strong position to win.  Hundreds of former military officers who now serve as members of the pro-government party would then be swept aside.  And Aung San Suu Kyi would be able to form a government of her own.   It is far from clear yet if the military will allow that.  This means that Western countries need to walk a fine line:  rewarding the changes that have already taken place, but conserving some leverage, through 2015, to secure the harder changes hopefully still to come.

Another reason to move gradually is that absent deeper political and economic reform, lifting all sanctions might not even help Burma's economy, much less its hopes for democracy.  If all restrictions on doing business with Burma were removed, for example, much of the money would likely flow to military-owned companies or conglomerates run by the rising class of oligarchs linked to the military, that control Burma's most lucrative export industries, such as natural gas, timber and gems.  This kind of investment would only reinforce the military's failed development strategy of pulling natural resources out of the ground, converting them into cash, and storing that cash in off shore, off budget accounts for the benefit of the elite.  Indeed, one of the salutary effects sanctions may have had during the years of dictatorship in Burma was to slow down, even if slightly, the process by which its natural wealth was plundered, laundered overseas, or put to uses (such as weapons purchases) that did nothing for its people.

A smarter way to lift sanctions, assuming political progress continues, would be to relax them first on those sectors of Burma's economy from which ordinary people are more likely to benefit (such as agriculture and manufacturing), while maintaining them for some time longer on those sectors from which only the military benefits.

Above all, we should set our sights high when we think of Burma's future.  A few years ago, when soldiers were gunning down monks and students on the streets of Rangoon, many people might have been satisfied to see Burma evolve into a country as "free" as Vietnam or Cambodia.  But Burma may now have leaders, in government and opposition, with the vision to take it so much further, if only they can overcome the resistance of those who still have a stake in the status quo.  Western countries can help, if they ease sanctions more strategically, and less reflexively, than they put them into place.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images