The Moral Dubiousness of International Human Rights Activism

In approaching a construction of professional ethics as they relate to international human rights activism, it is integral to first acknowledge a framework of distinct, normative considerations by which to asses the legitimacy of said activism. There are three such distinct, yet related, considerations to be found in morality, legality, and politics.

The measures, then, of human rights ethics that impel this exploration henceforth, shall be predicated upon the former most consideration of morality, as the scope of this consideration theoretically encompasses the others. That is to say that, ideally, under the umbrella of the moral order can be found the legal and political justifications of civic, domestic, and international engagements of human rights activism.

Further, developing an ideation of legitimacy through morality against which to hold the general praxes and specific instantiations of international human rights activism is perhaps most salient in its ability to asses the historical and ideological implications of such activism. If every moral decision should be assumed sound in its legality and policy, then we may be able to identify where legal and political orders misalign with the that of the moral.

The legal and political considerations of international human rights activism are defined, in part, by conventions fabricated within those very realms. Broadening our scope and allowing international activism to be adjudicated by criteria of morality, however, comes with necessary structures and caveats in the service of safeguarding these criteria from the more nebulous conceptions that are familiar to western paradigms of human rights in and of themselves.

Aleksandar Jokic, in his article “Go Local: Morality and International Activism”, delineates four such criteria that culminate in a standard by which the contemporary western ideations of human rights activism fail. Here, Jokic asserts the primacy of local activism as well as the possible legitimacy of international human rights activism as a supplementary effort, so long as that effort is genuinely divorced of ideological, governmental, corporate, or religious contingencies.

The first criterion by which one can asses the moral legitimacy of international human rights activism, then, Jokic designates the professionalism constraint. “It is considered morally impermissible”, he posits, “for international activists to act on behalf of any government, ideology, corporation, or religion.”

International non-governmental organizations tend to pride themselves on their independence of “government, political ideology, economic interest or religion”, as Amnesty International purports. Yet, ideology tends to be an inherent motivator of international activism. Furthermore, the mutual embrace by governments and NGOs on the latter’s role as force multipliers in foreign countries seems in direct conflict with the professionalism constraint in its perpetuation of corporate and government primacy in this area.

Jokic offers the definition of force multiplier in: “A capability that, when added to and employed by a combat force, significantly increases the combat potential of that force and thus enhances the probability of successful mission accomplishment.” And while there are manifold, nuanced components that bolster this paradigm in international activism, the foremost compelling reason internally among NGOs has to do with the fear of private companies usurping the entirety of the market share, as it were, of institutionalized do-gooding. Consequently, international NGOs are co-opted by their funding that can be traced sequentially from governments to corporations to ideologies or religion.

These paradigms alone adequately eschew the professionalism constraint without ever having to acknowledge the numerous other conflicts of interest engendered in the revolving door phenomenon that is particularly endemic to the United States. Therein, the NGO presidents of today become the government officials and corporate (or think tank) CEOs of tomorrow. Corroborating this conflict of interest, Jokic references CUNY anthropologist Richard Robbins, who notes that “NGOs not dependent on state aid are the exception rather than the rule”.

The second criterion, or constraint, then, by which we may asses the integrity of international human rights activism differentiates the impermissibility of acting on behalf of any government, ideology, corporation, or religion from the impermissibility of acting in accordance with such things thusly: “It is considered morally impermissible for international activists to serve as force multipliers for U.S. armed forces or U.S. government (or any other such political or military organization).” Fittingly, this criterion Jokic designates the “integrity constraint”, and perhaps even more fittingly, it specifically enumerates the United States not once, but twice.

This is doubtless due to the human rights based, activism-elite monolith that is the United States and the United Nations, whose concerted efforts have emboldened imperialist endeavors of neoliberalism across the globe for decades. Here, Jokic observes “… little meaningful difference between the UN serving as [a] force multiplier for US armed forces and [the] UN serving the vital, national interests of the US…”

A third criterion can be found in the appropriate veneration of foreign sovereignties: “It is considered morally impermissible for international activists to disrespect sovereignty, aid and abet aggression, and engage in anything beyond ‘soft’ intervention.” Jokic goes on to frame this constraint not only in terms of a shift in the human rights discourse, but in terms of the demonstrable ramifications of the degradation of that discourse.

This change in discourse is something to which our exploration will shortly return, though it should, for now, suffice to say that this third constraint of morally permissible international human rights activism is a response to the western (and particularly U.S.) weaponization of human rights. This weaponization Jokic exemplifies in “[d]ebilitating sanctions, military invasions, authoritarian occupations, and humanitarian bombing campaigns all in the name of human rights…”

Finally, we consider the humility constraint: “It is considered morally impermissible for international activists to take the strength of their conviction as a sufficient condition for the validity of their endeavor.” This is further expressed in the susceptibility of individuals and institutions who espouse international human rights activism to the ideological co-optation of their impetus by governments and corporations. If international activism is reduced to the myth of infallibility of intent, there is little to differentiate its work from that of missionaries or even Paul Bremer. As Jokic astutely observes: “There appears to be no room for humility here.”

Returning to the shift in human rights discourse that has occurred since its inception, it behooves us to understand the roots of such discourse in the Charter of the United Nations and its subsequent Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Therein was established an institutional and juridical framework in response to crimes committed against civilians in the Second World War, the concept of genocide as encapsulated by the holocaust, and the idea that aggression should be the ultimate crime in international law. The cohesive strength of these tenets, however, declined with fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent rise of global neoliberalism in the late nineteen-eighties.

Preceding this shift in the prioritizations of international human rights activism, the discourses of human rights and sovereignty were not only seen as consistent, but mutually reinforcing as well. Decolonization was at the forefront of this way of thinking, and, as Jokic states, “within this form of human rights discourse, the proper domain of engagement by international activists, including those hailing from the West, is to offer solidarity with and support for pre-existing domestic movements, and certainly not to attempt to structure let alone originate and shape civil society in other countries.”

What followed was a shift wherein, as Jokic proffers, “the ideal of protecting human rights assumed primacy over international law and the discourse of state sovereignty on which it is based”. Moreover, Jokic employs the research of Professor Jean L. Cohen, who expresses the phenomenon of the shift in discourse as follows: “Since the end of the cold war, human rights violations have been invoked as a justification for the imposition of debilitating sanctions, military invasions, and authoritarian occupation administrations by multilateral organizations and/or states acting unilaterally, under the rubric of ‘humanitarian intervention’ justified as ‘enforcement’ of international human rights law.”

Cohen goes on to assert: “The new emphasis on human security in human rights discourses coupled with paternalistic interpretations of human rights law in a global context increasingly defined as an ‘age of terrorism’ tends to restrict rather than enhance the political agency and human rights of domestic actors struggling against injustice and to sacrifice self-determination and sovereign equality on the altar of global security policies.” Here, Cohen highlights the mutual exclusivity of the contemporary discourse on human rights and legitimate conceptions of an integral sovereignty on which the praxis surrounding those rights was founded.

As such, the contemporary conception, or rather the bastardization, of the human rights discourse, and the legitimate tenets thereof, became antithetical to the original conception wherein decolonization and soft intervention reverent of sovereignty were central. Where once, international human rights activism discourse was promulgated along the lines of the supplemental empowerment of sovereign people, it now blatantly serves as a justification for imperialist projects under the guise of human rights interventionism.

Political philosopher Raymond Geuss explicates this phenomenon in terms of the Unites States’ involvement in foreign countries such as Iraq at the behest of the United Nations when, and only when, it befits the national neoliberal imperialist project. The following quote, from a discussion between Geuss and Lawrence Hamilton for Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, exemplifies the contemporary engagement of international human rights discourse and activism along with its divergence from its origins in response to the atrocities of World War II.

“Part of the basic motivation for ‘human rights’ is that they are supposed to be outside or beyond politics; they are something to which you can appeal when politics goes wrong. However, what actually happens in the international regime of human rights even as it is defined by the United Nations is that the powerful countries use claims about rights to further their interests. They act to enforce rights when that is in their interests, and they try to prevent action when it is not in their interests. So you don’t have a universal, much less a completely equitable, enforcement regime, but one that is just as subject to the vagaries of politics as anything else…

… In fact, as you know, what happens is that the United Nations passes resolution after resolution about human rights, human rights violations in one place or another, and they are acted on only if the United States and the Western powers find it in their interest to do so. So, they invade Iraq when it suits them; they didn’t invade Iraq, actually, when it didn’t suit them.”

The Iraq War, the unconscionable brainchild of the United States’ cabal of imperialistic elites, is perhaps the most infuriating example of the co-optation of human rights discourse and international activism in the name of violent neoliberalization, if not violent stupidity. To a ubiquitous consensus among the intellectually honest observers of socio- and geo-political context, however, this is only to be expected.

What, perhaps, is less expected, then, can be found in the reality of the colloquially unimpeachable efforts of NGOs and other international activist being nothing more than arms of the aforementioned endeavors in imperialism. One such organization is none other than the Peace Corps. While technically an independent agency of the United States government with roots in the State Department, the Peace Corps is reasonably enough distanced from its anti-communist inception through image laundering campaigns (internally as well as through related perpetuations of media and culture) so as to justifiably consider it for the purposes of this exploration.

The Peace Corps itself purports to be a “service opportunity for motivated changemakers to immerse themselves in a community abroad, working side by side with local leaders to tackle the most pressing challenges of our generation”. Already, we can see a context wherein the focal point is the “changemaker” rather than the communities the organization reduces to those that are merely “abroad”.

Further, the Peace Corps stands to “promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals”. These goals are enumerated as such: “To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.” Perhaps a fourth goal could be found in helping to nauseate critical thinkers aware of true intent.

This thinly veiled verbiage of neocolonialism, American exceptionalism, and what could only be described as a nationalistic complex of white saviorism has only come under further scrutiny as the COVID-19 global pandemic put a spotlight on the apparent prioritizations of the organization. After the virus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, the Peace Corps sent an email to its thousands of volunteers across the globe telling them to quickly pack and head home before they were stranded.

To be precise, Peace Corp Director Jody Olsen wrote of concerns of volunteers being “unable to leave their host countries”. She wrote in an open letter: “I want to stress that Headquarters remains open under its own Continuity of Operations Plan, and agency personnel are working 24/7 to support you and our staff overseas”. This not only epitomizes the disregard for the countries Peace Corps plans to convert to foreign bastions of capital, it encapsulates just how unsustainable the project is overall.

If the Peace Corp were truly committed to empowering communities through education and service, it would not have allowed for the abrupt withdrawal of the entirety of its volunteer force. It is clear that the prioritization there lies in the empowerment of the privileged, mostly white, volunteers who the organization wouldn’t dare allow to become stranded in some underdeveloped elsewhere. Moreover, the failure of the Peace Corps is exemplified to its zenith by the mere fact of its existence of over half a century.

A dozen or so former Peace Corps volunteers and leaders reiterate this point in writing the following for their own organization known as Decolonizing Peace Corps: “The entire process for the Small Grants Program completely relies on the presence of the volunteer, from the application and fundraising to monitoring and evaluation… Peace Corps practices do not live up to [its primary goal of sustainability] because project funding by the Small Grants Program requires the presence of the volunteer, who at any moment can leave the site permanently without notice.”

This type of funding conflict is doubtless familiar to pure NGOs as well, remembering that “NGOs not dependent on state aid are the exception rather than the rule”. Further, the willingness to disrupt thousands of programs around the world, affecting tens of thousands of lives, in order to preserve the option of Americans to return home makes abundantly clear the organization’s issues of precedence.

The salting this wound received came in the form of the U.S. government’s abject failure in nonresponse to this COVID-19 crisis. As volunteers were ripped from the foreign countries whose infrastructures purportedly posed a severe medical risk to Americans, America was doing everything in its power to ensure the horrific yet preventable deaths of over half a million of its citizens, from whom, I may add, the right of health care is, to this day, vehemently withheld.

So how does the the Peace Corps stack up against the moral constraints that may allow for the legitimate supplementary promulgation of human rights internationally? In a word: poorly. Another word that comes to mind is abolition. The professionalism constraint, based in analyses of altruism and the motivations thereof, would point to the Peace Corps’ raison d’être in U.S. imperialism. The integrity constraint follows from this, explicating the impermissibility of Peace Corps volunteers as, first and foremost, force multipliers.

The respect for sovereignty constraint I present here again in extenso: “It is considered morally impermissible for international activists to disrespect sovereignty, aid and abet aggression, and engage in anything beyond ‘soft’ intervention.” These tenets, one and all, appear diametrically at odds with the mission of the Peace Corps, most tangibly in the Corps’ aiding and abetting of the violent neoliberal interventionism of the U.S. imperialist project.

Finally, we may consider once again the humility constraint, which arose from Aleksandar Jokic’s study of moral phenomenology as it relates to human rights activism and the epistemic arrogance that tends to be engendered therein. This constraint is likely the most glaringly repudiated by the Peace Corps as its lifeblood is little more than American exceptionalism, if not the white nationalism fomented in U.S. imperialism.

If this brief analysis of the Peace Corps, using the moral criteria delineated in Aleksandar Jokic’s “Go Local: Morality and International Activism”, is even somewhat reflective of the standards among the international human rights activism community, it may well serve as an indictment against the entire “veritable industry” as Jokic deemed it.

I am inclined here to further deem it a veritable industrial complex of international activism, as its purpose has shifted with its discourse to serve projects of imperialism and neoliberalism. Either way, and all things considered, the moral criteria for constructing a professional code of ethics as it relates to international human rights activism remain as salient as ever, despite providing for a new paradigm whereby the lion’s share of NGOs and other agencies are exposed for the dubiousness of their intent.