Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, North America | Analysis

POLITICS-U.S.: Right-Wing Hostility to NGOs Glimpsed in Amnesty Flap

Analysis by Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Jun 4 2005 (IPS) - This week’s flap over Amnesty International’s characterisation of U.S. overseas detention facilities and practices as a ”gulag of our times” offers insights into the Bush administration’s and its neo-conservative supporters’ deep distrust of some non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

President George W. Bush’s administration already had responded with ritual reflex – most recently seen in its offensive against Newsweek – to mostly undisputed charges that U.S. authorities have committed and continue to commit serious abuses, in some cases amounting to torture, against individuals rounded up on suspicion of supporting terrorism: It blamed the messenger, be it the International Red Cross or the media.

In the last case, however, it was the rights watchdog Amnesty International and there was an interesting wrinkle in the administration’s reaction: The way senior administration officials – from the president, to Vice President Dick Cheney, to Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to the Armed Forces chief of staff, Gen. Richard Myers – immediately followed their initial statement of outrage against Amnesty’s use of the word ”gulag” with some version of the same non sequitur: arguing, in effect, that U.S. military interventions somehow justified non-compliance with the Geneva or U.N. torture conventions.

As stated by Cheney on CNN’s Larry King show, it went like this: ”I think the fact of the matter is, the United States has done more to advance the cause of freedom, has liberated more people from tyranny over the course of the 20th century and up to the present day than any other nation in the history of the world.”

That precisely the same defence figured at the top of each official’s comeback suggested that their ”talking points” were all prepared by the same source – testimony perhaps to the extraordinary discipline exercised by this White House to ensure that what used to be called the ”message of the day” – perhaps now more accurately referred to as the party line – is repeated over and over again.

While Cheney was the most direct in denouncing the world’s largest and most famous human rights organisation – ”I just don’t take them seriously” – the other officials declined to attack Amnesty’s bona fides, no doubt because even the Bush administration knows that NGOs like Amnesty get much higher credibility ratings than leaders of major business, labour or government institutions, according to surveys.

The attack on Amnesty’s good faith, rather, was left to the administration’s right-wing supporters, notably the aggressive nationalists, for whom the administration’s embattled U.N. ambassador-designate, John Bolton, is a modern-day hero; the National Review, their favourite weekly publication; and neo-conservatives, whose worldview is most reliably expressed on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard.

”It’s old news that Amnesty International is a highly politicised pressure group, but these latest accusations amount to pro-al Qaeda propaganda,” wrote the Journal’s editorial staff, which pointedly put Amnesty’s reputation as a ”human rights” group between quotation marks.

Another article in the National Review by two members of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, a right-wing legal group that includes Bolton and many of the administration’s lawyers who advised against the application of the Geneva Conventions to terror suspects and sought to justify interrogation methods that the Red Cross called ”tantamount to torture”, took a similar tack. It stressed that the London-based organisation ”and similar left-wing NGOs” were pursuing a partisan and ”anti-American” agenda.

The Reverend Sun Myun Moon-owned Washington Times also weighed in with articles featuring revelations that Amnesty’s U.S. director and board chairman each had contributed 2,000 dollars to Democratic Senator John Kerry’s presidential campaign last year.

These attacks simply were the latest and most visible manifestations of a larger, albeit somewhat erratic, campaign by the extreme right to depict influential international NGOs with which it disagrees as among leftists and ”globalists” (including U.N. bureaucrats) conspiring to constrain Washington’s freedom of action in the world, subvert U.S. sovereignty, and destroy free-market capitalism.

As Bush’s labour secretary and Federalist Society member Elaine Chao warned at the annual Conservative Political Action Committee conference last year, ”(NGOs) should be at the top of every conservative’s watch list.”

Unable to win democratic elections at home, ”NGOs and multilateral organisations are becoming key players in global public opinion and global standard setting,” she said. ”They ware patiently laying the groundwork in international law, standards and practices that the United States will one day be pressured to adopt.”

That is true not only with respect to human rights NGOs, according to this critique, but also to environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, which promote global standards for sustainable development; women’s or population NGOs that advocate abortion and health rights.

”’Global Governance’ …sums up what at least the advocacy organisations think they are doing,” said Cornell University Professor Jeremy Rabkin, one of the most prolific NGO-bashers, at a conference in 2003 held to mark the launch of the NGOWatch Web site, a joint project by the Federalist Society and American Enterprise Institute.

”Once you say ”global,” of course, you are appealing to people who have very cosmopolitan views and you’re not appealing to people who say, ‘No, wait, we in our country want to just do what we do in our country.’ If it is global, it is anti-national,” Rabkin said. ”This is a left-wing programme which is going to appeal to people who have left-wing sensibilities.”

The result is the push to create new multilateral institutions and legal instruments, such as the global land-mines treaty, the Kyoto Protocol to fight global warming, and the Rome Statute to create the International Criminal Court (ICC) that will ultimately bind the United States and constrain its powers even if Washington fails to ratify them through its democratic institutions, neo-conservatives say.

”Thus used, international law portends breathtaking derogations of sovereignty, self-determination, and democracy,” according to a recent article by Andrew McCarthy of the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies. ”Its proponents couch their impositions in the loftiest of inspirational rhetoric, cleverly casting naysayers as the enemies of justice and human dignity. But this is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

”For the sake of our security and authority to forge our own national destiny,” according to McCarthy, ”we must begin to push back.”

In addition to the NGOWatch Web site, ”pushing back” also has included orchestrated attacks over the last two years on major NGO funders, such as the Ford Foundation and George Soros’s Open Society Institute; a constant questioning by the Journal, the Review, and other right-wing media and commentators of the political leanings of NGO leaders; occasional attacks by senior administration officials; threats of investigative hearings in Congress; and the nomination of John Bolton as U.N. ambassador, a perch from which he can be expected to try to reduce the influence of NGOs he believes are pursuing a ”globalist” agenda.

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