Laundering War

NGOs are complicit with political power and are today a critical element in Western imperial projects. This issue alone warrants an entire book, and I cannot do it justice here. However, it is a critically important issue that should give journalists pause. Human rights organizations have a long and sordid history that traces its lineage back to colonial conceptions of justice, the Other, and what passes for norms of civilization and legality. And to whom they apply. [There are numerous works on these questions, but some notable ones include Colin Samson, The Colonialism of Human Rights: Ongoing Hypocrisies of Western Liberalism, Polity Press, 2020; Antony Anghie, Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law, Cambridge University Press, 2012; Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, Harvard University Press, 2012; Didier Fassin, Humanitarian Reason, the University of California Press, 2011; Mark Mazowar, No Enchanted Palace; The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations, Princeton University Press, 2009; Eyal Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza, Verso Books, 2012].

Even a cursory look at the board of directors of any NGO shows them to consist of multi-national corporate executives, global financial industry professionals, former state departments, and government apparatchiks. This is unsurprising given that NGOs have become the face of civil society today, as more international aid moves abroad via NGOs and even bilateral aid programs are increasingly channeled through them. NGOs have become corrupted by this newfound power and influence. But worse, they have become instigators and perpetuators of US imperial interests and priorities.

Like any other organization, human rights groups have politics, priorities, interests, and entanglements in broader domestic and international structures. They operate at the policy level both nationally and transnationally through institutions like the UN, the ICC, and others. Indeed, since the 1990s, they have significantly influenced Western nations to intervene militarily in the geographies and sovereignties of other countries. This new role and power have its consequences, and humanitarian and human rights organizations are particularly entangled in the machinations of political power.

Major institutions, such as HRW, are complicit in American imperial and political interests and have repeatedly demonstrated their “selective” engagement with questions of justice and rights. Time and again, HRW has shown itself to be amenable to American geo-strategic and military goals and spoken in a language unbecoming of an organization that claims to be an independent voice on human rights.

The situation became so dire that in 2014, two Nobel Peace Prize laureates, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and Mairead Maguire, and a group of over a hundred scholars wrote an open letter to HRW criticizing what they describe as the group’s close ties to the US government. This organization presents itself as a leading, independent human rights defender, yet it maintains close relations with the US government.

HRW’s deep ties to the U. S corporate and state sectors belies its public claims of being an independent organization, to say nothing about the easy traffic between high-lever bureaucrats and its board.

For example, HRW has had no compunction hiring former CIA analysts, a former U. S. Ambassador and mining lobbyist to Colombia, a special assistant to President Bill Clinton, a speechwriter for Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright, and a member of the State Department’s policy planning who in 2009 had declared that there was a place for the illegal CIA rendition program and another who presided over a NATO bombing campaign. More recently, HRW accepted donations from Saudi real estate magnate Mohamed Bin Issa Al Jaber despite its researchers having documented labor abuses at one of the man’s companies. [Alex Emmons, “Human Rights Watch Took Money From Saudi Businessman After Documenting His Coercive Labor Practices,” The Intercept, March 2, 2020].

It is no accident that human rights organizations aligning themselves closely with American state power will find themselves usurped by such power and its interests, severely damaging their credibility. HRW’s Americas group has a particularly questionable record, remaining silent in the face of crimes committed by various American allies in Latin America.

Amnesty International USA, under the then Executive Director Suzanne Nossel, launched the “NATO: Keep the Progress Going!” campaign in support of the occupation in Afghanistan. Posters were seen in cities like Chicago featuring two blue burqa-clad women and a small girl walking between them, with the words “Human Rights for Women and Girls in Afghanistan: NATO: Keep the Progress Going!” These posters were coordinated with Amnesty International’s “Shadow Summit,” to which former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and other female foreign relations officials had been invited. Melanne Verveer, US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, was the main speaker on the first panel, along with former Secretary Albright; US Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois; and Afifa Azim, General Director and Co-Founder, Afghan Women’s Network; along with Moderator Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Deputy Director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Women and Foreign Policy Program—a veritable war cabinet.

For journalists, these are treacherous developments. NGOs are part of a new government-listed regime and operate in the context of the differences between First and Third World inequalities and military hierarchies. [Inderpal Grewal, Transnational American: Feminisms, Diasporas, Neoliberalisms, Duke University Press, 2005:142].

Human rights, humanitarianism, and development aid have become critical methods of governance and government and have used the discourses of liberalism to impose their priorities. Humanitarians and development aid experts use liberal discourses that place them in positions of superior cultural, economic, and liberal spheres–more economically developed, more socially free, and more liberal–to work with and against states for the welfare of others.

Their practices, their easy alliances with the state and military power, and their ability to move claim transnational, extralegal, and extraterritoriality completely collapse any distinction we may have imagined existed between methods of governance and acts of confrontation and dissent. Today, NGOs are more likely to collaborate with states, and with the increased scrutiny they are under, they find themselves operating only by colluding with the state.

When journalists ignore these entanglements and choose to remain indifferent or ignorant about how NGOs are entangled with political power and state interests, they can end up acting as mere mouthpieces regurgitating slogans and sound bites–“human rights,” “women’s rights,” “refugee rights” and others, and taking the NGOs marketing and fundraising material at face value. Such unthinking work reduces journalism to merely corporate work, where their articles, photographs, and films become part of the Ngos’ global brand and fundraising material.

Humanitarianism, development aid imaginaries, and human rights are modern forms of colonial continuities of economic and political domination and control. There is no other way of putting it. These entanglements–in the politics of power, of imperialism–and their roots in colonial histories cannot simply be wished away. The humanitarian operating in regions of economic deprivation and suffering operates with conceptions and world views that idealize the European humanist project. The White-savior industrial complex emerges from a long history of “civilizing” missions and justifications that once the violence and exploitation of colonialism. Behind the “necessary” violence, conversations, displacements, expropriation of labor and resources, chattel slavery, dispossession, and enslavement lay a discourse of “betterment,” “improvement,” “development,” and “progress,” and “modernizing.”

These discourses, one that too many journalists and photojournalists are too eager to participate in, betray an ongoing relationship of domination and mastery over the other. Development and economic aid remain married to discourses of power, domination, and epistemic violence where the West
remains the modern, the aspired to, and the measures of “success” and/or “under-development.”

Pramod K. Nayar has argued that Europe’s colonial civilizing mission dovetailed into different forms of domination and control. It relied on a rhetoric of “reform, rescue, and more and material progress.” [Pramod K. Nayar, Colonial Voices: The Discourses of Empire, Wiley & Sons, 2012:10]. Through his reading of missionary texts, educational publications, and reformist debates, Nayar draws our attention to how colonialists argued for “the rescue of allegedly subjugated native women, treated social reform of the barbaric races as a bounden duty and saw the moral progress of the natives as intimately connected to their material progress.” [Ibid:161-163].

J. P. Daughton has highlighted how the French explained their colonial practices and the brutal violence and expropriation of bodies and resources that it entailed through humanitarian rhetoric. He points out how for Albert Sarraut, the French colonial minister in the Congo from 1920 to 1924, the construction of the Congo-Océan railway “rather than serving national interests, colonialism forged “human solidarity.” [J. P. Daughton, “The ‘Pacha Affair’ Reconsidered: Violence and Colonial Rule in Interwar French Equatorial Africa,” The Journal of Modern History #91, September, 2019:493–524]. “It is for the good of everyone that we act,” Sarraut said in a speech in 1923, “and primarily, for the good even of those that appear dispossessed.” [Ibid.] 

Rather than being exploitative, colonial mise-en-valeur was said to help colonial subjects help themselves; it provided a humanitarian narrative for empire-building. Projects such as the railroad and other such projects, which colonizers frequently pursued, were grounded in Europeans’ belief in the economic improvement of less “developed” peoples. As Daughton argues, “what is perhaps most striking–and tragic–is that French officials never doubted the humanity of the project, even in the face of mounting evidence that Africans regularly faced beatings, rape, disease and starvation in the process of building the railroad.” [Ibid.].

The New York Times sent writer Susan Dominus and photographer Pieter Hugo to produce a story on rituals of reconciliation in Rwanda. They partnered with the NGO Association Modeste et Innocent (AMI), which was involved in conflict resolution and the reconciliation process in Rwanda. [Susan Dominus, “Portraits of Reconciliation,” New York Times Magazine, April 6, 2014]. The project and the accompanying essay centered on men and women introduced to the photographer by AMI.

The photographs, titled “Portraits of Reconciliation,” paired perpetrators and victims, depicting the “reconciliation” achieved. The writer explains that the subjects shown were “part of a continuing national effort toward reconciliation and worked closely with [the NGO] AMI.” [Ibid.] The photographs, we learn, were commissioned by a Rwanda arts organization called Creative Court and were to be included in the “Rwanda 20 Years” program exploring the theme of forgiveness. As well-written as the article was and as aesthetically powerful as the portraits were, there is no doubt that this was a politically commissioned collaboration between an authoritarian State, international media, and NGOs operating on the ground.

And as such, it was not journalism but a historical whitewash and propaganda. But by working with NGOs and human rights NGOs, the journalists and the photojournalists unquestioningly accepted the discourses that helped veil the State’s violence and the continued repression of the people in Rwanda.

The Rwandan government has long instrumentalized memory and stories of reconciliation and forgiveness rituals to stifle dissent and criticism of the regime. Local gacaca courts were often manipulated to intimidate Kagame’s political opponents and consolidate power. They were politically motivated social engineering projects and cannot be seen outside of the context of post-genocide political history. These were neither independent legal rituals between victim and perpetrator nor the much-heralded alternative to punitive, procedural, Western-style justice. The survivors and the perpetrators were not at liberty to veer from the political demands of the state project of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Susan Thomson, a researcher who studied the courts, points out that survivors were “just as constrained, if not more so, in their actions and speech, as génocidaires.” There was a constant sense of insecurity among the survivors giving testimony, and they found that they had to act out forgiveness regardless of their ability to do so. It was evident that individual action before the gacaca courts was a performance that did not constitute or even indicate the presence of actual unity and reconciliation…gacaca was a mechanism of state power that helped the government consolidate its hold over the country. “The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) under President Kagame,” writer and critic Suchitra Vijayan argued in her critique of the work, “used nothing short of brute force and war, and a new foundational myth to breathe life back into the Rwandan State.” [Suchitra Vijayan, “Rwanda and the New York Times,” AfricaIsACountry, April 2014].

Collaborating with humanitarian and human rights NGOs operating in an authoritarian state like Kagame’s Rwanda means collaborating with power. It is evident that producing journalism from geography and political space, such as in Rwanda, can never be done outside of the frames of state power and without the interest and support of the government. What is shown, documented, and spoken about is carefully sanctioned, approved, monitored, and tracked.

Yet, Susan Dominus and Pieter Hugo’s work was accepted at face value, with few, if any, raising critical questions about its commissioning, production, and distribution. But by unthinkingly working with an NGO operating within a totalitarian political regime, they produced propaganda, not journalism. They became part of an instrumentalization of bodies for politics.

Closer to home, NGOs like Freedom House–a frequent port of call for journalists–have deep financial and political connections to US state power. According to its last published financial statements, it raised nearly $93 million in Federal Grants in 2022. Its chairman of the board was once the Secretary of Homeland Security under George Bush. Yet, US media treats it as an independent, non-partisan institution and a reliable source of information despite decades of support of US wars and invasions. This despite an ex-chairman, R. James Woolsey Jr., who was the Director of the CIA, spread countless lies about Saddam Hussein and his involvement in the 9-11 attacks, claiming that Iraq was the source of the US Anthrax attacks and later also called the invasion of Iraq a “war for freedom.” [R. James Woolsey Jr., “A War for Freedom,” The Guardian, July 20, 2003].

A reliance on NGOs, particularly those focused on Human Rights, is a seriously questionable solution to US media’s falling budgets and lack of international coverage. These NGOs have increasingly offered interpretations and advocacy arguments outside their mandate and expertise. And yet, as the number of NGOs has grown into the tens of thousands, the reliance on their logistics and professionals also seems to have grown. However, relying on them to produce journalism is a serious mistake.

[As mentioned above, humanitarianism’s deep connections to colonial histories and its exploitation to serve the interests of war are explored in a wide range of works. Some notable ones include Colin Samson’s The Colonialism of Human Rights: Ongoing Hypocrisies of Western Liberalism, Polity Press, 2020; Antony Anghie’s Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law, Cambridge University Press, 2012; Samuel Moyn The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, Harvard University Press, 2012; Didier Fassin, Humanitarian Reason, the University of California Press, 2011; Mark Mazowar, No Enchanted Palace; The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations, Princeton University Press, 2009; Eyal Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza, Verso Books, 2012].

“While providing information on forgotten conflicts and access to forbidden areas,” Marthoz warns, “[NGOs] also attract penniless journalists whom they expect will provide coverage that will, at the very least, be uncritical, and, ideally, be favorable” [Marthoz J. P., “African conflicts in the global media,” In Frère M-S (ed.) The Media and Conflicts in Central Africa, 2007:221–239].

Penniless journalists may find these convenient alliances, but they undermine their credibility and distort the representation of the situation on the ground, elevating the work and role of the NGOs as central and mistaking their humanitarian map for the actuality on the ground.