I’m confident in my ability to smell a non-governmental organisation when it goes bad.
Let me explain. I had a great time in the early 1960s when, under the enthusiastic and forceful inspiration of Peter Benenson, Amnesty was created. As a young journalist I was the most junior volunteer member of a little committee which met in Peter’s rather gloomy set of semi-basement chambers in Mitre Court in the Temple and planned Amnesty’s future.
We approved with alacrity the symbol of a candle enclosed in barbed wire, for instance, and later I was told to edit the magazine. Because of – or better, despite - my record on that job I was sent off to Portugal and then Iran on missions to search for information on the whereabouts of some of political prisoners of Salazar and the cruel and ridiculous Shah.
That outstanding man of law Louis Blom-Cooper who was also in at the beginning of Amnesty said he “adored it in the days when it was really small and amateurish”. My feelings are similar. But I am glad it has developed greatly, though some of its present strategies are clearly misconceived, if you get my drift. Since then I have got a great deal out of voluntary work for other NGOs.
Thus when I saw the recent report “Venezuela: Rights Suffer Under Chávez”, that the US-based Human Rights Watch organisation brought out on the government of its constitutionally elected President my nostrils began to twitch.
I have been visiting the country since 1962, and, unlike many foreign reporters there, speak the local language – though, I admit, with something of a Chilean accent.
I know that HRW packed their document full of false and misleading information – unjustifiably criticising political freedoms, the state of the trade union movement, government treatment of what remains the wonderfully free media and daily life which has got an awful lot better for poorest Venezuelans.
The report went on to whitewash the lavish financing of the political opposition in Venezuela by US official bodies who scored briefly in 2002 when they helped to overthrow Chávez for 48 hours, replacing him with a businessman with authoritarian ideas who closed Congress. Though Washington is trying to make a tremendous fuss about supposed Venezuelan contributions to Cristina Kirchner’s presidential campaign funds in Argentina, the US government has done precisely that in Venezuela. It certainly wouldn’t allow a foreign organisation – some Chinese sovereign fund, for instance - to attempt the same sort of thing in the Land of the Free.
What is more the HRW report is put together with the sort of know-nothing Washington bias that has had the US media criticising Chávez’ changes to the constitution as tantamount to grabbing a life-presidency. There clearly is ignorance in the US that many countries in Europe - including Britain - have no formal limitations on the time a head of government may serve and that the result is not instant totalitarianism.
In short the HRW report could well have been cobbled together by an inexperienced State Department recruit recently out of some university in Arizona, or perhaps even Mississippi. It is such an untrustworthy piece of work that Chávez clearly made a major political blunder in expelling two HRW employees from his country when it was published. It was of a piece with his criticism of the Bolivian armed forces which are subject to the authority of President Morales and whose actions are no concern of Chávez’ or Venezuela’s.
I went on to investigate other publications by HRW. I found that in the Middle East on the question of the Israelis’ recent savage invasion of Lebanon they seemed to adopt the old trick of implying that this was no worse than the action of the Lebanese who had the effrontery to justifiably resist and beat back the murderous assault from their neighbour to the south while Bush and Blair looked fixedly in the other direction.
People more expert on the Middle East than I am came to similar conclusions about HRW’s careful avoidance of any unalloyed criticism of the atrocities which are being committed daily against civilians by those who are besieging of the Gaza Strip. HRW obviously takes no particular exception to Palestinian babies being kept ill and undernourished.
As I remember from my Amnesty days, when an organisation gets a reputation for abandoning its ideals or being partial or bent – whether in favour of the State Department, the Israeli government or just the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbying organisation – it begins to fail. Surely HRW doesn’t want to go down with George Bush – called “shockingly weak” in today’s (Friday’s) New York Times – and poor Lynndie England of West Virginia and Abu Ghraib as another of today’s US failures.