Why I’m Leaving Human Rights Watch

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

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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!]

Tom Malinowski is a candidate for the Democratic nomination in New Jersey's 7th congressional district. He served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor under President Barack Obama, from 2014 to 2017. Before that, he was Washington director for Human Rights Watch. Twitter: @Malinowski

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