Commentary: Soros gives human rights cause a shot in the arm

Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Progressive financier George Soros' $100 million donation to the Human Rights Watch advocacy group couldn't have come at a better time — the human rights cause is losing ground worldwide.

It may be that the three-year-old world economic crisis has shifted rich countries' attention to domestic bread-and-butter issues, or that former President George W. Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq eroded the moral authority of the United States — traditionally a major champion of human rights causes — to chastise human rights violators abroad.

But the fact is that the human rights cause has been hurting throughout the world in recent years. Latin America is a case in point: After reaching key agreements for the collective defense of democracy and human rights in the '90s, most countries in the region are now looking the other way at major violations by their neighbors.

Remember the days during the Clinton administration when the 34-country Summit of the Americas created the job of Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression to denounce attacks on the press in the region? Or when the 21-country Summit of Ibero-American countries signed the 1996 Declaration of Viña del Mar, Chile, committing all countries — including Cuba — to "political pluralis" and "respect for human rights"?

Remember when former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori closed Congress in 1992, and the whole region rose up in indignation, with several countries breaking diplomatic relations with Peru? Well, those days are mostly gone.

"There is a much weaker response to human rights abuses today," former Costa Rican President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias told me this week. "The most common reaction today is one of generalized indifference."

José Miguel Vivanco, head of Human Rights Watch's Americas division, says that much like in the days of the Cold War, the human rights issue has become highly politicized. "There is a double standard nowadays: many countries criticize rights violations of governments they don't like, but justify violations by countries they like," he says.

Brazil, Latin America's biggest and most influential country, is the leading example of how governments are setting back the clock on human rights issues, rights advocates say. Brazil has become an enthusiastic supporter of the worst dictatorships in its effort to gain influence in the developing world, they say.

Brazil not only has one of the world's worst United Nations voting records on human rights issues, but President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — who has done a good job on the economy at home — routinely praises foreign dictators, they say.

Recently, Lula posed smiling with Cuban military dictator Gen. Raul Castro shortly after political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died from a hunger strike, and compared peaceful oppositionists in Cuba to "bandits."

Earlier, Lula had given a red-carpet welcome in Brazil to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, giving him much-needed international legitimacy after the Iranian ruler had proclaimed himself the winner of highly-dubious elections in Iran. And Lula told the German magazine Der Spiegel that Hugo Chávez is Venezuela's "best president in a century."

"Brazil is the most extreme example of deliberately promoting a foreign policy that excludes any human rights considerations," Vivanco told me. "If you ask me what will be HRW's first priority in the Americas, it will be setting up an office in Brazil to raise public consciousness there about the Brazilian government's stands on regional and international human rights issues."

But, beyond Brazil, the region's indifference to violations of democratic and human rights standards is almost generalized.

When Chávez closed down the independent RCTV television network, or violated the results of the 2008 elections and stripped opposition Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma of his budget, virtually all presidents in the region looked the other way. The same is happening nowadays with President Evo Morales' effective takeover of Bolivia's Supreme Court, using his country's justice system as a political persecution mechanism to put opposition politicians behind bars.

My opinion: Soros' donation —which may help HRW raise an additional $100 million in matching grants — can help give the human rights cause a shot in the arm, if anything else because it will allow the group to expand from its current staff of about 300 people to more than 400.

HRW has done a great job in recent decades denouncing rights abuses regardless of whether they take place in Cuba, Colombia or the United States. Its new resources will help spread the message that human rights are universal, and that we should defend them wherever they are violated.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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