The way Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on Haiti and Venezuela in its 2008 World Report reveals an underlying assumption that the U.S. and its allies have the right to overthrow democratic governments.1
The Venezuela section of the report said nothing about ongoing attempts by the U.S. to overthrow the Chavez government. It is a matter of public record that the U.S. funded groups who were involved in the coup of 2002 and continued to do so after the coup took place.2
Rather than denounce or even acknowledge U.S. destabilization efforts in Venezuela, HRW continues to complain about the non-renewal of RCTV’s public broadcasting license. RCTV was one of the big television networks that aided and abetted the coup. HRW objects that RCTV’s involvement in the coup “was not proven in a proceeding in which RCTV had an opportunity to present a defense.” It is impossible to imagine a non-farcical proceeding that would conclude otherwise, especially when the coup’s perpetrators thanked the private media, of which RCTV was a major part, for its help. Before the coup was reversed, Vice-Admiral Ramirez Perez told a Venezuelan reporter:
“We had a deadly weapon: the media. And now that I have the opportunity, let me congratulate you.”
Judging by it reports, HRW is completely uninterested in whether the broadcaster that replaced RCTV on the public airwaves, TVes, offers viewers a wider variety views or greater accountability. “Freedom of the Press Barons” to perpetrate coups appears to be HRW’s concern, not freedom of expression.3
HRW also used the 2008 World Report to criticize, yet again, a judicial reform law that was passed by the Chavez administration in 2004. In contrast, HRW’s summary about Haiti said nothing about the coup that ousted Jean Bertrand Aristide’s democratic government in 2004; nothing about the subsequent murder of thousands of people who supported Aristide’s Lavalas movement (the word “Lavalas” does not even appear in the summary); nothing about the fact that Haiti’s police and judiciary remain stacked with appointees from the dictatorship of 2004-2006; nothing about Father Gerard Jean Juste, the most prominent political prisoner of that period, who continues to be hounded Haiti’s legal system.4
Even if HRW’s criticism of Venezuela’s judicial reform law of 2004 were reasonable (and it isn’t), it cannot deserve more attention than the coup that took place in Haiti and that led to a human rights catastrophe.5
On a positive note, HRW’s Haiti section of the 2008 World Report belatedly gave some attention to the disappearance of Lovinsky Pierre Antoine, a prominent Haitian human rights worker and opponent of the 2004 coup:
“In August 2007 a well known human rights advocate, Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine, was abducted. At this writing his whereabouts remain unknown.”
Again, the absence of the word “Lavalas” is telling. Pierre-Antoine disappeared days after he had announced that he would run for the Haitian senate as a Fanmi Lavalas Party candidate. The goal of the 2004 coup and the massive repression that followed was to eliminate the Lavalas movement — the same goal with basically the same perpetrators as during the 1991-1994 period about which HRW reported extensively.6
At first glance, Human Rights Watch 2008 World Report seems to provide courageous and much needed criticism of powerful countries like the U.S. HRW is willing to contradict the Bush Administration. For example, in a press conference about the 2008 World Report, HRW director Ken Roth refused to label Venezuela as a “closed country.” However, Roth went on to say that human rights “trends were negative in Venezuela.” Such a conclusion is justified only if one assumes that supporting coups and other acts of sabotage against a democratic government should have no legal repercussions at all. Meanwhile, in Haiti, where human rights trends really were disastrously negative thanks to a coup backed by the U.S., France, and Canada, HRW displayed a chilling lack of interest.7
U.S. imperialism cannot succeed with Neocons alone. It needs the assistance of other countries. It needs the help of transnationals and NGOs like Human Rights Watch.8 This is an important lesson to remember from the coups that took place in Haiti and Venezuela.
1 See Human Rights Watch, World Report 2008, <hrw.org/wr2k8/pdfs/wr2k8_web.pdf>.
2 See Eva Gollinger’s The Chavez Code for details on US funding of groups that participated in the coup. HRW’s response to the 2002 coup itself was appalling. Al Girodano of Narco New summed it up well in an exchange with a HRW employee: “They recognized an illegitimate ‘authority’ as legitimate. They failed to call for the removal of that dictatorial regime. They failed to call on other nations and the OAS to refuse to recognize it. They failed to call for invoking the OAS Democratic Charter for the one event it was intended to prevent. And after the dust settled and the people restored their elected president, HRW and Vivanco tried to change the subject from the priority of bringing the coup plotters to justice, with a smokescreen over the demonstrations and shootings before the coup.” HRW reacted similarly after the coup in Haiti in 2004. See note 6.
3 There is good reason to believe that freedom of expression on the public airwaves has been improved by replacing RCTV with TVES. James Jordan notes: “The new broadcasting license is being given to a public station, TVes-Venezuela Social Television, which will run shows produced mainly by independent parties. The station will be controlled not by the government, but by a foundation of community members, with one chair reserved for a government representative.” For more specifics about RCTV’s involvement in the coup, see Andres Izarra, “Venezuela’s Media Minister Andres Izarra Replies to the Washington Post,” Trans. Philip Stinard, VHeadline, 2 April 2005.
4 For more about the coup and Haiti and its consequences, see Athena R. Kolbe and Royce A. Hutson, “Human Rights Abuse and Other Criminal Violations in Port-au-Prince, Haiti: A Random Survey of Households,” Lancet, 31 August 2006. See, also, Joe Emersberger, “Interview with Athena Kolbe: Co-Author of Lancet Study on Haiti,” HaitiAnalysis.com, 31 July 2007.
5 The judicial reform law broke the stranglehold of Venezuelan elite on the judiciary. For more discussion of the law and HRW’s objections, see Al Giordano’s lively exchange with HRW over their criticism of the judicial reform law: “Human Rights Botch: Vivanco & Venezuela,” The NarcoSphere, 17 June 2004.
6 For more discussion of how HRW responded to coups in Haiti, see Joe Emersberger, “Haiti and Human Rights Watch,” ZNet, 29 March 2006.
7 See Pablo Bachelet, “Human Rights Watch: Venezuela Is Basically Democratic,” Miami Herald, 1 February 2008. ”We did not include Venezuela in the list of closed countries because it is not,” Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said, unveiling the organization’s 2008 World Report, which highlighted leaders who claim to be democratic but take autocratic measures. Roth acknowledged that ”the trends were negative in Venezuela,” saying Chávez stacked the Supreme Court and denied an opposition station a broadcast license, among other excesses.
8 The priorities displayed in HRW reports are well aligned with those of liberal imperialists like Lloyd Axworthy, a former Canadian External Affairs minister who sits on HRW’s board. See “About Human Rights Watch: Board of Directors & Advisory Committee,” <www.hrw.org/about/info/board.html>. For more about Axworthy’s liberal imperialism, see Justin Podur, “Threats from the Smugglers and the Drug People,” The Killing Train, 3 May 2005.
Joe Emersberger contributes to HaitiAnalysis.com.