TOPICS : Right-wing hostility towards NGOs

Jim Lobe

This week’s flap over Amnesty International’s characterisation of US overseas detention facilities and practices as a ‘’gulag of our times’’ offers insights into the Bush administration’s and its neo-conservative supporters’ deep distrust of some NGOs. The US already had responded with ritual reflex to mostly undisputed charges that US authorities have committed and continue to commit serious abuses, in some cases amounting to torture, against individuals rounded up on suspicion of supporting terrorism. In the last case, however, it was the rights watchdog Amnesty International and there was an interesting wrinkle in the administration’s reaction: The way senior administration officials immediately followed their initial statement of outrage against Amnesty’s use of the word ‘’gulag’’ with some version of the same non sequitur: arguing, in effect, that US military interventions somehow justified non-compliance with the Geneva or UN torture conventions.

While Vice President Dick Cheney was the most direct in denouncing the world’s largest and most famous human rights organisation - ‘’I just don’t take them seriously’’ - the other officials declined to attack Amnesty’s bona fides, no doubt because even the Bush administration knows that NGOs like Amnesty get much higher credibility ratings than leaders of major business, labour or government institutions, according to surveys. The attack on Amnesty’s good faith, rather, was left to the administration’s right-wing supporters, notably the aggressive nationalists, for whom the administration’s embattled UN ambassador-designate, John Bolton, is a modern-day hero. “It’s old news that Amnesty International is a highly politicised pressure group, but these latest accusations amount to pro-al Qaeda propaganda,’’ wrote the Wall Street Journal’s editorial staff. Such attacks simply were the latest and most visible manifestations of a larger, albeit somewhat erratic, campaign by the extreme right to depict influential international NGOs with which it disagrees as among leftists and ‘’globalists’’ conspiring to constrain Washington’s freedom of action in the world, subvert US sovereignty, and destroy free-market capitalism.

As Bush’s labour secretary and Federalist Society member Elaine Chao warned at the annual Conservative Political Action Committee conference last year, ‘’NGOs and multilateral organisations are becoming key players in global public opinion and global standard setting.” That is true not only with respect to human rights NGOs, according to critique, but also to environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. The result is the push to create new multilateral institutions and legal instruments, such as the global land-mines treaty, the Kyoto Protocol to fight global warming, and the Rome Statute to create the International Criminal Court that will bind the US and constrain its powers even if Washington fails to ratify them through its democratic institutions, neo-conservatives say. — IPS