Global Policy Forum

The Right's Hostility to NGOs


By Jim Lobe

Inter Press Service
June 6, 2005

The flap over Amnesty International's characterization of U.S. overseas detention facilities and practices as a "gulag of our times" offers important insights into the deep distrust of the George W. Bush administration and its far-right and neo-conservative supporters towards some non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

There was, of course, the administration's ritual reflex -- most recently seen in its offensive against Newsweek -- to mostly undisputed charges that U.S. authorities have committed and continue to commit serious abuses, in some cases amounting to torture, against individuals rounded up on suspicion of supporting terrorism; namely, to blame the "messenger", be it the International Red Cross, the media, or, in this case, Amnesty.

In the last case, however, there was an interesting wrinkle; namely the way each senior administration official -- from the president, to Vice President Dick Cheney, to Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, to the Armed Forces chief of staff, Gen. Richard Myers -- all immediately followed their initial statement of outrage against Amnesty's use of "gulag" to describe the treatment of U.S. detainees with some version of the same non sequitur, stated most eloquently perhaps by Cheney on CNN's Larry King show.

"I think the fact of the matter is, the United States has done more to advance the cause of freedom, has liberated more people from tyranny over the course of the 20th century and up to the present day than any other nation in the history of the world," he declared, as if U.S. military interventions somehow justified non-compliance with the Geneva or U.N. Torture Conventions.

The fact that precisely the same "defense" figured at the top of each official's comeback suggested, of course, that their "talking points" were all prepared by the same source -- testimony perhaps to the kind of extraordinary discipline exercised by this White House to see to it that what used to be called the "message of the day" -- perhaps now more accurately referred to as the "party line" -- is repeated over and over again.

While Cheney was the most direct in denouncing the world's largest and most famous human rights organization -- "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 any other major institution, such as business, labor, or government.

The attack on Amnesty's good faith, rather, was left to the administration's right-wing supporters, notably the aggressive nationalists for whom the embattled U.N. ambassador-designate, John Bolton, is a modern-day hero and the National Review their favorite weekly, and neo-conservatives whose worldview is most reliably expressed on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard.

"It's old news that Amnesty International is a highly politicized pressure group, but these latest accusations amount to pro-al Qaeda propaganda," wrote the Journal's editorial staff, which pointedly put Amnesty's reputation as a "human rights" group between quotation marks.

Another article in the National Review by two members of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, a right-wing legal group that includes Bolton and many of the administration's lawyers who advised against the application of the Geneva Conventions to terror suspects and sought to justify interrogation methods that the Red Cross called "tantamount to torture", took a similar tack, stressing that the London-based organization"and similar left-wing NGOs" were pursuing a partisan and "anti-American" agenda.

The Rev. Sun Myun Moon-owned Washington Times also put in its two cents over the week with articles that featured revelations that Amnesty's U.S. director and board chairman each contributed 2,000 dollars to Democratic Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign last year.

These attacks were simply the latest and most visible manifestations of a larger, albeit somewhat erratic, campaign by the extreme right in the U.S. to depict certain influential international NGOs as part of a veritable conspiracy of leftists and "globalists" (including U.N. bureaucrats) to constrain Washington's freedom of action in the world, subvert U.S. sovereignty and democratic governance, and destroy free-market capitalism.

As none other than Federalist Society member and Bush's Labor Secretary Elaine Chao warned at the annual Conservative Political Action Committee conference last year, "(NGOs) should be at the top of every conservative's watch list."

Unable to win democratic elections at home, "NGOs and multilateral organizations are becoming key players in global public opinion and global standard setting," she said. "They are patiently laying the groundwork in international law, standards and practices that the United States will one day be pressured to adopt."

That is true not only with respect to human rights NGOs, according to this critique, but also to environmental groups, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, which promote global standards for sustainable development, and other kinds of groups as well, including women's or population NGOs that advocate abortion and health rights and "other liberal social policies," as one Catholic rightist, Kate O'Beirne, complained in the National Review.

"'Global Governance' ...sums up what at least the advocacy organizations think they are doing," said Cornell University Professor Jeremy Rabkin, one of the most prolific NGO-bashers, at a conference in 2003 held to mark the launch of the NGOWatch website, a joint project by the Federalist Society and the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

"Once you say 'global,' of course, you are appealing to people who have very cosmopolitan views and you're not appealing to people who say, 'No, wait, we in our country want to just do what we do in our country.' If it is global, it is anti-national. ...(O)f course, this is a left-wing program which is going to appeal to people who have left-wing sensibilities."

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 (ICC) that will ultimately bind the United States and constrain its powers even if Washington fails to ratify them through its democratic institutions.

"Thus used, international law portends breathtaking derogations of sovereignty, self-determination, and democracy," according to a recent article by Andrew McCarthy of the neo-conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "Its proponents couch their impositions in the loftiest of inspirational rhetoric, cleverly casting naysayers as the enemies of justice and human dignity. But this is a wolf in sheep's clothing."

"For the sake of our security and authority to forge our own national destiny," according to McCarthy, "we must begin to push back."

In addition to the NGOWatch website, "pushing back" has also included orchestrated attacks over the last two years on major NGO funders, such as the Ford Foundation and George Soros' Open Society Institute; a constant questioning by the Journal, the Review, and other right-wing media and commentators of the political leanings of NGO leaders; occasional attacks by senior administration officials; threats of investigative hearings in Congress; and the nomination of John Bolton as U.N. ambassador, a perch from which he can be expected to try to reduce the influence of NGOs which he believes are pursuing a "globalist" agenda.


More Information on NGOs
More Information on Credibility and Legitimacy of NGOs
More Information NGOs and States
More General Analysis of "Empire"


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