How the human rights industry betrayed its history and sold out labor

Back in grad school, I took a class in human rights policy. One aspect of the class that fascinated me was the prominence of labor and economic rights in so many of the seminal human rights documents. While the U.S. has a strong civil liberties tradition, starting with the Bill of Rights, our labor and economic rights tradition, sadly, is much weaker. And yet, international human rights law is very different. The founding international human rights document, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, includes the right to food, housing, and medical care; the right to social security; right to join a union and to strike; and even the right to a paid vacation. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) includes the aforementioned provisions but, unlike the Universal Declaration, has a mechanism for monitoring the parties to the treaty to help realize its implementation. The U.S. adopted the Universal Declaration and has signed but not ratified the ICESCR.

I have long wondered why the major human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights have never seemed to pay the slightest attention to labor rights, even though, to their credit, over the years these organizations have expanded their scope to include nontraditional human rights areas like women’s rights, disability rights, GLBTQ rights, and the like. How did that come to be, I wondered?

Well, I don’t have to wonder any more, after having read Mark Ames’ amazing blog post on exiled.com (H/T: Corey Robin).

Ames definitely has the goods. No, it’s not our imagination, the human rights groups could not have more contempt for the concept of labor rights if they tried:

Go to Amnesty International’s home page at www.amnesty.org. On the right side, under “Human Rights Information” you’ll see a pull-down menu: “by topic.” Does labor count as a “Human Rights topic” in Amnesty’s world? I counted 27 “topics” listed by Amnesty International, including “Abolish the death penalty”, “Indigenous Peoples”, “ “Children and Human Rights” and so on. Nowhere do they have “labor unions” despite the brutal, violent experience of labor unions both here and around the world. It’s not that Amnesty’s range isn’t broad: For example, among the 27 topics there are “Women’s rights”, “Stop Violence Against Women” and “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity”. There’s even a topic for “Business and Human Rights”—but nothing for labor.

Puzzled, I called Alex Edwards, Amnesty’s Media Relations guy in Washington DC, to ask him why labor unions didn’t rate important enough as a “topic” on Amnesty’s “list of topics.” Edwards was confused, claimed that he was totally unaware that there was a “list of topics” on Amnesty’s home page, and promised to get back to me. I haven’t heard back from him.

But sadly, it’s not just Amnesty. The two other leading human rights groups, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, are not any better. So what is going on here? Ames fills in the history, and it’s not pretty. One of the chief villains here is Aryeh Neier, founder of Human Rights Watch. Ames writes that, under Neier’s leadership, Human Rights Watch as “a force for rank neoliberalism, a major player in the extermination-by-omission of labor rights and economic equality rights from the language of human rights.” Neier has even gone so far as to equate economic justice with oppression and to specifically rejection the founding document on which all international human rights law is based — the Universal Declaration, which I referenced above — because of its provisions for labor and economic rights.

Before coming to Human Rights Watch, Neier was the executive director of the ACLU, and while he was there, he pushed that organization in a rightward, anti-labor direction, teaming with William F. Buckley in a campaign to promote anti-union “right to work” laws. Another name that comes up in this context is former Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff — now there’s a blast from the past! Jesus H., that man was and is a tool! I just knew him as one of those ultra-annoying allegedly liberal right-to-lifers, and also a big fan of the Iraq War, but here it turns out he was also a big fan of the right to work crusade going as far back as the 70s. He’s now a fellow at the Cato Institute. I just wonder why it took so long.

Ames’ post is a depressing read, to be sure, but it’s essential history. We labor types need to know who’s got our backs, when it comes down to it, and why and how some of our former allies who are still at least nominally on the left lost their way. And the story of how human rights came to exclude labor rights is just one chapter of in the tragic story of how labor became marginalized by liberals and leftists as a whole — a book that someone badly needs to write, and that will make very painful reading indeed.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee