Human Rights Defenders

Snowden as Samson, bringing the puzzle palace down around his head; Manning as Prometheus, tortured for her gift to mankind by ceaseless humiliation at the hands of dim jarhead martinets; the men who exposed the drone-massacre sweatshops, beggared by government decree; the helpless black witnesses of Ferguson and Baltimore, always photographed silhouetted by leaping flames like victims of auto-da-fé instead of killer cops. The people who lance the government’s boils have been self-sacrificing saints or martyrs: William Binney, Tom Tamm, Tom Drake, John Kiriakou. Ralph Nacchio, Sister Megan Rice. Lynne Stewart, Barrett Brown, Christopher Dorner. They were made to pay a piteous and terrible price.

Why so mythic? They’re simply doing honest, routine nursing work, draining the pus from this suppurating, moribund regime. When you’ve got something on the mafia, you snitch to the feds, there’s a procedure. The G-men put you in the witness protection program, give you a new home, a new livelihood, a new face if you want one. But when it’s criminal feds that you’re snitching on, to whom can you go?

The civilized world has given this a lot of thought. Unlike in America, where statist media discourse can only perseverate Hero! Traitor! Hero! Traitor… the world has fit the civic duty of denunciation into its legal and ethical framework. Strictly speaking, you’re a human rights defender.

The idea of the human rights defender was born in the UN’s Economic and Social Council, ECOSOC, which drafted a declaration in 1985. The drafting process was a classic Cold-War scrum with NATO beating Russia over the head. The free world was out to lionize the brave refuseniks languishing in Soviet gulags. Human rights defenders had existed for some time: using persecuted pawns to demonize the reds was a Cold War gambit of long standing. It had its origin in CIA’s fight to ward off human rights.

The story is told in bowdlerized hints in declassified documents at the National Security Archive. Jimmy Carter came into office as an enthusiastic pitchman for human rights. In one of history’s most priceless ironies, Carter put CIA to work monitoring human rights. Befuddled spooks kept on doing what they always did, retelling dramatic tall tales they got from their agents. It never occurred to them to tie their reports to the treaty articles that protect specific rights. That made their intelligence worthless in human rights forums. Still, all this human-rights talk unsettled the CIA brass. They were as leery of human rights as any Soviet commissar and their alarm escalated over time. “Broad ‘rights’,” the spooks called them, in scare quotes – unlike familiar constitutional rights, these broad rights might constrain the state. CIA fretted that human rights would scare the Russians (The launch-on-warning and shoot-look-shoot provisions of the government’s nuclear death wish, PD-59, the Russians could handle that, but not human rights, that’s way too crazy.)

CIA seized on each new impasse in arms talks and blamed human rights. Now look what you’ve done, the spooks scolded, Carter’s sanctimonious insistence on human rights has jeopardized the SALT talks. CIA warned that human rights could split the free world. Human rights were naturally uncongenial to CIA’s pet psychopaths installed in satellite states around the world. Who’s going to tell the juntas that they can’t have their death squads any more? If we offend our client-state dictators with human-rights punctilio, they might go over to the reds. What’s worse, some of these broad rights are economic. Those might embolden poor people to demand relief: more foreign aid, perhaps even a seat at the Bretton Woods table. Human rights pressure compounds insecurity, CIA said, adding a new element of uncertainty. CIA warned that “hopes and expectations will be raised to unrealistic, and even dangerous, levels.” Even in the USA, perhaps.

Bureaucrats engulfed Carter’s human rights efforts like The Blob. The State Department under Marshall Schulman played dumb on human rights, so European governments groped for clues to interpret Carter’s grandiloquent speeches. At the Helsinki Conference, the Germans proposed to formalize human rights by agreement among Europe’s states – no more motherhood and apple pie, let’s nail it down, they said. Since the Fifties Europe had made do with the European Convention on Human Rights, a stripped-down subset of rights in the US mold. Helsinki Conference envoy Arthur Goldberg told Carter what the Germans wanted. Outraged at the thought of a president knowing what was going on, Goldberg’s foreign-service underlings ran amok and got him purged. In kissing him off, permanent-government mole Joyce Starr dropped Goldberg’s report down the memory hole. She said the free world wants human contacts, not human rights, and wrote the party line into a fuming Goldberg’s swan song.

But by now human rights was all the rage.  You couldn’t escape it. It was the Farrah Fawcett nipple poster of statecraft. Thirty-five European states had signed the Helsinki Final Act in 1975. Soviet bloc dissidents took up the treaty’s human rights in the illegal manifesto Charta 77, and state repression catapulted them to notoriety. Congress got on the bandwagon as arch-hawk Scoop Jackson picked up the human rights stick and belabored the Russians. Scoop knew a deadly weapon when he saw one. House members signed a poison-pen letter to the reds, invoking human rights. It was official: even downtrodden commies had human rights.

For CIA’s top echelons, this was a perilous juncture. What if someone happened to look and see what human rights agreements actually say? It would be curtains for the dog-eat-dog American way. Something had to be done.

What they did was quite ingenious: reduce human rights to human-interest stories in the press. Bury the subversive meaning of human rights in a welter of names and faces, that’s the ticket, tearful goodbyes and reunions, lonely exiles. And that’s where human rights defenders came from: CIA.

Wisner’s wurlitzer blared and the papers filled with names of Russian refuseniks: Scharansky, Ginsberg, Bukovsky, Slepak. Bukovsky were received at the White House. The press hailed Slepak as Russia’s MLK. Pentacostals squatted in the US embassy like a mob of happy-clappy Julian Assanges. One Russian even tried the flaming monk trick that worked so well in Vietnam, but he lived to get committed.

This in turn caused further problems for the CIA. They needed spies, not celebrities. A treason trial of Anatol Scharansky might implicate his CIA handlers. The Defense Intelligence Agency was tracing his contact chains, signing up Scharansky’s druzéj left and right. The NKVD knew exactly what was going on. They licked their lips at the prospect of theatrically turning freedom fighters into spies and traitors.

One day the unthinkable happened. The dissidents prevailed, the Warsaw Pact broke up in peace. Germans breached the wall. Prague was the new Paris, where with massed public jingling of keys the Czechs magically, painlessly re-enacted the Eighteenth Brumaire for their Napoleon, Shirley Temple Black. Human rights defenders became the romantic icons of the age.

The rights defenders our government adopted were all foreign, with exotic, far-off struggles, and like philosopher-king Vaclav Havel, they had exquisite tact. When Congress feted Havel, he kept his mouth shut about his fellow rights defenders, the Salvadoran Jesuits that US puppets shot and stacked in piles. The latest half-dozen hadn’t even decomposed yet, Father Ellacuria and winsome Celina Maricet Ramos were still stinking and squirming with maggots, but Havel held his tongue and nose for Congress. Havel used his trademark Chance the Gardener bromides to imply we had a duty to bomb Serbia.

That’s the thing about human rights defenders – they aren’t all plucky Russian Jews pining for Israel, or grateful Czech protégés and acolytes of beltway brat Frank Zappa. Without America’s traditional red menace to distract us, human rights defenders were apt to pop up who knows where – in the USA’s backyard in Latin America or Europe. Perhaps even at home.

Some rights defenders were charismatic, like the liberation-theology flower children and their martyrs, the bullet-riddled men of god like Archbishop Romero, the naked raped and mutilated nuns. Some had great stories to tell: Vincenzo Vinciguerra tattled on NATO’s Gladio maniacs blowing up their women and children and blaming reds. Mordecai Vanunu, Israel’s own refusenik, exposed the Armageddon-profiteers peddling wares from the nuke bazaar of NUMEC. The government black market and the outcry is a never-ending story, with Sibel Edmonds exposing the wholesale nuclear arms trade of Marc Grossman and Douglas Feith.

And some human rights defenders are downright awkward.

When Russia’s MLK Slepak spoke up for human rights, the Soviets sent him to Siberia for a while and then home to Israel. When our own MLK, Martin King, defended human rights, the US government formed an inter-agency counterrevolutionary war council called CINCSTRIKE to coordinate CIA, FBI, NSA, and Office of Naval Intelligence. The Army Security Agency surrounded King with informants (no one else had any negroes) and for a year they taped King’s every burp and fart while the 20th Special Forces Group trained civic-minded Klan wizards and stole guns for squadrons of mob hit men. General William Yarborough, founding hero of the Green Berets, known for their twee hats and mawkish song, dispatched death squads from the 902nd Military Intelligence Group through civilian cutouts. Their snipers packed bazookas, just in case. SR-71 blackbirds zoomed over Memphis as a Portuguese CIA cutout called Dago blew King’s brains out. The Joint Chiefs copied King’s assassination orders to the White House. When the story came out1 they had to put up a big Stalinist-Gothic statue to keep King’s passing vague and sentimental.

So the NATO bloc concluded that rights defenders were passé.

When the free world discarded their two-edged sword, UN cutups Syria and Cuba took it up. They sponsored Norwegian expert Jan Helgesen to chair the work of preparing a resolution on human rights defenders. Helgesen abstracted away all the finger-pointing, leaving self-evident statements of high principle. He kept states from inserting a loyalty oath, and calmed states’ fears of subversive human-rights foreign aid. He compromised on states’ demands for secret trials. The horse-trading produced a General Assembly resolution on human rights defenders, adopted by consensus in 1998. Fifty years after adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we freedom-loving Americans were formally permitted to defend our rights without getting shot like Martin King.

In 2000, human rights defenders got a special rapporteur with a renewable three-year mandate. The US government naturally cut us off from any word of the UN initiatives. It was a New American Century and the US had a project to attend to. A new Pearl Harbor was about to happen. Almost as if ticking off the International Bill of Human Rights as a checklist, the US government revoked our human rights: The right to free expression of the will of the electors, the Supreme Court nixed that in Bush v. Gore. The right to privacy, NSA revoked it. Freedom from torture, sorry, CIA said it had to go. The right to peace, the right to trial, the right to public assembly, the right to freedom of association, the right to seek and obtain information, the right to cultural life, even the right to life, they all went by the wayside. Having splurged on war, the government then economized by withholding your right to health, your right to social security, and your right to education. In our state-controlled catechism there were no words for most of these encroachments. There was no one left to recall our rights, let alone defend them. Fed up with watching the US sic packs of rabid cops on the remnants of civil society, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights listed all the tricks the US uses to crush its human rights defenders, without naming names, and asserted principles of protection.

So now you are protected by the outside world. To those who come after, the economic hitmen, the secret police, the beltway bandits, the hundreds of thousands of decent, thinking human beings with Top Secret and collateral access: Must denunciation be such a big dramatic deal? Why go into the torturer’s dungeon or off to penal camp or exile when you can stick around and watch the fun? Once the regime is discredited, treason can be a lark, a mean-spirited, amusing prank like a flaming bag of dogshit deposited at the door of some local notable. Child’s play.

On the cusp of die Wende, when times changed for them, our Soviet comrades passed us bales of state secrets with gay abandon. They let us play with their Anti-Ballistic Missile prototypes, putting the cross-hairs on eyes in the sky like grinning stoners at some beeping arcade game. And what was the harm of it? Their missile shield is none the worse. It’s not held together with spit and string the way it was back then. As it curbs the NATO free-for-all in Syria, it might be all that defends our right to peace.

Denunciation’s no big deal. When a décadent such as this author will do it, you know it’s safe and easy. The crime exposed was venial in the scheme of things, grubby and venal, small beer for a state that lives by war crimes and crimes against peace. I didn’t much care about the fleeced institutional victims, and squealed not in charity toward all but in gleeful free-floating malice. Low-risk, illicit fun, it was, more like cow-tipping than freedom fighting. The only hard part is resisting the urge to figure in the commotion that you cause.

The technology of denunciation was quite adequate then, and now it’s advancing by leaps and bounds. Any group can do what Wikileaks does with Strongbox, GlobaLeaks, Tails or Onionshare. Peer-to-peer networks turn the Internet inside out, removing state-controlled bottlenecks that let the US suppress evidence of state crimes. Freenet, GNUnet, I2p, or LEAP can bind isolated rights defenders into civil society organizations. The NSA’s illegal surveillance tricks have passed into the public domain and have been turned back on the state.

Don’t trust computers? Good for you. Wikileaks will set you up a daisy-chain of confederates to relay your indictment of the state, mailing or passing the evidence hand to hand. Amid the flood of Christmas cards with photos and recordings of recitals, there might be a torture report. How can a guilty state stop it? They can’t.

Jacob Applebaum said, “Let us also work to infiltrate those organizations that betrayed us.” The public’s sleeper agents are in place. All the decent people working for the US regime are nash, as the Russians say, they’re ours. They’re part of us. We can’t leave them trapped in those perverted institutions. We must help them. Who exposed the government’s plan and program for mass drone murder? Snowden? Someone new and nameless? Some expert foreign hacker? We don’t know. Individual human rights defenders are dissolving into the disembodied voice of Publius, defining a new nation once more.

Apparatchiks are trained in habits of obscurity. The state is not omniscient. Once we’ve been read into our compartments, we’re all fumbling in the dark. When you have a position of trust, that means they trust you. They want you to see that as an honor, but that’s the monkey wrench you drop into the works. To the criminal state, you’re an insider threat. To the outside world, you’re a rights defender. Thank you for your service.

But you don’t need a clearance or state credentials. Everyone can be a human rights defender. You can investigate or denounce your overreaching state. You can succor human victims of the state, fight official impunity, or educate indoctrinated prosecutors, judges, and police. In any developed country, civic participation and policy comes down to human rights defense.

Some human rights defenders serve on juries, like the jurors who freed Sami Al-Arian from political persecution. With all the pseudo-legal red tape courts use to choke off our human rights, human rights defenders will need to practice jury nullification. As human rights defenders, jurors have a moral imperative to nullify actions of the state or court that deny core human rights. Having said so in response to my last jury summons, I may have earned a lifetime exemption from jury duty. So if you want to have some fun in the last place on earth where you can’t be pushed around – the jury room – keep your mouth shut. Nothing panics the state like jurors who know their rights.

Other human rights defenders bypass foot-dragging courts to shame the US government in the eyes of the world. We Charge Genocide brought Chicago police murder and torture to the attention of the Committee Against Torture in Geneva. Some human rights defenders build a resistance army of librarians to fight for privacy and information freedom. The state cannot predict where the enemy within will emerge next.

As state failures compound, the state relies increasingly on its last line of defense: There Is No Alternative. Of course, there’s an alternative, consistent, coherent, and complete, with the binding force of common law and the supreme law of the land. It’s human rights. By providing an alternative to repression and predation, human rights defenders remove the last prop from this state. Human rights defenders can unite civil society with overarching principles that are easier to swallow and far more revolutionary than the Comintern’s 21 Conditions.

It’s the paranoiac nightmare of discredited states: the next Snowden or Manning could be anyone anywhere, waiting intently for her chance to help defend a human right. For all you know it could be you – secret evidence of state crime could be sluicing through your own little electronic doohickey and you’d never know it till it hits the fan. And you thought you were just pirating a film. You’re a human rights defender.

  1. William F. Pepper, An Act of State, London: Verso, 2003 and the case of CORETTA SCOTT KING, MARTIN LUTHER KING, III, BERNICE KING, DEXTER SCOTT KING and YOLANDA KING, Plaintiffs, Vs. Case No. 97242-4 T.D. LOYD JOWERS and OTHER UNKNOWN CO-CONSPIRATORS, Defendants. []
Brian Littlefair is the author of Desert Burial. As a consultant specializing in foreign direct investment he worked with foreign joint ventures, international financial institutions and bilateral aid agencies, with volunteer work in food security, transparency, and human rights in the global south. Read other articles by Brian.