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Let’s bring more diversity to Human Rights Watch

By Makau Mutua | March 13th 2016 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

It is an article of faith within human rights circles that one advocate shall not speak ill of another. Violating this code of the blue wall of silence is sacrilege. Public critiques of the human rights movement by insiders are rare. But today, I will breach that wall of silence. Insiders driven by a religious zeal to fight abominations by bad governments see themselves as modern-day missionaries preaching to, and confronting, the benighted. As a result, self-reflection and internal self-criticism are virtually unheard of in human rights NGOs. Human Rights Watch, the gold standard for human rights NGOs in America, is particularly afflicted by self-righteousness. That is why HRW is an abysmal failure on diversity.

The staff of HRW reveals a stunning absence of diversity for an organisation that purports to speak for the entire world. The board stands out for its demographic exclusiveness. Like the Academy which votes on Oscars, the board of HRW is overwhelmingly white. I decided to go public because recently HRW nominated to its board Akwasi Aidoo, the sole African, to its board. There is no doubt Mr Aidoo, the executive director of Trust Africa, a foundation dedicated to advancing good governance in Africa, is a respected human rights personality. But the token appointment exploits Mr Aidoo to blunt criticism of HRW.

The board of HRW has several flaws. It is apparent that most board members were chosen for their ability to give and raise money, not for their human rights expertise. It is difficult to see how such a board can meaningfully and competently play its fiduciary role of giving guidance to HRW’s core mission.

A diverse board composed of individuals with subject matter expertise in the regions where HRW concentrates its work is indispensable. An organisation that raises funds to combat impunity and abuses in Africa cannot be credible without African voices on its board and staff.

Otherwise, HRW is guilty of further silencing those it intends to benefit.

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Creating inclusive institutions is not a choice. Gone are the days when human rights groups in the West assumed that only they could speak for victims in far-flung corners of the earth. Today, local human rights NGOs proliferate virtually every African country. Africans are increasingly asserting their rights and setting their own agendas. Human rights counterparts based in the Global North must understand this basic shift, and learn to follow the lead of civil society groups on the ground in Africa. They must forsake the imperial proclivities of yesteryear. But this recalibration to reset the historical asymmetries of power cannot take place without Africans at the high table. Nor will HRW escape charges of racism and alienage if it doesn’t bow to emerging power dynamics.

It is a fact that human rights NGOs are generally not democratic in organisation and governance. They are top-down, nimble, and usually dominated a single executive. HRW is no different. Kenneth Roth, its executive director, has been at its helm for over two decades. Within that span of time, the globe has changed but it is apparent he has not changed with it. Mr Roth straddles HRW like a colossus. Perhaps the composition of HRW’s governance bodies and its methods of work will not change as long as Mr Roth remains in charge. It is remarkable that an organisation with such enormous influence can remain so insular and unaccountable to the same values and norms it requires of others.

I asked Mr Aidoo on social media not to take up his seat on the board on HRW when I learnt that he had been appointed. We know each other, and so he contacted me, and we spoke. He convinced me that he should accept the appointment.

I asked him — and he agreed — to make sure that his presence on the board would not be token, and that he would work hard to introduce deep changes in the demographic structure of the organisation.

HRW has been the subject of attacks by Africans for years because of its aloofness and denigration of human rights groups on the continent. Mr Aidoo should be in a position to initiative a change of attitude and outlook on the part of HRW. But he cannot do it alone. He needs like minds on the board and staff.

Finally, I want to make clear I appreciate the good work that HRW has done in Africa over the years. But human rights work is not charity. Nor should Africans be seen as helpless victims without a voice. HRW will not survive on an emerging continent if it continues to be trapped in the “white man’s burden” view of the world. It needs to move firmly into the twenty-first century.

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