Saturday, May 7, 2016

Regime Change! Intervention! "Kick Out the Bad Guys!" Not so fast ...

Need an anchor for your human rights activism? I recommend everybody read Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder, and "Writing Human Rights ... And Getting It Wrong" by Alex de Waal in the current Boston Review.

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History
and Warning
by Timothy Snyder
Snyder details how the Holocaust happened - specifically, the way it proceeded according to the particular conditions in the lands to the east of Germany as occupations and re-occupations unfolded. Snyder encourages us to relinquish our grip on our ideas "good guys" and "bad guys" creating that history, and instead to see the impact of conditions and institutions. (He encourages us to recognize "political resources," "psychological resources," "material resources" -- how they get generated, and how they are taken advantage of.) What happened in Poland? Ukraine? Belarus? Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia? What happened in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the Balkans, Greece? What happened in Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, France?

If, like me, you have a vaguely sick feeling as you read Black Earth, it may that you are learning the lesson that Snyder spells out in the conclusion:

Most of us would like to think that we possess . . . "moral instinct" and "human goodness." Perhaps we imagine that we would be rescuers in some future catastrophe. Yet if states were destroyed, local institutions corrupted, and economic incentives directed toward murder, few of us would be behave well. There is little reason to think that we are ethically superior to the Europeans of the 1930s and 1940s, orfor that matter less vulnerable to the kind of ideas that Hitler so successfully promulgated and realized. If we are serious about emulating rescuers, we should build in advance the structures that make it more likely that we would do so. (p. 320)

I've just finished reading Black Earth -- for the first time. Now I'm going back to page one to read it all over again.

Alex de Waal
De Waal's piece in Boston Review is about much more recent events, told from a much more personal perspective, and is painfully honest about As such, it is a must-read for those who aspire to be effective in their human rights advocacy.

De Waal discusses his work with Human Rights Watch, and later with African Rights, with a focus on events in the 1990s, particularly documenting conflict and human rights abuses in Sudan and Somalia. The key question is where human rights advocacy starts to turn into agitation for interventionism.

After you've read De Waal's piece, you'll have a much clearer idea about the role of the human rights advocate, on the one hand, and the political activist, on the other -- "human rights advocacy is a critique of power, not a directive for exercising it."

Get a copy of Boston Review and read "Writing Human Rights ... And Getting It Wrong" today.

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