By Ben Norton, The Grayzone, April 8, 2020
Human Rights Watch, the leading so-called rights organization in the United States, has actively lobbied for Washington to impose suffocating sanctions on leftist governments in Latin America. The group has even praised the Donald Trump administration for ramping up its aggressively destabilizing regime-change measures.
NGOs like Human Rights Watch (HRW) depict targeted sanctions as a more palatable alternative to military action, although these measures are widely recognized by international legal experts to be a form of economic warfare that have led to the deaths of many thousands of civilians, destroyed the livelihoods of countless people, and devastated entire nations’ economies.
As the coronavirus pandemic spread across the globe, HRW operatives took credit for new sanctions the Trump administration had imposed on Nicaragua’s democratically elected leftist government. Among those cheering on the escalation of economic warfare was HRW Australia development and outreach manager Stephanie McLennan, who chirped that the fresh round of sanctions were “great news!”
Unilateral sanctions are designed to cripple the economies of countries whose governments are being targeted for regime change, locking them out of the US-dominated financial system and collectively punishing the entire civilian population, depriving them of basic human rights so that Washington can install a more friendly regime. The US government routinely implements these coercive measures without the backing of the United Nations or other international bodies.
Rather than challenge the unilateral economic war waged across the globe by the US, Human Rights Watch is taking credit for the escalation of Washington’s assault on Nicaragua – and at the very moment when the small country of just 6 million people grapples with the deadly Covid-19 outbreak, and an arduous peace and reconciliation process.
In 2018, the Trump administration backed a bloody coup attempt in Nicaragua, in which right-wing extremists shot, tortured, and killed state security forces and leftist Sandinista activists, burning down buildings and setting people on fire, in hopes of destabilizing the government. When the putsch fizzled out, opposition groups funded by the US government turned to economic warfare and sanctions as the next weapon in the regime-change arsenal.
Purported “human rights” organizations in Nicaragua that work closely with the right-wing opposition played a major role in this coup attempt, selling outlandish, fabricated statistics that were eagerly regurgitated by the corporate media and international NGOs like HRW.
HRW’s staunch support for US sanctions clearly demonstrates how the group has been instrumentalized as an arm of US pressure against independent states in the Global South, especially socialist ones. NGOs like HRW provide cover for economic warfare, preventing nations like Nicaragua from rebuilding and healing the social divisions that have been exacerbated through successive US-backed destabilization campaigns.
The same strategy is apparent in Venezuela, another leftist country in Latin America targeted by an ongoing US coup attempt. Having spent over a decade demonizing the socialist government in Caracas, HRW is now calling for more painful sanctions to be levied against the country, which is already under an illegal, unilateral US blockade that has caused the deaths of at least 40,000 civilians, and perhaps as many as 100,000.
Scholars and independent human rights experts have long criticized HRW for its blatant double standards against Venezuela. In 2008, following a wave of sabotage and violence by the country’s US-backed opposition, HRW published a massive report uncritically echoing the unsubstantiated claims of right-wing activists as supposed facts, while systematically whitewashing their violence. The dubious report prompted more than 100 scholars to pen an open letter panning HRW for its failure to meet “minimal standards of scholarship, impartiality, accuracy or credibility.”
Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth has led the charge for more sanctions on Nicaragua and Venezuela. His pleas for escalating the US economic war have been vociferously amplified by José Miguel Vivanco, the director of HRW’s Americas division.
Vivanco is a close ally of the right-wing opposition forces in Latin America, and is notorious for advancing their most maximalist positions under the guise of human rights concern. He rejects virtually any effort at negotiations with the leftist states that comprise the Trump administration’s “Troika of Tyranny,” insisting that sanctions are “the only language they understand.”
Vivanco has spilled oceans of ink lobbying the US Congress to drop the economic hammer on the few remaining socialist governments in Latin America. His behavior is part and parcel of HRW’s historic mission to destabilize virtually any government the US State Department deems to be insufficiently democratic, and to do so behind the veil of performative concern for the oppressed.
HRW, a coup-supporting ‘human rights’ group funded by a billionaire cold warrior
Since its founding days, Human Rights Watch has functioned as a revolving door between the NGO sector and the US government. It has repeatedly refused to oppose American wars and military interventions, and displayed clear double standards toward Washington’s allies, while fixating obsessively on the supposed misdeeds of independent nations targeted by the US for regime change.
HRW was founded during the height of the Cold War as Helsinki Watch, an anti-Soviet lobby group closely linked to the US government and funded by the Ford Foundation, which served as a CIA passthrough.
Ken Roth has directed HRW for 27 years – far longer than most leaders he derides as dictators. Having begun his career as a federal prosecutor in the US Attorney Southern District of New York Office, Roth has never deviated much from Washington’s foreign-policy agenda.
Roth supported the far-right military coup in Bolivia in November 2019, and subsequently downplayed the junta’s massacre of indigenous protesters. Back in 2011, the HRW director wrote an op-ed glorifying the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, which holds that the US and its allies must dispatch their military to destroy governments that supposedly threaten civilian populations. He deployed the thin cover for imperial conquest to justify the NATO military intervention in Libya, which transformed the previously prosperous country into a failed state that was home to open-air slave markets.
This January, Roth helped justify the Trump administration’s extrajudicial execution of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, a brazen act of war that nearly plunged the region into a catastrophic conflict. In recent months, he has taken his longstanding resentment of China’s government to unhinged levels, likening Beijing to Nazi Germany and spreading a fake video of a special effects training which he implied depicted Chinese “killer robots.”
All the while, Roth’s organization has marketed itself as a noble and absolutely impartial defender of human rights. Its disingenuous global branding campaign has been possible thanks to a $100 million grant from anti-communist billionaire George Soros. Soros is a key financier of the regime-change industry and a zealous cold warrior who worked closely with the United States and Western Europe to help overthrow socialist-oriented governments in Eastern Europe through a series of “color revolutions,” privatize their economies, and integrate the newly capitalist states into the European Union and NATO.
The Washington Post’s David Ignatius named Soros in 1991 as a key figure among a coterie of “overt operatives” who “have been doing in public what the CIA used to do in private – providing money and moral support for pro-democracy groups, training resistance fighters, working to subvert communist rule.”
While Soros has become something of a bogeyman for the right-wing, targeted with inane conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic vitriol, the oligarch has been granted broad cover from center-left forces across the West to finance pro-neoliberal regime change operations.
One of the two co-founders of HRW, Aryeh Neier, went on to become the president of Soros’ Open Society Foundations. The other co-founder, Robert L. Bernstein, gave Neier most of the credit for the organization’s genesis, writing in his memoir, “It would be hard to overstate the role that Aryeh Neier had in the development of HRW.”
Like Roth, HRW’s billionaire sponsor has taken a hardline position against China, calling it a “mortal danger” to neoliberal capitalist democracies, pouring money into groups to try to weaken and destabilize Beijing and remove the Communist Party from power.
Wall Street’s favorite human rights group speaks for its billionaire patrons
Thanks to the generous patronage of billionaire oligarchs like Soros, HRW operatives hobnob with fellow elites in the organization’s opulent office space in New York City’s Empire State Building. From these lavish headquarters, HRW operatives look down from their three entire floors as they plot ways to turn up the heat on foreign governments they consider “authoritarian.”
The Empire State Building in fact honored these tenants in 2013 by turning “a bright blue to honor Human Rights Watch.” Four years earlier, HRW officials sent an indignant open letter to the building’s management condemning its decision to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
HRW’s neoliberal political orientation reflects the ideology of its billionaire sponsors. The group has a very limited understanding of human rights that excludes the right of colonized peoples to resist their occupiers with force or the right of workers to organize and form a union.
HRW is muted in its concern for inhabitants of the Global North, saying far less about Black Americans brutalized and murdered by US police than it does about the repression of participants in NATO-backed color revolutions in Eastern Europe.
While it actively undermines socialist governments and their worker-based constituencies, HRW has collaborated closely with corporate America. In fact, it celebrated its 40th anniversary on Wall Street in March 2018, ringing the bell that opens the NASDAQ stock exchange.
“At Human Rights Watch we know business prospers where human rights & the rule of law are protected,” tweeted Minky Worden, its director of global initiatives, without a hint of irony.
Soros is not the only billionaire signing checks for HRW. The group has also come under fire for taking huge sums from a Saudi oligarch as apparent hush-money after documenting the abuse of his employees. Ken Roth personally oversaw the $470,000 grant from the Saudi billionaire, and accepted responsibility for the highly questionable decision only after it was publicly exposed.
While conservatives have on occasion attacked Human Rights Watch because of its links to liberal organizations and its criticisms of Israel’s atrocities in the illegally occupied Palestinian territories, HRW has paid tribute to one of the most militaristic senators to serve in Congress.
When Sen. John McCain died in 2018, HRW lionized the Republican politician, a stalwart champion of American wars of aggression, as a “compassionate voice” whose legacy was defined by his supposed “defense of human rights.”
In the same vein, HRW refused to oppose the US invasion of Iraq, which was blatantly illegal under international law. (Only after the start of the Iraq War did the NGO finally speak out, when it was safe — and guaranteed to not have a tangible impact.)
Similarly, HRW has repeatedly declined to call for an end to the US-backed Saudi war on Yemen, even while it has documented the Washington-backed Saudi forces’ horrendous atrocities in the country.
As it shrinks from vocal opposition to Washington’s regime-change wars, HRW actively lobbies the US and other Western governments to impose sanctions on nations it claims are rights violators.
HRW insists the sanctions it lobbies for do not hurt civilians because they are “targeted” against government officials and institutions. The best evidence debunking this claim is the reality for inhabitants of Venezuela and Iran, where US sanctions have made lives hell for much of the population, particularly the poor, by locking these countries out of the international financial system, depriving them of the assets they need to import food, medicine, and medical equipment.
And even when HRW has, in very rare cases, acknowledged the destructive impact on US sanctions, as it did in a one-time report on Iran, it has expressly refrained from calling for an end to them. Instead of opposing sanctions on principle, it has simply criticized the way they are implemented, calling for “clarifications” on the measures that already exist.
Meanwhile, as Human Rights Watch lobbies for even more aggressive sanctions on Washington’s Official Enemies, it has not demonstrated a fraction of the same concern for repressive right-wing regimes backed by the US. HRW does sporadically report on these countries’ abuses, but not nearly as consistently.
HRW praises Trump admin for imposing Nicaragua sanctions it lobbied for
The Trump administration has dedicated itself to the overthrow of Nicaragua’s democratically elected Sandinista government, backing a violent coup attempt in 2018, dubbing the small country a supposed “threat to national security,” and imposing several rounds of sanctions, which have crippled the economy and disproportionately impacted the poor and working class.
On March 5, the US government hit Nicaragua with a new round of sanctions, this time targeting the country’s police forces.
Numerous Human Rights Watch operatives responded by publicly lavishing praise on the Trump administration. One HRW employee who previously worked for the US government placed an op-ed in a right-wing Nicaraguan media outlet applauding the sanctions.
The Grayzone has previously reported on how HRW joined the US government and Organization of American States to vigorously lobby for the release of violent criminals who participated in the coup attempt, using lists of Washington-funded right-wing opposition groups that falsely characterized them as “political prisoners.” After the Sandinista government ceded to the international pressure campaign and agreed to an amnesty, one man who was released went on to stab his own pregnant girlfriend to death, murdering her in cold blood.
HRW has not commented on this scandal, and has shown no regret for its actions. Instead, the “rights” group doubled down on its call for more aggressive international action against Nicaragua’s elected government.
On March 17, in the middle of the deadly coronavirus pandemic, an associate in HRW’s Americas division named Megan Monteleone published an article praising the Trump administration for the new sanctions on Nicaragua’s police force.
Monteleone notes in her official bio on the HRW website: “Prior to joining Human Rights Watch, she worked as an International Affairs Specialist at the U.S. Department of Justice” — yet another example of the revolving door between Washington and this so-called non-governmental organization.
Monteleone’s op-ed was printed in the website Confidencial, a mouthpiece for Nicaragua’s right-wing opposition — which is heavily funded by the US government and closely collaborates with Washington.
Confidencial does not even feign partiality; it is aggressively partisan, routinely referring to Nicaragua’s elected government as a “regime” and a “dictatorship.”
Confidencial is owned by Carlos Fernando Chamorro, an oligarch from the Chamorro clan, the most powerful family in Nicaragua, which has produced one rightist opposition leader after another. He is the son of Nicaragua’s former President Violeta Chamorro, a conservative who took power after a decade-long US terror war and economic blockade.
Confidencial strongly supported the violent 2018 coup attempt in Nicaragua, acting as a de facto public relations vehicle for the US-backed coup-mongers as they killed and terrorized state security forces, leftist activists, Sandinista supporters, and their family members.
Human Rights Watch firmly took the side of the violent US-backed opposition in the 2018 putsch. The supposed rights organization blamed the government entirely for the violence, whitewashing and erasing the heinous crimes carried out by the Washington-allied coup-mongers.
Monteleone’s article in Confidencial was a continuation of HRW’s exercise in naked bias: She did not once mention the wave of opposition violence, while declaring, “New US sanctions offer hope for victims who are waiting for justice.”
In fact, HRW took credit for the new Trump administration sanctions. Monteleone pointed out in her article that, “In 2019, Human Rights Watch recommended sanctions against two of the three named officials.”
Monteleone even quoted the US government (her former employer) in the op-ed, treating the highly politicized accusations of the US Treasury as unquestionable fact.
“The new sanctions are a positive step, not only to hold those responsible to account, but also to help curb ongoing abuses,” the HRW associate wrote.
She concluded her op-ed in the Nicaraguan opposition mouthpiece by calling for more countries to impose more sanctions: “It is critical for governments in the region and Europe to reinforce this message and continue pressuring the Ortega government by adopting more targeted sanctions directed at top officials responsible for past and ongoing abuses.”
Confidencial translated Monteleone’s article into Spanish and published it alongside a political cartoon demonizing the Nicaraguan police force. Her op-ed was also promoted on Twitter by HRW’s right-wing Americas director José Miguel Vivanco, who works closely with conservative opposition forces in Latin America and advances their agenda on the international stage.
On March 19 — after thousands of Americans had died from the Covid-19 pandemic, and the federal US government was doing virtually nothing to help them — HRW executive director Kenneth Roth praised the Trump administration for “imposing a modicum of accountability” with its new sanctions. (This came just a week after Roth condemned the World Health Organization for supposedly being “overly sycophantic to China.”)
The only other article Megan Monteleone has listed in her bio at HRW is another anti-Sandinista screed published in Infobae, a staunchly right-wing website based in Argentina and owned by a rightist oligarch. Like the opposition media outlets in Nicaragua, Infobae describes Nicaragua’s elected government a “regime” and “dictatorship” in its reports.
Monteleone’s obsessive hatred of Nicaragua’s leftist government is apparent on her Twitter account, where almost all of her tweets are anti-Nicaragua posts. Apparently other countries in Latin America, let alone the rest of the world, are not violating human rights.
HRW colleagues joined Monteleone in praising the new Trump administration sanctions on Nicaragua, including Emma Daly, the acting deputy executive director for media at Human Rights Watch, and Jan Kooy, HRW’s deputy European media director.
HRW lobbies for more civilian-killing sanctions on Nicaragua (and Venezuela)
This was far from the first time Human Rights Watch clamored for sanctions on Nicaragua. In fact, the “rights” group has actively lobbied on behalf of the country’s tiny right-wing opposition.
HRW Americas division director José Miguel Vivanco has shown a blatant bias against left-wing countries in the region, along with an obsession with undercutting Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.
In June 2019, Vivanco testified before the US Congress, lobbying the legislative body “to impose targeted sanctions —including asset freezes— against senior Nicaraguan officials.”
In its official press release on the congressional testimony, HRW stated clearly, “The United States Congress should press the executive branch to impose targeted sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, against senior Nicaraguan government officials.”
HRW made no mention whatsoever of the extreme violence carried out by the Nicaraguan right-wing opposition in its coup attempt, blaming all of the deaths and injuries on the government instead.
The so-called rights organization also praised the Trump administration’s previous imposition of sanctions on Nicaragua, declaring in its press release, “Human Rights Watch supports the successful application of the Global Magnitsky Act in July and December 2018, when the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on five Nicaraguans implicated in human rights abuses and corruption.”
HRW went a step further and urged US members of Congress to meet with their leaders of Nicaragua’s US-backed opposition: “Human Rights Watch also recommended that the US Congress: … Meet regularly with human rights defenders, activists, journalists, and the opposition from Nicaragua who come to Washington to maintain balance in its understanding of the situation in Nicaragua,” the group stated.
Just a week after the congressional testimony, Human Rights Watch and Vivanco revived their calls for the Trump administration to impose sanctions on Nicaragua in a report titled “Crackdown in Nicaragua: Torture, Ill-Treatment, and Prosecutions of Protesters and Opponents.” The paper completely whitewashed the coup attempt, uncritically echoing the dubious and rumors narratives of the right-wing opposition.
In a new press release accompanying this report, HRW expanded its call for sanctions not just from the US government, but also from other governments in Europe and Latin America.
“Governments in the Americas and Europe should impose targeted sanctions against top Nicaraguan authorities,” HRW wrote.
This “rights” organization provided a list of Nicaraguan government officials who “should be subjected to targeted sanctions, such as travel bans and assets freezes,” including President Daniel Ortega and numerous top police and security officials. Most of these Nicaraguan officials had or have subsequently been sanctioned by the US government.
In both English and Spanish, Vivanco amplified this demand for more economic war.
Vivanco: ‘You can’t negotiate… You have to double down on the sanctions’
José Miguel Vivanco, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, has adopted some of the most maximalist positions of Latin America’s right-wing as his own. He publicly opposes negotiations with Nicaragua’s government, insisting that economic warfare is the only possible action.
In English, Vivanco’s language is careful to appear reasonable. In Spanish, however, the gloves come off, displaying the hyperbolic rhetoric familiar to radical right-wing Latin American activists. Vivanco regularly refers to the Nicaragua’s democratically elected government in Spanish as a “regime” and “dictatorship,” for example.
“You can’t negotiate with the blood-soaked dictatorship of Ortega and Murillo,” Vivanco tweeted in March 2019. “On the contrary, you have to double down on the sanctions.”
A few days later, in a softball interview with the corporate media monolith Univision, Vivanco insisted, “The only language that Daniel Ortega understands is sanctions and international pressure.” (He has repeated this hardline position numerous times.
Like his boss in New York, Ken Roth, Vivanco occasionally offers tepid criticism of the US and its allies. But his focus on leftist governments under siege by the US is clearly disproportionate. A survey of the HRW Americas director’s Twitter feed shows he says comparatively little about Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, and Bolivia — all authoritarian right-wing governments that oversee horrific human rights abuses on a regular basis. Yet Vivanco launches hysterical broadsides against the left-wing leaders of Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and even Mexico on a daily basis.
Vivanco frequently shares hardline op-eds from Nicaragua’s right-wing media outlets. He even amplifies press releases from the country’s opposition groups, like the US government-backed Civic Alliance, tweeting their call for sanctions — giving the HRW stamp of approval to these extreme right-wing political forces.
HRW and Vivanco lobby for more sanctions on Venezuela
Nicaragua is not the only country where Human Rights Watch has lobbied for economic warfare.
HRW also has a long history of extreme bias against Venezuela and its leftist Chavista government.
Executive director Kenneth Roth frequently condemns President Nicolás Maduro as “autocratic,” while Americas director José Miguel Vivanco calls routinely for expanding sanctions on Venezuela and its officials.
When the Trump administration expanded its already suffocating sanctions on Venezuela in September 2018, Vivanco cheered. “Today’s sanctions against the Maduro regime are very revealing of the political isolation of the government and its lack of legitimacy,” he wrote.
In June 2019, two months after a report by leading economists found that at least 40,000 Venezuelan civilians had already died due to the US sanctions, Vivanco turned up the heat.
Repeating much of the same neoconservative rhetoric he employed against Nicaragua, the HRW Americas director called for European governments to follow Trump’s lead.
“Targeted sanctions is the only language Maduro seems to understand. Time for European nations to impose them,” Vivanco tweeted.
Back in July 2017, the Trump administration cracked down aggressively on Venezuela, hitting it with severe sanctions.
Vivanco welcomed the economic assault, demonizing Venezuela’s democratically elected President Nicolás Maduro as a “dictator.”
Vivanco has even used Venezuela to attack prominent left-wing intellectuals, such as Noam Chomsky. Taking a hardline neoconservative position, Vivanco tweeted, “Ideology has made Chomsky and friends say some nonsense about Venezuela.”
“There’s no democracy in [Venezuela],” Vivanco declared. “The problem in [Venezuela] is not ‘polarization’ (it’s that the regime oppresses dissent).”
The leading “human rights” official also doubled down on his staunch support for sanctions, declaring, “US/Canada sanctions do not harm the poor (but are targeted to specific officials).”
This demonstrably false claim has been debunked by credible international human rights experts, who have warned that the international sanctions on Venezuela prevent the country from importing medicine and medical equipment, because the government is locked out of the financial system and cannot do business with companies that fear being hit with secondary sanctions by Washington.
But Vivanco’s thirst for the destruction of Venezuela’s government is so extreme he has attacked United Nations human rights experts for refusing to toe the line on sanctions.
When the Trump administration hit Venezuela with suffocating sanctions in July 2017, the action was so severe that it led to a response from the UN special rapporteur on on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures, Idriss Jazairy.
Jazairy released an official statement in his capacity as the UN’s top experts on sanctions, stating, “Sanctions would worsen the situation of the people in Venezuela, who are already suffering from crippling inflation and a lack of access to adequate food and medicine.”
These sanctions “can have a particularly devastating impact” of civilians, Jazairy warned.
HRW’s Americas director threw a tantrum in response, attacking the UN special rapporteur and defending the US sanctions.
“Nonsense,” Vivanco tweeted. He claimed the UN expert “fails to distinguish [between] targeted and general sanctions.”
This concern for Venezuelan civilians is “helping Maduro,” the right-wing HRW official declared.
In the process, Vivanco revealed his blatant double standards.
When the Venezuelan government imprisoned the right-wing opposition leader Leopoldo López, who had presided directly over a wave of violence and numerous US-backed coup attempts against the elected Chavista administration, HRW portrayed López as a noble freedom fighter.
Referring to Venezuela’s attorney general, Tarek William Saab, as “just another bureaucrat,” Vivanco harshly condemned the punitive action.
For HRW’s Americas director, Venezuela’s sovereign government does not have the right to crack down on coup-plotters inside its own territory — but the US government and European nations have every right to hit Venezuela with all forms of economic warfare.
Lionizing Ecuador’s repressive right-wing leader Moreno, while demonizing leftist Correa
José Miguel Vivanco’s hypocrisy was also apparent when he held a friendly meeting with the repressive, US-backed leader of Ecuador, Lenín Moreno, in July 2019.
“It was an honor to meet today with President Lenín,” Vivanco said, heaping praise on the US-backed leader.
HRW and Vivanco had little criticism to offer towards the Moreno administration, even as it has systematically rounded up, arrested, purged, and exiled members of the progressive Citizens’ Revolution movement, which was founded by former leftist President Rafael Correa, now Moreno’s implacable enemy and favorite bogeyman.
Moreno has imprisoned numerous democratically elected politicians, including mayors and other senior officials from the Citizens’ Revolution party, liquidating his political opposition. All along, Moreno has enjoyed the staunch backing of the US government, which successfully encouraged him to end the asylum protections afforded to journalist Julian Assange and hand him over to British authorities, violating national and international law.
Moreno’s security forces also killed, wounded, and detained thousands of Ecuadorians protesting neoliberal economic reforms he tried to push through in October.
Instead of criticizing the overtly repressive Moreno government in Ecuador, Vivanco has praised it. And at the same moment, Vivanco has even referred to Ecuador’s former democratically elected President Correa as “authoritarian,” with no explanation whatsoever as to how he violated democratic norms.
As with Nicaragua and Venezuela, Vivanco has adopted the most extreme position of Ecuador’s right-wing. “Lenín and Correa are like water and oil,” he asserted. “One [Correa] is an autocrat; the other [Lenín], a democrat. One is a messianic narcissist; the other, a leader who listens.”
For any other so-called human rights organization on the planet, such transparent double standards would cause a fatal crisis of credibility.
But for Human Rights Watch, a billionaire-backed regime-change-lobbying organization that supports coups against elected governments, hypocrisy is the inevitable outgrowth of constantly catering to Washington.
Posted July 6, 2020