Encouraging Rebels to Honor Human Rights

The challenges of getting armed rebels to comply with international human rights law was the topic of a talk by James Ross, the legal and policy director of Human Rights Watch, a New York-based international organization, who spoke to students and faculty on September 26.

 For many years, human rights groups ignored non-state actors, focusing exclusively on the actions of governments. “But by the 1980s, this became untenable,” Ross said. “You had Human Rights Watch criticizing the Salvadoran government, for example, but saying nothing about the abuses by rebels.”

In recent years, Human Rights Watch and similar organizations have focused increasingly on non-state actors, armed groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka — to name just a few. Some respond to direct lobbying. “If they think they are going to rule someday, they may be more mindful of keeping down the atrocities,” Ross said. “Some also may fear prosecution by an international court."

But many rebel groups are unlikely to be swayed by human rights arguments. Thus, Human Rights Watch tries to persuade rebel supporters, including their financers, to distance themselves from human rights violators. “If you try to tell the Tamil Tigers they shouldn’t be blowing people up, it’s futile,” Ross said. “It’s much more effective to target the Tamil backers in the diaspora, who are sending money back to Sri Lanka. The same goes for Al-Qaeda and their supporters in the Arab world.”

Though he is a lawyer, Ross said his organization’s accomplishments have little to do with “fancy legal arguments.” Rather, it is Human Rights Watch’s ability to gain access to hostile areas, dig up facts and report on abuses that make a difference.

Still, it is difficult to gauge the organization’s success in a world in which human rights violations continue to be so common, Ross said. “One of our greatest accomplishments, I think, was being the first organization to put the spotlight on the situation in Darfur. But then you look at how bad it’s gotten since then, and it’s fair to wonder just how successful our efforts have been.”

Ross, introduced by Peter Rosenblum, the Lieff, Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein Clinical Professor in Human Rights, was the second speaker in the Human Rights Institute’s speaker series.