On July 4th we had the amazing opportunity to visit Human Rights Watch in which we were given a talk by Andrew Stroehlein, the European Media Director at Human Rights Watch, and briefed on major human rights issues today as well as how the NGO works. Stroehlein began by explaining that HRW does three main things: investigate human rights abuses, expose these abuses and push for change in the areas they are committed.
With this in mind, we began simply by asking questions and received some surprising answers. For instance, we all were taken aback when the UK left the EU on June 23, but we mostly thought of Brexit as an economic and political disaster, not one that would spur human rights abuses. Stroehlein informed us, however, that with Brexit there had been a rise in xenophobic attacks. As one of the reasons the UK left the EU was so that they could control their refugee intake, it makes sense that there is xenophobia in the state. Andrew explained that refugees and such a rise in xenophobia are the two primary issues being dealt with at this point.
As I was interested in how NGO’s can affect change, I asked about the advantages and disadvantages of not having the power a government does as I thought this would make it more difficult to effectively stop human rights violations. The resounding answer was that they have independence and that they don’t have to worry about being reelected. “NGO’s are far more able to speak out. We have the freedom to speak the truth,” Stroehlein said. At first I thought of ceasing human rights abuses as threatening economic strain on a country, but HRW is a large and loud enough organization that when they publish an article detailing the abuses that take place in various countries, the media listens and so the world listens.
The two most interesting topics covered in my opinion were the Czech Republic and the US. In the Czech Republic, refugees were being taken off of trains, had numbers written on their arms and then thrown in jail. This was only a year ago, but nobody was paying any attention for some time. HRW then published an article detailing these abuses and received so much media attention that the policies were dropped within 48 hours. This is fascinating to think about the fact that the organization can affect such huge change in such a short span of time. Stroehlein explained that this was one of the more recent instances in which they saw an instantaneous reaction following an investigation and report.
As for the US, Andrew said many interesting things. Firstly, he spoke of how it’s worrying that US politicians openly endorse torture and carpet bombing as both of these are recognized as human rights abuses and are illegal under international treaties. There is some xenophobia in the US, and so some politicians have appealed to this group. Though they most likely won’t actually carpet bomb an area, it is scary to think that this notion is popular enough to be used in any political rhetoric.
I also asked which country has the most investigative funding going into it, and the answer was that the US has the most articles published on its human rights abuses annually. Stroehlein gave two reasons for this. Firstly, as HRW is a US NGO they are more easily able to look within their own country and identify when individuals’ rights are not being recognized. It was also explained that the human rights abuses in the US are not systematic as they might be in other countries and may be less severe, though HRW doesn’t rank abuses as they are all bad. Most investigation in the US is about domestic issues, but there are still a good number of issues that arise out of how the US projects its power in the international arena.
It is impressive their power to affect change, especially given that they are a staff of 450 covering 100 countries. When asked how they got to be so widely known Stroehlein responded “be big and be loud.” HRW is very good at directing attention towards such abuses, and so they are very effective. This site visit was one of my favorites so far as we learned a great deal, it was a good introduction to our human rights course and Stroehlein was a very interesting speaker.