Vol. 19 No. 8 (August, 2009) pp.585-586
AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL AND U.S. FOREIGN POLICY: HUMAN RIGHTS CAMPAIGNS IN GUATEMALA, THE UNITED STATES, AND CHINA, by Maria T. Baldwin. El Paso: LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC, 2009. 306pp. Cloth $75.00. ISBN: 9781593323295.
Reviewed by Lawrence M. Friedman, Law School, Stanford University. Email: LMF [at] law.stanford.edu.
This book, by Maria T. Baldwin, adds to the literature of the human rights movement by focusing on three campaigns of Amnesty International. These campaigns were “designed to encourage the United States to construct policies befitting a human rights leader” (p.35). A close examination of the three campaigns, Baldwin believes, would help to “gauge AI’s effectiveness in elevating the human rights issue for U.S. policymakers and its citizens.” The three case-studies chosen were the campaigns to improve human rights in Guatemala, in the United States itself (with regard to the death penalty), and in mainland China.
The three case-studies are somewhat curious choices, in the light of the book’s professed goal – that is, to show how AI influenced the policies of the government of the United States. Yes, AI struggled to raise consciousness about the appalling human rights conditions in Guatemala, as one wretched regime after another crushed opposition forces, destroyed villages of indigenous peoples, and either tolerated or supported the notorious death squads. Yes, AI fought hard to mobilize opinion against the death penalty in the United States. And it raised its voice against human rights abuses in China. Baldwin thinks these three campaigns were successes, at least in a limited way; that AI indeed “influenced the policy environment in the United States” (p.35). In Guatemala, for example, Baldwin thinks that AI “made it too difficult to reconcile American values with the continued support of . . . a brutal regime” (p.277). In the United States, there was of course resistance to campaigns to get rid of the death penalty; but AI has “been involved in rallying governments and people to the anti-death penalty campaign for over three decades and the change over those years is significant” (p.280). AI has also been working hard for years to persuade the outside world to act on behalf of political prisoners and dissenters in China; and the release of some prisoners from Chinese prisons suggests that AI “has some impact on the conditions in China” (p.282).
I have to say that I read the story Baldwin tells rather differently. I read it as a story of failure, not success. During the Cold War, the United States was simply not interested in stopping the slaughter in Guatemala; after all, the various military regimes were anti-Communist, and that was enough to excuse anything they did, including the death squads. Similarly, there is a strong argument that AI wasted its time fighting the death penalty in the United States. To be sure, there have been some positive developments in recent [*586] years – the death penalty is less popular than it was, and a few states seem to be moving to abandon it. But it is hard to see that AI had anything to do with these developments. China is hardly a success story either. AI has no actual organization within China (the government will not tolerate such things), and it is “not allowed into the country for the purposes of human rights research” (p.281). All of the pressure has to come from outside. To be sure, the United States every once in a while asks China to please release some political prisoners. At least this is what we are told. Whether the United States government actually presses very hard for human rights reform in China is another question. In general, any claim that AI has been successful or even influential in achieving human rights improvement in China rests on very flimsy evidence indeed.
Baldwin’s implicit reply to these objections would be that she is not in fact arguing for a “direct cause and effect relationship between AI’s work and U.S. policy.” Rather, AI has made an effort to influence public opinion; and public opinion is a crucial factor that affects the behavior of the U.S. government (p.39). This effect is certainly possible, but of course cannot be proven. Somehow I doubt that AI’s role in this chain of events has been very significant. AI of course often has little choice but to pursue this goal – that is, to try to get the United States government involved. Guatemala, for example, was closely tied to the United States, and the best chance to get Guatemala to stop the killings was to persuade the United States to put pressure on Guatemala. For a long time, however, the American government was unwilling to lift a finger to help.
My skepticism does not mean that I found the three case-studies uninteresting or unimportant. But they do show AI battering its head (so to speak) against a stone wall. Amnesty is probably least effective when it tries to achieve results with regard to big powers like China (or the United States). Guatemala is hardly a big power; but in the context of the cold war it was able to operate with impunity under the protection of Uncle Sam.
Amnesty is, to be sure, a wholly admirable institution. It spends enormous amounts of time, energy, and money fighting against injustice and political oppression throughout the world. And it certainly does make a difference – but mostly not in big powerful countries. When some small-bore dictator throws a human rights worker into prison, or causes the leader of the democratic opposition to “disappear,” Amnesty will try to come to the rescue. It galvanizes its membership. Irate letters and telegrams flood the dictator’s in-box. It subjects the dictator and his regime to the pitiless glare of publicity. And the publicity in many cases does save the victim’s life, or his skin, and sets him free.
Baldwin’s book – even though I tend to doubt one of its major premises – is valuable as a chronicle of how Amnesty operates, against the backdrop of three difficult situations. It tells three interesting and significant stories. It thus adds to our understanding of the human rights movement, and one of the most active and important of the NGO’s that labor in this field.
© Copyright 2009 by the author, Lawrence M. Friedman.