April 11, 2024

Rahul Goswami on the UN and “The Human-Rights Establishment”

To the Editors:

Danielle Haas’s essay “The Human-Rights Establishment” shone a rare light into the inner workings of the international values-and-narratives complex. Human Rights Watch, the organization where she worked for years, is not alone as an NGO or advocacy group that applies standards to others while possessing few of its own.

As a former UNESCO expert on intangible cultural heritage in Asia, my own attempts to inject some balance into exchanges on 7 October and its aftermath on an email list about cultures frequented by European and American academics were met with ridicule and abuse. As Haas has written, “In a conceptual universe where Israel is an occupier-colonizer-apartheid state, it is a priori the aggressor.”

Haas has written of the ease with which these organizations — not just NGOs and advocacy groups, but also media organizations and United Nations agencies — blast out, day after day, fictional and grossly destructive broadcasts. These actors fear no corrective agency because there appears to be none up to the task. As she says, they are unaccountable to all and, I would add, have been allowed to place themselves beyond the pale of any kind of scrutiny and critical examination.

Which must nevertheless be done and done well. Of the actors, I would say the most dangerous and insidious are the UN agencies. My experience with them extends back some 20 years, of which during the last 13 I was associated most closely with UNESCO, its culture section. For every single agency with which I had any sort of connection — UNESCO, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN Development Program (UNDP), the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the UN Climate Change program (UNFCCC) — rights-obsessed ideology was (and very much is) part of their consideration of themselves, the world, and their place in the world.

What this obsession has led to is development “through the lens” of women’s rights, child’s rights, indigenous rights, migrant rights, and so on. Cultural heritage “through the lens” of these rights, food and agriculture “through the lens” of these rights, health and medicine “through the lens” of these rights, education “through the lens” of these rights, climate “through the lens” of these rights.

Whether or not these have any validity in any target population for a UN program is a separate matter, but my field experience is that when it comes to helping or aiding development, insisting on rights of any kind being part of the plan makes it more confusing, at best, and even contentious at times. In cultural fieldwork, this leads to all sorts of problems because cultural heritage has clearly defined roles for male and female, and forcing females to don male roles is not a “victory” in communities that value their traditions. It’s much the same with development work. To give you an example, both the UNFCCC and FAO claim that climate change impacts women farmers disproportionately. This is rubbish, because smallholder farming the world over is a family activity.

The UN and its agencies, I emphatically posit, is the source of authority and legitimacy for all those organizations that Haas has named. For their mendacity and chronic corruption to be remedied, the source must be dealt with.

Rahul Goswami

Goa, India