Do Global Publics View Human Rights Organizations as Handmaidens of the United States?

David Crow, James Ron

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9-35
Number of pages27
JournalPolitical Science Quarterly
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Exhibit A, the critics said, was Tom Malinowski, a senior staffer who had joined HRW in 2001 after seven years working in the U.S. government, returned to government service from 2013 to 2017, and then was elected as a New Jersey congressman in 2018. This and similar cases, the critics said, made HRW appear overly cozy with U.S. officialdom. Given “the impact of global perceptions on HRW's ability to carry out its work,” the letter writers opined, even the “appearance of impropriety” undermined the organization's credibility. Other international human rights organizations (IHROs) have done the same, including Amnesty International, another well‐known group whose “moving closer to the ground” strategy has relocated portions of its International Secretariat from London to cities in the Global South. Major private funders, including the Open Society Foundations and the Ford Foundation, have financially supported these globalization efforts. furthering U.S. geopolitical interests by delegitimizing rivals and promoting liberal‐capitalist ideology, or engaging in global “soft balancing”? All actors in this debate must assume that public opinion is generally on their side; to believe otherwise would be to suggest that HROs have systematically deceived publics worldwide. A handful, moreover, have asked the public for their opinions toward human rights principles. The surveys conducted for the current study, however, are the only ones we know of to ask about attitudes toward HROs and the U.S. government. As a result, we know little of the relationship between the two. In India, Morocco, and Nigeria, we surveyed adults living in and around major financial and political centers (Mumbai, Rabat/Casablanca, and Lagos). In Colombia, Ecuador, and Mexico, by contrast, our surveys were nationally representative (see Appendix B). We hypothesize that publics do not regard HROs as allies of U.S. foreign policy; instead, we expect them to view rights organizations either as geopolitical neutrals or as counterhegemons. Statistical analysis of our survey data offers support for this claim; in four of the six locales we investigated and in our pooled, all‐country sample, public trust in local HROs (LHROs) is negatively and significantly associated with trust in the U.S. government. The same is true for IHROs in our three Latin American cases and in the pooled sample. As our hypothesis predicted, in none of our cases across world regions is public trust in HROs positively associated with public trust in the U.S. government. These findings cumulatively support our expectation that publics do not view HROs as “handmaidens” of U.S. imperialism. If people are likely to view HROs as neutral or opposed to U.S. primacy, they will do so here. Controlling for other relevant factors, we find exactly that: public mistrust in the U.S. government in Colombia, Ecuador, and Mexico is indeed significantly associated with greater in both LHROs and IHROs. The relationship between trust in HROs and in the U.S. government, in other words, is inverse. Extending our investigation to three other world regions offers a more demanding test, given their broader array of cultural, religious, historical, and geostrategic conditions. Still, even outside Latin America we found no positive associations between trust in the U.S. government and trust in HROs.

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