No, HRW and Amnesty International Don’t Ignore Labor Rights

No, HRW and Amnesty International Don’t Ignore Labor Rights

I have often chided David Bernstein for his misrepresentation of the work done by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, so it is only fair to call out progressives when they, too, distort that work.  Political Animal, which is associated with the Washington Monthly, is one of my favorite progressive blogs.  But a recent post by Kathleen Geier that claims HRW and Amnesty ignore labor rights is painfully inaccurate:

I have long wondered why the major human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have never seemed to pay the slightest attention to labor rights, even though, to their credit, over the years these organizations have expanded their scope to include nontraditional human rights areas like women’s rights, disability rights, GLBTQ rights, and the like. How did that come to be, I wondered?

Well, I don’t have to wonder any more, after having read Mark Ames’ amazing blog post on (H/T: Corey Robin).

Ames definitely has the goods. No, it’s not our imagination, the human rights groups could not have more contempt for the concept of labor rights if they tried:

Go to Amnesty International’s home page at On the right side, under “Human Rights Information” you’ll see a pull-down menu: “by topic.” Does labor count as a “Human Rights topic” in Amnesty’s world? I counted 27 “topics” listed by Amnesty International, including “Abolish the death penalty”, “Indigenous Peoples”, “ “Children and Human Rights” and so on. Nowhere do they have “labor unions” despite the brutal, violent experience of labor unions both here and around the world. It’s not that Amnesty’s range isn’t broad: For example, among the 27 topics there are “Women’s rights”, “Stop Violence Against Women” and “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity”. There’s even a topic for “Business and Human Rights”—but nothing for labor.

Geier goes on to say that Human Rights Watch is no better — a claim that Mark Ames explains as follows:

Checking Human Rights Watch’s homepage (, there’s a tab listing “topics”—14 topics in all. Once again, labor is not listed among Human Rights Watch’s covered “topics.” Instead, Human Rights Watch lists everything from “Children’s Rights” to “Disability Rights” to “LGBT Rights” and “Women’s Rights”—along with “Terrorism”, “Counterterrorism” and, I shit you not, “Business”—as vital human rights topics. But not labor. “Business”—but not “Labor.”

If you go to Human Rights Watch’s “topics” page — instead of the abbreviated “topics” tab — you will find numerous topics that are directly relevant to labor rights: “Extractive Industries,” “Corporations,” “World Bank/IMF,” “Child Labor,” “Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights,” “Migrants,” “Workers, Forced Labor, and Trafficking” (!), and “Domestic Workers.”  Each topic contains multiple HRW reports and press releases concerning labor rights; the current topics page, for example, includes entries such as Kazakhstan: Ensure Fair Trial for Oil Workers, OthersLabor Department Abandons Child Farmworkers; Uruguay: First to Ratify Domestic Workers Convention; Singapore: Domestic Workers to Get Weekly Day of Rest; Qatar: Migrant Construction Workers Face Abuse; The Invisibility of Domestic Workers; and Asia/Middle East: Increase Protections for Migrant Workers.  And, of course, the “Business” topic — which Ames dishonestly implies is concerned with the rights of businesses — includes numerous labor-rights oriented entries, such as India: Mining Industry Out of Control.

Ames and Geier also significantly misrepresent Amnesty’s work.  Neither mentions that one of the 27 entries in Amnesty’s topic menu is “Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.”  Nor do they mention that Amnesty’s explanation of that topic includes this statement:

Economic, social and cultural rights are a broad category of human rights guaranteed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and other legally binding international and regional human rights treaties. Nearly every country in the world is party to a legally binding treaty that guarantees these rights. They include:

  • rights at work, particularly just and fair conditions of employment, protection against forced or compulsory labour and the right to form and join trade unions;

And, of course, neither mentions that if you search the Amnesty website for “labor union” or “trade union,” you get literally hundreds of results like these: Kazakhstan: Public figure on trial for defending strikers; Iran must release imprisoned trade unionists; Colombia: Security fears for peasant farmers’ leader; Guatemala: Trade union leader killed, others in danger; Nigeria: Release Labour Activists; Colombia: Further information: Organizations and unions threatened; Warning on Fiji government plan to severely restrict workers’ rights; and so on.

If progressives want to criticize HRW and Amnesty, that’s their right.  But they could at least get their facts straight.  These kinds of misrepresentations are simply unforgivable.

PS.  If you want to be entertained, check out my “comment” on Ames’ post at The Exiled, which the blog has — without notifying me — decided to completely rewrite.  Apparently, because I once did some work for HRW, I have a conflict of interest that makes me HRW’s “internet troll” and disqualifies me from pointing out that Ames completely misrepresents HRW’s work.  Why I am unfit to point out that Ames also completely misrepresents Amnesty’s work is never explained.  What a sad stunt.  Apparently, the blog doesn’t want to be taken seriously.

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International Human Rights Law, Organizations, Trade & Economic Law
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An eXiled reader clocking in. What I, and probably Ames, noticed is that there is a massive lack of American and European-focused content on labor unions. In your own list of article titles, I’ve realized I’m supposed to be concerned about the oppression of labor in Qatar, Colombia, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Guatemala, and Fiji. What about our own problems here? This world consciousness is admirable but by ignoring the massive labor issues at home that need attention and support, your organization characterizes itself as the type of progressives that would rather take the easy way, collecting pocket change and waving banners about issues distant from the average person’s mind and heart here rather than fighting for something with a much more direct impact. In the view of Ames and the eXile, or at least my interpretation of it, suppression of labor rights in dictatorships like Kazakhstan and Qatar is to be expected as normal, the predictable way in which authoritarian governments maintain their hold over the country. It’s in democratic (or at least nominally democratic) nations like the USA where these rights can actually be defended effectively if people are informed and motivated well enough…something organizations like the ACLU and HRW… Read more »