International Federation for Human Rights

Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l’homme - Comments

3) The networking

-Until 2001, the FIDH had no correspondent in the US, not to mention affiliated members. When it was reorganised in 1948, it missed an important opportunity with the International League for Human Rights. Since then, the FIDH has lost some ground in the international arenas, especially in front of the growing influence of American organisations such as Human Rights Watch. The French LDH, for instance, historically one of the main pillars of the FIDH, only has 6,000 members, against 12,000 in 1954, 20,000 in 1948 and 177,000 in 1933. Its militants are also getting older: according to a survey, more than one half of its local officials in the 1980-1990s were older than fifty. But the number of member organisations of the FIDH is rising (88 in 1995, 105 in 1997, 116 in 2001), including leagues in exile in 2003, whether in France for the Vietnam, Iran and Cameroon ones, or in the United States for the Chinese one. The opening of Eastern Europe and Central Asia strengthened the movement after the fall of the Berlin wall, which saw a new generation of human rights activists relaying former dissidents who had decided to participate to post-Soviet governments. The internationalisation of the Federation has also made it possible to be more independent from the French LDH, which for a long time remained preponderant because of its moral weight and its capacity of action, with a budget almost equal to that of the FIDH in 2000. The executive got internationalised as well. For the first time in 2000, the Federation elected a non-French chairman, the Senegalese lawyer Sidiki Kaba, who took over Patrick Baudoin (1996-2000), Daniel Jacoby (1986-1996), Michel Blum (1983-1986), Daniel Mayer (1977-1983)… and Victor Basch (1926-1944), who also chaired the French LDH.
-Yet, the geographical repartition of the Federation throughout the world is indicative of the differences of human rights cultures in the Anglophone and Francophone spheres of influence. In fact, even if it started early working in favour of women’s rights, the French LDH, in particular, does not recognise itself in the impartial defence of “human rights”, a concept which “repudiates the word man”, or of the “rights of the person”, “a vision which leaves politics and the citizen behind”. According to the League, it’s not the rights which are “human”, but the Humanity who has rights. As for the “rights of the human person”, it’s a pleonasm: every person is human, except if these rights are considered to be God-given. Because the French LDH is deeply secular, it refuses to follow the Catholic Church philosophy and talk about “rights of the person”. The League has a universal and civic understanding of rights which include social and economic aspects and are not limited to the physical or humanitarian protection of individuals. With a logo drawn in the 1980s, representing a Phrygian cap for Freedom, a pair of scales for Equality and a branch of olive tree for Fraternity, the organisation is directly inspired from the 1789 human rights declaration, whose second article claims the right of “resistance to oppression”. It tries to fight injustices, arbitrary actions and the abuses of power, which brings it to focus on authoritarian regimes rather than on armed movements within civil wars. “A guilty conscience of the Republic”, the French LDH states it is political, not humanitarian or charitable. It takes positions on the abuses it reports and, like Human Rights Watch, it suggests solutions. Its president in 1977, Henri Noguères, used to criticize Amnesty International for restricting its activities to individuals, giving “a good conscience to the petty bourgeoisie” and refusing “to analyse the deep causes of violations of human rights in a country”.
-The way the member organisations of the FIDH watch human rights in their own countries has both advantages and drawbacks. The positive point is that it helps and strengthens the structures of the civil society. Unlike Human Rights Watch, which works a bit like an experts’ committee, the FIDH is a network with organisations that already existed before they chose to join the Federation and contribute to it. But these are particularly vulnerable to attempts of repression. Having human rights defended by nationals also presents risks of being partial when a conflict of interests occurs. For instance: the French LDH after the election of François Mitterrand in May 1981 or Jacques Chirac in May 2002, and the LIDHO in Côte d’Ivoire from October 2000. Hence the FIDH cooperated on a ad hoc basis with the CRDDR (Committee for the defence of human rights and democracy in Rwanda). Founded in exile in Brussels by Gasana Ndoba in November 1990, this NGO informed only against the Hutu dominated government of President Juvénal Habyarimana. It did not say a word about human rights violations by the Tutsi-led FPR (Rwandese Patriotic Front), which started to attack the regime in October 1990. According to journalist Pierre Péan, the “international” investigation conducted by the CRDDR and Eric Gillet from the FIDH in January 1993 was very biased. It mentioned 2,000 victims of a massacre but could not locate corpses. Its main investigator in Rwanda was Jean Carbonare, a CIMADE activist who supported the guerrilla and who became its official advisor when the FPR took power by force in July 1994, after the genocide.
-The FIDH could also endorse political reports like the Iranian Students Confederation’s study (in December 1977) of “the repression, the oppression and the terror imposed on our country by the Shah, a criminal puppet of imperialism”. With such terms of references, investigations could not be impartial. Analysing 29 FIDH reports, Hans Thoolen and Berth Verstappen found that one third accused authoritarian regimes of human rights violations even before allegations could be cross-checked on the field.
-However, the absence of a critical distance can be different from the complacency in terms of violations of human rights. The left-wing spirit of the FIDH has not always prevented it from condemning the acts of the Soviet totalitarianism while, in the 1970s, Amnesty International had sometimes a low profile regarding communist regimes. In 2001 for instance, the Federation negotiated the admission of the CCDHRN (Comisión Cubana de Derechos Humanos y Reconciliación Nacional) despite the reserve of its correspondents in Latin America, who thought that recognizing the abuses of Fidel Castro’s dictatorship was like destroying a democratic symbol and playing the game of the United States. In 2004, this Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation published the first study on Fidel Castro’s tropical gulag, which was estimated to keep 100,000 prisoners.
-Rather than a co-ordinating collective body, the FIDH works as an international lobby to relay and support the activities of the member organisations. It can not impose a common planning and strategy to various organisations which do not always share its views. When a civil pact of solidarity (PACS) was launched in France in 2000, allowing homosexual unions, the LDH, for instance, started to advocate for gay and lesbian rights. It wanted to promote educational campaigns against homophobia and political asylums for refugees persecuted because of their sexual orientation. But many members of the FIDH in Africa or Latin America do not agree with this. Likewise, members of the Federation can disagree at the regional level on issues such as the access to drinkable water, considered as a human right. Launched in March 1987 in Dakar and April 1991 in Niamey, for instance, the ONDH (Organisation Nationale des Droits de l'Homme) and the ANDDH (Association Nigérienne pour la Défense des Droits de l'Homme) protested against the privatisation of urban water companies. But the LTDH (Ligue tchadienne des droits de l'homme), which was established in N’djamena in February 1991 and which claims to have 9,000 members, did not follow.
-Under its Parisian head office, the Federation is much more decentralized than Amnesty International in London. Yet it can judge disputes and sanction the organisations involved. Marked by strong tensions respectively with their Venetian and Catalan sections, the Lega Italiana dei Diritti dell’uomo and the Liga Española por la Defensa de los Derechos del Hombre were suspended in 2002 for giving a human rights prize to the Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine ben Ali. The FIDH has a full control during the congresses, every three year, when an international bureau has to be elected, and a decision must be made about keeping a league or taking in a new one. Four procedures allow to act upon organisations that do not correspond anymore to the criteria of the FIDH, in particular in terms of transparency and impartiality: the suspension, the resignation, the exclusion or the reduction from the status of an affiliated member (with a right to vote during the congress) to that of a correspondent (with a mere consultative voice). During the 32nd congress of January 1995 in Madrid, then during the 34th congress of January 2001 in Casablanca, respectively seven and eight correspondent or affiliated organisations vanished from the lists of the Federation, some of them because they were not active, others as they had been recuperated by authoritarian regimes, as in Mauritania or Belarus.
-It is interesting to compare the FIDH with its American equivalent, the ILHR, because their international network share the same problems. In the mid-1970s, the International League for Human Rights had 38 affiliated organisations: 7 in the US, 1 in Canada, 12 in Western Europe, 1 in Russia, only 2 in Latin America, 1 in South Africa, 1 in Mauritius, 1 in Jordan and 7 in Asia. In developing countries, one found NGOs like the International  Human Rights League of Korea, led by Hwal Lee in South Korea, or the Chilean Commission on Human Rights, that the ILHR helped establish in December 1978. Some did not work at all, like the Bangladesh Human Rights Society. But in developed countries, one found the majority of affiliates, i.e. well established NGOs like the ACLU, the Irish Association of Civil Liberty, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Minority Rights Group or the Anti-Slavery Society. All were independent financially and legally. Some even broke away from the League. Hence in New York in 1975, the ILHR had established a special group of young lawyers to consider “class action” legal intervention. This Lawyers Committee on International Human Rights was to become autonomous in 1978 and completely independent in 1980. Today, it has ironically a far larger budget and much bigger staff than its creator, with 42 employees in 1996 and many pro bono voluntary contributions. Its income jumped from $50,000 in 1978 to $750,000 in 1985 and $3,4 million in 1996. After a process of ten years, the Lawyers Committee, which changed its name to Human Rights First in 2004, got a consultative status in ECOSOC in 1991. Every four years since 1988, it conducts a broad survey of human rights aspects of US foreign policy; in 1993, it published its first report on the World Bank and its findings on India’s Sardar Sarovar Dam had the effect of bringing about cancellation of the project…
-Like the FIDH, the ILHR is reluctant to suspend affiliate organisations which do not correspond anymore to the criteria of the movement. As an exception in the beginning of the 1970s, it excluded an Israeli NGO which spoke on its behalf to criticize human rights violations in occupied territories. But it did not sanction the IADF (Inter-American Association for Democracy and Freedom) despite the statements of its General Secretary, Frances Grant, who also sat on the board of the ILHR. Two months after the fall of the Socialist Government of Salvador Allende in 1974, Frances Grant had published a report absolving General Augusto Pinochet of human rights violations (some “Marxist propaganda”) and accusing Cuban guerrillas to have tried to invade Chile with the so-called “Plan Z”. It was only in February 1974 that the IADF eventually regretted the violence of a de facto dictatorship.