#12 power
Wenzel Michalski / Sarah Klein

Interview: The Long Path From the Transparent Citizen to the Transparent State

Shouldn’t the term "power" cause an immediate work-related defensive reaction in human rights activists? We talked to the German Director of Human Rights Watch, Wenzel Michalski, about "good" and "bad" exercises of power.

Mr Michalski, when you hear the term "power" – given your profession, can you see any positive aspects of it?

Of course! You have to selectively apply power to enforce human rights internationally.


Through advocacy. That means we talk to the responsible officials at the ministries and try to convince them that Germany has a strong voice in the EU. This voice can make itself heard in countries that abuse human rights and convince them to limit or stop their practices.

Do you talk to the ministries directly at a ministerial level?

At all levels. A lot of conversations take place at a working level, but some at the ministerial management level, of course, where we talk directly to state secretaries and ministers.

How much power does Human Rights Watch really have?

Our power consists primarily in the power of information. We have the facts; we have the data that we pass on to media around the world. That is how we exert pressure on the public and more importantly on those in power. Human Rights Watch is active internationally. We research and publish data. Our expertise is very much in demand; we are often invited to take part in discussions and asked to give our opinion. So our work seems anything but futile. And if we are not invited someplace important, we simply invite ourselves to events. It is very hard to measure our influence quantitatively, of course, but if we had only achieved very little in the past, we probably wouldn't still be around today.

You mentioned expertise that is in demand – what exactly does this consist of?

This includes advising diplomats who want to prepare to meet with representatives from countries in which human rights violations occur. We brief them about all the problems and issues and provide background information on how the situation has developed. We also give them detailed ideas on how to approach these topics so as to effect change.

Could you give us an example of how the intervention of Human Rights Watch has directly brought about a change in behaviour?

I can think of one example that surely saved a lot of lives: our colleagues in Libya saw the rebels – the anti-Gaddafi coalition at the time –about to set land mines. We repeatedly requested meetings with the rebels and pressed them hard not to do it. After all, the one thing the rebellion was not supposed to do was repeat the actions of the Gaddafi regime. Ultimately the revolutionaries agreed that they would not be doing themselves any favours by using the mines, and stopped. This spared the Libyan people a great deal of suffering.

Has the NSA affair played a role in your work?

Yes, that is definitely a big issue for us. But it was long before Edward Snowdon blew the whistle. We were instrumental in organising an internet and human rights conference here in Germany. It resulted in Germany joining the Online Freedom Coalition this past spring and promising to work to protect human rights on the internet.

What will that look like?

I should add that this topic had been completely ignored in Germany up till then. By entering the coalition, Germany has agreed to uphold human rights on the internet. So we can demand that they "ante up" and ask the government not to send surveillance technology to certain governments. And not to regulate data transfers in general so as to ensure not only that surveillance technology doesn't end up in the wrong hands, but that our personal data are secure too.  Let's take critical bloggers for example: in some countries people who publically express criticism suffer severe repression – including imprisonment, torture and murder.

Since 2009 more people have died for online criticism than for offline activism.

Why would Germany be able to exert any influence in this area?

Quite simply because the surveillance software is largely developed in and exported from Germany. We are demanding that both the Ministry of Economics and the Foreign Office regulate the export of this so-called dual technology. There needs to be a blacklist for countries with a history of persecution of bloggers and other activists.

But there are very simple algorithms behind these technologies that search pages for defined keywords. This is and approach software developers around the world could adapt very easily. If Germany no longer exports this software, another country will and the problem is not solved, right?

That's true. But it is completely unacceptable for Germany to export this software, then turn around and demand that other countries respect human rights. Germany should be a safe haven for foreign human rights activists on principle. In Vietnam, for example, bloggers are often imprisoned. Germany could offer them asylum or the opportunity to operate in a secure environment by teaching online activists encryption technology, for example. We are in constant communication with the respective embassies to sensitise them to this issue.

A government has to ensure its actions are transparent, not create transparent citizens.

But the "transparent citizen" has also become a reality here in Europe, especially in Germany…

I agree. In order to maintain a believable status in the world, Germany has to function as a trailblazer and model at home. This includes dealing with the data of its citizens responsibly and sensitively. A government has to ensure its actions are transparent, not create transparent citizens.

How do you feel about Russia putting itself forward as a supporter of human rights in the case of Snowdon?

That is a case of a country misusing respect for human rights in its power games. We see that a lot: a state that pays little attention to upholding human rights inside its own borders turns around and accuses its critics: "Look what is happening in your own country – do you respect religious freedom? Why do you still have the death penalty? Look at how you spy on your own citizens. Take a look at yourselves; you're no better than we are, etc." This is happening more and more often and getting increasingly aggressive. The weaknesses of the countries who dare to express criticise are mercilessly itemised.

That is what I mean when I argue that countries like Germany and Great Britain have to act as models – in order to be able be criticise others, we need to ensure that everything is right and proper at home.

But couldn't you use Russia's new position as a tactical converse argument?

Sure. And we are. This particular case is the ideal moment to confront Russia by saying: "You have offered this man asylum. Please make sure that everyone fighting for more transparency on the internet inside your own borders is afforded the same protections." This sort of thing lends itself to very good tactical use.

How receptive is someone like Putin to such arguments?

A lot bounces right off him, but he is not entirely immune to such arguments. Someone like Putin is also invested in not being tarred with the same brush as countries like North Korea and other thug states. But you need to come from a position of power to have any influence at all on people like him.

Certain insights are backed less by true liberalisation and more by hard, fast economic interests.

Who occupies such power positions?

The Russian middle class in part. They have their little holiday home in France, their loft in Berlin, do business with the West, and are not at all interested in being viewed critically and treated like hicks by their neighbours or business partners because of the actions of their government. Sometimes certain insights are backed less by true liberalisation and more by hard, fast economic interests.

Who are the most powerful players worldwide?

Still the US government regardless of how much its image has been tarnished recently. But this position is being undermined by Guantanamo and the NSA. If the EU would speak with one voice, it would occupy a very powerful position. Best example: When Chancellor Merkel criticized Putin, the EU could have formed a unified front behind her. But since there are internal quarrels and infighting among the states, this opportunity to take a powerful stance went unutilized.

So the traditional distribution of power still applies?

No, a shift of power has been underway for a few years now. Brazil, for example, is a very interesting player for us right now since it is currently taking pre-eminence in the fight for human rights in Latin America and took a very clear stance during the whole NSA affair. Brazil's President Rousseff even cancelled a planned visit to the USA in mid-September in protest.

And Brazil is not alone: we also see South Africa and India as countries whose international influence is on the rise.

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