(The following is a preliminary discussion of concerns regarding Kerry Kennedy's human rights work. Further analysis regarding her policy stances (or lack thereof) and the human rights concerns associated with her corporate sponsors and family endeavors will be forthcoming. The interested reader is referred to previous reports from Nonprofit Watch critical of the RFK Memorial and the Kennedy family's close tie to the vice-chair of Nike.)
As Kerry Kennedy Cuomo celebrates the release of her new human rights book Speak Truth to Power with sundry events, including a Kennedy Center dramatization, Nonprofit Watch raises serious concerns regarding her human rights work. By all means, Kerry Kennedy is to be applauded for attaching her celebrity to the causes of the human rights activists featured in her book and for assisting the activists in attaining a wider audience.
In spite of this laudable project, Nonprofit Watch finds it problematic that Kerry Kennedy is intertwined with powerful economic and political forces that place other interests before attention to human rights. Nonprofit Watch charges that these close ties have muted if not undermined her work, preventing her from utilizing the full capacities of her position to represent the concerns of the activists in her book and to advance the cause of human rights. Where is Kerry Kennedy's courage on the issues below that would place her in opposition to the powerful forces with which she has close ties? Instead, the best she offers is opposition by proxy by raising the stature of the activists she acclaims without fully joining them in courageous struggle for human.
AOL and Reebok's CEO, Board Chair, and top stockholder Paul Fireman are two of the top three funders of the Kennedy Center dramatization of Kerry's book. Both AOL and Reebok benefit from free trade policies unencumbered by human rights requirements. A public relations firm for the event is Edelman Public Relations Worldwide whose clients in recent years have included Nike, Unocal, U.S. businesses intent on securing Most Favored Nation status for China, the Chinese government, and the democratically defective Kazakhstan government. In light of the event's donors and p.r. team, it would seem that we are witnessing human rights subservient to powerful interests rather than challenging them.
Financial donors to the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial out of which operates Kerry Kennedy's Center for Human Rights include Nike, The GAP, Levi-Strauss, and Coca-Cola -- firms that carry out business in China and other repressive countries and that have supported Permanent Normalized Trade Relations(PNTR) for China -- a position opposed by the International Campaign for Tibet and other human rights activists and groups with which she has been affiliated. Coinciding with these dubious donors and connections, Kerry has been utterly silent about PNTR (as well as other trade agreements like NAFTA) and has never challenged the above companies regarding their role in China and other nations that abuse human rights, though she has gotten on the easy soapbox of denouncing the Chinese regime. In this light of her funders, her speaking out at a rally outside the White House on the occasion of a state visit by the Chinese premier appears like empty posturing.
Activists featured in the book Speak Truth to Power have denounced and been adversely effected by free trade agreements about which Kerry is silent -- her silence conveniently favors the corporate interests underwriting her work. Harry Wu and Wei Jing Sheng have opposed PNTR for China. In fact Wu appeared at an anti-PNTR press conference with the National Labor Committee's Charlie Kernaghan. At the event, criticism was directed at Nike and Kathie Lee Gifford, a financial supporter and relative, respectively, of Kerry Kennedy. Wu commented that "American partners [in China] are more than willing to look the other way [regarding human rights abuses]." Note that in the many months that PNTR has been before Congress, Kerry has been remarkably silent on the matter. In regards to another person, Mexican attorney Digna Ochoa, featured in the book, the JustEarth project of the Sierra Club and Amnesty International points out that NAFTA adversely impacted the situation of environmentalists that have been represented by Digna Ochoa; subsequent to representing the environmentalists, Digna was kidnapped and beaten.
Another activist featured in the book is nobelist Jose Ramos Horta who has denounced Nike for ruthlessly exploiting its employees; its "shoes are made at the cost of slave labor" stated the Nobel laureate. He has also in the past called for economic sanctions against Indonesia similar to the ones carried out against South Africa in the 80's. He asked for support of Clinton and the U.S. Congress in this effort. Regarding Nike and economic sanctions towards Indonesia, Kerry Kennedy has never raised a peep -- all too convenient when Nike is funding your family charity and the vice-chair of Nike is a friend of the family.
In 1998, the RFK Memorial presented the "Ripple of Hope" Award to media billionaire and Kennedy family friend Sumner Redstone, chairman of Viacom. Besides being a leading supporter of PNTR with China, Sumner demonstrated his "courage" at the 1999 Fortune Global Forum in Shanghai. There he pronounced that "Our job is not to impose on a country like China our culture, but if we do business in China to be aware of the specific sensitivities [and] you can rest assured we are not going to take any action with respect to our content that is displeasing to the Chinese government." Sumner was looking to cut a deal to bring MTV to China (don't expect Tibet Freedom concerts to be shown). While Sumner was denounced by some journalists for this kowtowing to the Chinese regime, neither Kerry nor other human rights groups dared criticized Sumner's pathetic agenda. Perhaps their silence is on account of the fact that Sumner's media outlet CBS and its news show 60 Minutes fund a variety of human rights groups; additionally, human rights organizations depend on the media to give them press, thus it would be awkward to tangle with the chairman of such a large media outlet. Instead of "Ripple of Hope" award, it would seem that Sumner deserves the "Drip of Hope Award."
Kerry's ties to the corporate media -- Viacom and AOL -- are ironic in that the subservience of these media to their advertisers weakens the ability of those concerned with human rights to gain a hearing for their issues of concern. Too much negative information could turn off advertisers and consumers. Advertisers are the very corporations that also benefit from human rights concerns being ignored or given limited attention in news coverage. Consider the paucity of television stories regarding the human rights violations associated with the oil industry in light of the massive advertising campaigns conducted by gasoline companies on network television. Moreover, public interest groups are disadvantaged by high advertising costs.
Other donors to the RFK Memorial have included Chevron -- bane of human rights activists and environmentalists, and Glencore (trading firm in oil and other commodities). Furthermore, her brothers have been actively engaged in the oil business in Nigeria, Angola, Ecuador and elsewhere. No surprise, until now, Kerry and the RFK Memorial have never actively challenged the oil industry which has been linked to gross abuses of human and environmental rights around the world, including the countries where her brothers have actively pursued business deals.
Kerry Kennedy is a board member of Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, a group whose board and governing councils is filled with corporate lawyers and corporate executives -- both interests that benefit from a weak human rights movement and trade agreements that ignore human rights.
In the past, the Kennedys denounced the immorality of the Reagan administration for its policies of constructive engagement towards South Africa and against divestment from that country. Yet there has been no moral indignation towards Clinton for his support of constructive engagement towards Nigeria and other countries. Moreover, the Clinton administration actively opposed efforts to install a selective purchasing law related to Nigeria in Maryland and supported the business sector in the challenge of the Massachusetts Burma Law, thereby attacking the very technique whereby municipalities and universities acted to try to pressure the South African government to end apartheid in the 80's. Where's the outrage Kerry?
The Clinton administration has an abysmal record on human rights. William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International U.S., has described the Clinton administration's human rights policy as one that is only strong in situations where powerful economic interests are not challenged. Recently Clinton's human rights policy towards Africa was described as "superior in its mediocrity" by an African policy staffer of Amnesty. Where is Kerry Kennedy in her role as a director of Amnesty and leader in the human rights community in holding Clinton accountable for his poor record? Is it that human rights is only to be used to strongly criticize and campaign against politicians when their party affiliation is different from your own?
Kerry Kennedy's sister is lieutenant governor of Maryland and a supporter of the death penalty. Amnesty International strongly opposes the death penalty. Imagine the discourse that would be sparked if Kerry where to challenge her sister's stance or that of other Democratic Party candidates that Kerry endorses. However such engagement might prove to be embarrassing for Kerry and her family and add tension to family relations -- yet would it not be courageous?
Kerry, through her husband Andrew Cuomo, aspires to be first lady of New York (a position that would be gained at the expense of NY State Comptroller John McCall who would be New York's first black governor). Andrew's candidacy would be hurt if his wife were to actively challenge corporate, Wall Street, and political interests who put business pursuits before respect of human rights.
Kerry has in the past expressed the view that environmental rights are human rights. Thus it seems odd that she has tolerated that major polluters like Chevron and Waste Management fund her family's charity The RFK Memorial. The Kennedy's often like to associate themselves with helping the downtrodden -- in fact the RFK Memorial gives out media awards to writers covering issues related to poverty and social justice. Yet Chevron and Waste Management have been strongly criticized for environmental injustice. Moreover, Chevron faces lawsuits on grounds of human rights violations.
In regards to Waste Management, perhaps it is fitting that the company underwrites Kerry's family charity. If she were to become first lady of New York, she would be in league with Giuliani in sending garbage down to Virginia. As she currently lives in Maclean, Va., perhaps Virginians should lobby her now before she heads for New York and partakes in the trashing of their state.
Sweatshop interests Nike, Gap and Levi Strauss have funded the RFK Memorial. Reebok's chair is a major funder of the Kennedy Center dramatization of Kerry's book. The vice-chair of Nike is a close associate of the Kennedy family. Furthermore, an in-law of the Kennedy family is Kathie Lee Gifford, the subject of criticism from anti-sweatshop activists. In spite of these conflicts of interest, the RFK memorial has sat on the board of the Fair Labor Association(FLA) pretending to represent civil society when clearly the Memorial is too closely connected with the garment manufacturers. Whereas in the 80's the Kennedys were aligned with the student anti-apartheid movement against the university administrators and corporations, now the students campaigning against sweatshops around the country find themselves in opposition to the Kennedys on account of the legitimization by the RFK Memorial of the FLA. The student movement considers the FLA's work weak and inadequate.
In the past the Center for Human Rights of the RFK Memorial collaborated with the Ruckus Society in organizing a camp to train human rights activists in civil disobedience. The purpose of Ruckus camps is to teach skills such as banner hanging or lockdowns whereby activists may bring attention to their area of concern. Yet for the Kennedy's to involve themselves in this smacks of tokenism. Fundraising functions of the RFK Memorial are attended by corporate executives, media moguls, leading politicians, network anchors, and Hollywood stars. The Kennedys do not have difficulty in bringing attention to an issue. However if Kerry strongly applied her prominence and network of connections to bear upon human rights issues -- such as directly challenging corporations or demanding that trade agreements call for respect for human rights, this would be awkward for some of these very same powerful interests. Additionally, were Kerry Kennedy to train people in how to lobby and elect politicians on human rights concerns, this would also challenge the political-economic elites with which she is interlinked.
Bernardo Issel of Nonprofit Watch commented that, "Considering that the Kerry Kennedy is a leading figure in the human rights community, it is appalling that she should be intertwined with human rights violators and business interests that advance trade agreements free of human rights concerns. Kerry should be speaking truth to power to Chevron, Nike, Viacom, and President Clinton. She is the Kathie Lee Gifford of the human rights community."
In her candidacy statement for the board of Amnesty International, Kerry included a sentence about her familiarity with politics. Yet on account of her close ties to the political establishment, she appears loath to challenge and hold accountable politicians in regards to human rights. The importance of political pressure for human rights issues was made clear in a PBS Frontline special regarding Rwanda. In a disturbing interview, a former defense department analyst revealed that in a meeting with White House staffers, the question arose as to whether intervention would effect the November elections. The analyst was outraged -- in his view whether or not there might be an effect on the U.S. elections should have no bearing on whether genocide was taking place and active intervention was required. For failure to intervene, there was never a political price to pay by Clinton, Albright, and even Kofi-Annan. This is a major weakness of the human rights community. During the recent election cycle, more has been said about salmon reproduction than about human rights policy. In the view of Nonprofit Watch, Kerry fails to lead the human rights community to become politically forceful, thereby ensuring that human rights remains a political eunuch (except perhaps in the case of a future Republican administration). While by no means would it be fair to lay this sorry state of affairs solely upon her lap, nonetheless she is reflective of the leadership in many of the larger human rights groups that is wedded to the political and economic establishment.
With leaders like Kerry Kennedy in the human rights community, it is difficult to be optimistic that efforts to pursue human rights will be able to overcome the powerful interests arrayed against it. While Kerry's book may be symbolically positive and certainly helpful to the individual activists portrayed, it may be harmful in that it will further aggrandize Kerry Kennedy's stature as a human rights activist which in light of her straitjacketing by the factors raised in this critique, could actually be to a detrimental effect on the human rights movement.