Toxic workplaces: Are human rights organisations some of the culprits?

At a very minimum, human rights organisations are to hold to account governments and multinational corporations, for example, in terms of monitoring and evaluating these entities as well as communicating about their human rights records. In turn, human rights organisations can be protectors and advocates for civil society and revolutionary causes, particularly, racial justice, gender equality, press freedom, LGBTQIA+ rights, among others.

In this regard, human rights organisations can seem to hold for themselves a luminary-like status; a necessary good for the betterment of this world. After all, without human rights organisations, how much further delayed would societies be? Without justice and human rights organisations, where would be the peace?

It is ironic then, that I remain “unshocked” upon reading about the United Nation’s own humanitarian crisis, Racism at the UN: internal audit reveals deep-rooted problems, and, more recently, the Humanitarian disgrace of Australia’s immigration regime

Unshocked because of the alleged human rights issues (that I have learned about, from survivors of toxicity over the past 12 years); unshocked because of the harm which has gone unchecked for too long. See After allegations of toxic culture, Southern Poverty Law Centre tries to move forward; Amnesty International, rights groups plagued by ‘toxic’ work culture; Save the Children admits ‘unsafe behaviour’ in workplace; and Whistleblowers detail new Oxfam misconduct allegations in Iraq

Also unsurprisingly, some personified human rights organisations (at others’ expense) have enabled white men and white women (in that order) with direct access to plentiful management positions as well as high-income salaries and benefits. In fact, a growing number of human rights organisation leadership roles have become akin to money clubs. See also How UN staff are reshaping African cities.

In contrast, persons who identify as Africans and/or African Diaspora for example (middle-age and older women especially) have been stagnated in temporary and/or non-benefitted, support positions. Organisational hierarchies beget undervaluing with low pay under the guise of personnel and budget constraints. Moreover, long-standing structural inequities (fueled by racism, sexism, ethnic stereotypes, and other forms of bias) have created an uneven landscape that makes it difficult for [Black women, among others] to secure jobs with solid wages and opportunity for advancement.

Noted, an ongoing revert by some in the human rights sector: human rights organisations are not perfect; the human rights sector is not for the faint of heart; lessons have been learned; activists are not working to be economically-rich; and systemic change takes time.

My counterargument: such does not account for a workplace where pregnant women can fear they will miscarry; persons can be stressed with expressed concerns about their hair and weight loss, lack of appetite and long-term depression. Moreover, staff can remain unpaid for months at a time; and management can participate in verbal and psychological abuses. Too, there can be threats of job loss and ostracisation; rapid firing or resignations; and unapplied statements around open door policies. Basically, at worst, purported human rights issues. 

Some human rights organisations, and I continue to use the word “some” very cautiously, are enabling toxicity to harmful degrees. On their websites and through more forms of international networking, human rights organisations have wonderful mottos, vision statements, values and goals; while in reality, the said pomp and circumstance is masking binding harm. These same human rights organisations (in terms of their projected reputations) have received favourable press coverage; have access to major funding; are well-credentialed; and are well-liked by allies. I would contend that the said human rights organisations are a microcosm of oppressive systems which use a theme of addressing external human rights issues to ignore or suppress the very internal organisational harm.

Human rights organisations are in extreme need of widely-publicised annual reviews at the very least, particularly, from persons and/or panels who are not influenced by “all the good that they have done”, “word of mouth”, “perception” and/or “their accolades”.

The aforementioned leads me to three concluding points.

  1. Toxicity is not a healthy rite of passage. Artist Breland has argued that we come up with all of these narratives that make it a little bit easier to digest harm. To me, Breland’s views about possible attempts to minimise racist actions present a beginning analysis to address the severe consequences of continued injustices globally, which can include human rights organisations. To put it more plainly, if there is evidence that a human rights organisation director is verbally and psychologically abusing officers, then the same intent which is placed on calling out governments and multinationals, can be purposed to hold to account the said director. Moreover, if it is evidenced, for instance, that a human rights organisation has enabled racist actions, among others, then that human rights organisation can be held to account widely.
  1. Unchecked bureaucracy implies that everything is not fine.  In the 2018 film Backstabbing for Beginners (based on Michael Soussan’s memoirs), Character Costa Pasaris or Pasha says to Character Michael Sullivan that “… it is diplomacy which sometimes requires removing obstacles that stand in the way of a successful outcome … not lie, just the opportunity to draw a wrong conclusion … ” Arguably, to be far removed by such biased and fictional diplomacy, if a human rights organisation human resources manager receives a formal complaint about alleged harm, then it would behoove the said manager to human resource, rather than to immediately dismiss or later bury the said complaint. Indeed, a human resources manager’s first and foremost job responsibility links to the essential functions of job satisfaction, safety and accessibility.
  1. Protecting an organisation that harms its employees is not being accountable. Where it can be proven that, for instance, bullying, harassment, stigma and discrimination have occurred, and that some human rights organisation leaders/human rights organisations have access to do what they would like (without accountability), such is unjust and such is not sustainable nor humanly right. Consequently, what is alluded to, when we (for example, human rights defenders) remain silent on human rights organisations/human rights organisation leaders acting like they are invincible to accountability; and that no matter how proven the abuses are, they can continue to harm?

All in all, the several contexts pertaining to human rights issues are very well-noted; it is not only external, for which to hold to account governments and multinationals. Also, it is to hold to account human rights organisations internally.

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Portia C Allen
Portia C Allen has been fundraising in Africa for 20 years. She volunteers as the advocacy and fundraising lead with Amahoro Human Respect and with the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent.

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