-- Kerry Kennedy Cuomo --
A Profile in Corruption and Lack of Courage
(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
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
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
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
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.