“The Dooley Doctrine”: A Conversation with Brian Dooley

Insiya Raja spoke to Brian Dooley, Senior Advisor at the US-based NGO Human Rights First, and asked him to reflect on four decades of activism in various contexts and for various organisations. We asked him what he’s learned since the early 1980s.

●       Care, Usefully.

I think the best human rights researchers, activists, and policymakers thread a fine line between compassion, empathy, and objectivity. A cold approach to getting answers can be a bit insensitive, while getting too emotionally or personally invested can also be counterproductive. I think the best way to engage with people who need help is to care for them, but usefully. This means remaining conscious of what they need, being aware of traumas and expectations, while never promising things you can’t deliver. The first principle is to be completely honest about what you can do and can’t do, and what the impact of them talking to you is likely to be.

  • Be prepared to get targeted

No authoritarian regime in the Middle East wants researchers exposing their secrets, and they spend vast amounts of resources trying to control how they are seen internationally.  You can expect to get harassed, threatened, and smeared–especially online. You might get detained when travelling to those countries (like I did in Bahrain), or be refused entry to countries, or be subject to travel bans, or followed (as happened in the UAE), or have weird police officers visit your hotel room (Egypt). Bahrainis loyal to the government posted a series of cartoons about me on social media. Expect to get targeted personally.

For many local activists the stakes are much higher, especially when they have little protection. Friends have been tortured and killed, many are still in prison. It’s hard going, and you can feel helpless. And sometimes people who are in desperate need of support ask you for help that you can’t give.

  • Do something even if it is not fashionable

During and immediately after the 2011 Arab Uprisings, the Middle East was the cool place to be working. Yet over the years interest from the international media, governments and NGOs has faded. It’s tempting to move onto the next big thing. But I think if you invest in serious work  somewhere, or about something, you shouldn’t abandon it just because it’s out of the headlines. Tenacity and perseverance are underrated and really valuable. Success can take decades.

  • It’s okay to take a break

While it’s right to commit to certain issues, it’s not efficient or sustainable to work on them with maximum intensity all the time, for the rest of your life. It’s okay (and beneficial to the cause) to take breaks away and then to return. A common mistake I’ve made is to let yourself be spread too thinly. Guard against it. And don’t let yourself burn out.

Let’s say you get involved in Issue X, but then Issue Y pops up now you have X and Y, and this keeps growing. As you connect these issues to others, it is easy to to get drawn into other areas. Don’t fight that, but only take on as much as you can properly manage. Fighting too many battles is a sure way to lose them all. I’d say too don’t ever bill yourself – or let others bill you – an “an expert.” I’ve been asked to be an “expert witness” at US Congressional hearings about countries I’ve never even been to. Say no to that nonsense.

When dealing with activists/at-risk people:

  • Always take many precautions

Always be guided by what the person wants in terms of protecting their identity, anonymity, and safety. They are in the best position to make their own risk assessment, not you.

For example, if you are interviewing someone, respect their wishes to use their own interpreter, to meet where end when and for how long they want.

  • Steal ideas from older people

When meeting with people likely to be surveilled, think beyond a Gen-Z millennial context.  Given the immense capacity for online surveillance, communicating through old school methods such as intermediaries and word-of mouth is often safer. To physically surveil someone all the time is enormously resource intensive (with estimates of up to 24 people being needed to constantly surveil one person). Use non-digital communication, or a hybrid mix of some digital and some offline communication can be safest.

For instance, make it difficult for the authorities to track you is by using different channels to set a time and location for meeting someone, and use code names. For instance, if you’re setting up a meeting on Tuesday 4pm at Costa coffee, text the time, send a piece of paper via an intermediary with the location, and use a secure email to specify the day.

  • Ask. Then Ask Again.

 You must explain to someone what the consequences of engaging with you are likely to be. Get their consent periodically. Just because they were okay with you using their name in a report last year doesn’t mean they are this year.  Sometimes I ask activists on trial if they want me to try and get someone from a foreign embassy to observe their court case. Some say yes, some say no – sometimes they refuse because they don’t want to be seen as a friend of a Western government. That’s their decision to make, their risk to weigh, and not for me to tell them what they should do. Never go public about a person’s situation without explicit consent. If you can’t speak to them (because they’ve been disappeared, or are incommunicado), ask a close family member or their lawyer to give consent on their behalf.

Dealing with Government officials:

  • Emphasize short-term tangible benefits, not moral arguments

Government officials are often myopic. I’ve found – right back from when talking to officials from various governments about apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s – that moral arguments rarely work. Government officials tend to weigh the short-term advantages of policies. While presenting your case, to show what you want is in their immediate interests is more effective, especially as democracies like the United States tend to have high turnover of officials, with regular elections shaking up the system, which encourages short-termism and myopia.

In the 1980s, I worked for Senator Ted Kennedy when he was sponsoring the Sanctions Bill against apartheid South Africa. I soon realised that using moral arguments with US State Department officials wasn’t that persuasive – the US supported and armed the racist regime, and telling US government officials they were wrong to be doing that really didn’t change much. What did change was showing them how unpopular this was making the US across Africa, and across the world – that supporting apartheid was biting into their “soft power” credentials.

Similarly, while it’s possible to have White House or State Department officials agree privately that it’s in US interests for Egypt to be a stable, democratic country a decade from now, the pressures they’re under are much more immediate.

I used to think that resistance from the US government to push for human rights reform was mostly ideological. Now, after advocating in Washington for decades, with ten different administrations, Democrat and Republican, I focus in lobbying meetings on reminding myself that the person I’m talking to is unlikely to be in that job for more than a few years at most – they will move on or upwards, and so are often most interested in what can be done short-term. So that’s where I focus my energy. It’s frustrating but I think it’s a good guide to Think Big and Act Small. The release from prison of individual activists, for example, can be achieved in months sometimes.

  • Check your privilege: Positionality and power dynamics

My life was shaken up when I was shipped out by my parents from London at age 18 to live and work in a “Blacks Only” segregated area of South Africa under apartheid. Before that, apart from visiting Ireland, I’d only been on a day trip to France. Limited prospects for an inner-city kid who had failed A levels meant I sent to South Africa for a year to live with my uncle, who was a parish priest in a huge township, designated under racist apartheid laws as a place for “Blacks Only” to live.

It taught me all sorts of things, including how to try and find your place in someone else’s struggle, and about being a useful ally. I’d say these include:

  • Asking with humility what someone wants you to do, and do what you are told.
  • Never think you know best about how someone else’s struggle ought to be run.
  • You’re not ever in charge of anything in someone else’s struggle, and you need to listen 100 times more than you speak, need to take direction, and ask what they think you can do. Don’t start conversations with here I am and here is what I can do. Ask what they want from you.

Privileged access is often something I can offer as a straight white guy, brokering introductions for activists to journalists or politicians.

  • Closed-door diplomacy usually disappoints

I just don’t believe government officials who say, “behind-the-scenes closed door diplomacy is best.” I have just rarely seen it work, frankly, and it’s often used to fob off families of political prisoners so they don’t make an embarrassing fuss. I’ve known many families who have loved ones as political prisoners abroad be told by the State Department, or the British Foreign Office to “stay quiet” and officials will try to secure their release. Maybe it works sometimes, but I’ve never seen it be successful. What I’ve seen work is when families who have loved ones wrongfully jailed in Bahrain or the UAE or Egypt or Saudi  go public and get a lot of media attention.

Although some US government officials are privately sympathetic, they’re often under enormous pressure not to rock the boat and not to upset their authoritarian friends in the Middle East. The current jargon has them saying they have “other equities to balance,” meaning they don’t want to piss off their dictators allies. Don’t let them get away with that. It’s not a real argument.

  • You do not have to do things the “traditional way”

Don’t be limited to practices of the past and what people have done before you. Start your own things – eg Students in London recently created the  Human Rights Voices blog space, creating a platform for young activists.

I wrote a book when I was in my 20s about civil rights because I wanted to, not for an academic requirement. Don’t think you have to be validated by a supervisor or professor if you have something to say. (The book did well, and 20 years later I got a PhD for it. But the point was to say what I thought needed to be said, that was its value).

You do not have to be old to start being useful.

Do not be afraid to break from the traditional way of doing things. Start your own podcasts, websites, newsletters, organise a human rights group and give awards to activists. It really helps.

And finally, some practical advice:

Wear high top trainers to protests. If bottles are thrown, tear gas fired, and sharp metal or glass on the ground, you might have to run. Ordinary trainers are likely to come off in a stampede.

When you’re in a hotel room in a risky place shove a small plastic wedge under the door. It’s virtually impossible for anyone to get in without sledgehammering the door down, even if they have a key.