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In October 2009, in the New York Times, Human Rights Watch (HRW) founder Robert Bernstein denounced the organization for abandoning its “original mission to pry open closed societies, advocate basic freedoms and support dissenters.” More than a year later, HRW has confirmed the accuracy of Bernstein’s assessment.
NGO Monitor’s annual quantitative analysis demonstrates that, in each of the past five years, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) division disproportionately focuses on Israel. HRW takes advantage of open access in Israel to unrelentingly denounce the only democratic country in the Middle East, at the expense of reporting on endemic human rights violations taking place throughout the region.
Continuing the trend from the past four years, HRW publications on “Israel and the Occupied Territories” once again outnumbered those on all other countries in the Middle East. In 2010, documents on Israel comprised 14% of HRW’s output in the region, trailed by Iran (12%), Saudi Arabia (9%) and Egypt (9%).
This disparity reflects HRW’s ideological and immoral decision to soft-peddle the chronic abuses of closed societies, and simultaneously target Israel. This approach belies the universality of human rights and contributes to the global anti-Israel de-legitimization agenda.
As part of this campaign, HRW also repeated the demand that the United States government sanction Israel by withholding security assistance. Additionally, MENA director Sarah Leah Whitson renewed her call for the Caterpillar bulldozer boycott at a May press conference. Whitson plays a pivotal role in influencing MENA’s strategy of developing ties with totalitarian regimes, rather than combating serious human rights abuses.
Whitson’s approach was evident in HRW’s praising of Saudi Arabian King Abdullah’s implementation of incremental changes over the past five years (“Looser Rein, Uncertain Gain,” September 27, 2010). The report, which lacks both detail and depth, downplays the most egregious examples of Saudi Arabia’s systematic abuse of human rights, including the absence of sexual freedom, discrimination against women, and religious persecution.
However, not everyone at HRW is satisfied with the lightweight approach to Saudi Arabia. In December 2010, Deputy Washington Director Maria McFarland briefed the US House of Representatives on the subject of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, describing a reality of severe religious repression, and systematic discrimination and persecution on the basis of religion.
She also criticized US inaction: “If the United States is serious about promoting religious tolerance in Saudi Arabia, it cannot remain content to publish a report once a year about religious repression or to praise Saudi Arabia for symbolic commitments to religious tolerance.” Apparently, the irony that McFarland’s description of inadequate US attention to Saudi Arabian abuses also applies to “Looser Reign” – incidentally HRW’s sole report on Saudi Arabia in 2010 – was lost.
Meeting with Hamas
When it comes to criticism of Israel, though, MENA is not afraid to employ harsh and hard-hitting criticism. HRW’s December 2010 report (“Separate and Unequal”) falsely accuses Israel of discrimination against Palestinians in the West Bank on the “basis of race, ethnicity, and national origin.” Demonstrating HRW’s clear agenda, Whitson met with Hamas and promised its minister of justice in May 2010 that HRW would tackle Israeli settlements and alleged violations of international law.
The timing of this report was also significant, released when the Arab League and the Palestinian Authority are pursuing anti-Israel UN resolutions. And, as expected, HRW’s publication is already being used by anti-Israel activists to endorse demonization of Israel and BDS campaigns, including an open letter signed by over 30 NGOs calling for “an end to occupation, Apartheid and other war crimes.”
At the same time, criticism of HRW grew and became ever-more public in 2010. The New Republic and the Sunday Times (UK) published exposes on the high-profile scandals of HRW: The disclosure of HRW researcher Marc Garlasco’s Nazi memorabilia collection, and his dismissal from the organization; HRW’s targeting of Israel; and the ideological composition of HRW’s Middle East staff.
Additionally, according to HRW’s financial statements, the organization lost $6 million (approximately 15%) in public support in 2010. Although billionaire George Soros’ $100 million donation will alleviate the fiscal damage, Soros’ controversial record will not redeem HRW’s lack of credibility and integrity on Israel.
And HRW has responded to heighted scrutiny with even less transparency: Annual reports and names of all employees, except for department heads, have been removed from HRW’s website. The reduced transparency and accountability are the opposite of the human rights values that HRW claims to promote. In fact, they are more reminiscent of the totalitarian regimes that HRW should be challenging.
In November 2010, Robert Bernstein spoke before an audience at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and lamented that “little had changed” since the New York Times article. Indeed, HRW continues to represent the failure of universal human rights and the incapacity of leaders to make necessary changes, even at the expense of their credibility.
Frayda Leibtag is a researcher at NGO Monitor