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Human Rights Watch has long been a self-proclaimed torch-bearer for human rights around the world. Although the organization can rightly be proud of its initial contribution on behalf of political prisoners incarcerated by oppressive regimes, HRW’s activities in more recent years have been characterized by an obsessive focus on Israel and only muted criticism of dictatorships such as Syria, Saudi Arabia and Libya. HRW’s Middle East activities recently reached a nadir. In May, Arab News reported that HRW officials had visited Saudi Arabia to raise funds, using their pseudo-research on Israel over the Gaza war as bait.
Why did this giant of the NGO world choose to single out Israel? Part of the answer lies in an ideological shift. Like many one-time liberals, HRW has become infused with a spirit of simplistic anti-nationalism. This worldview dictates that military power is inherently evil and illegitimate, while victimhood and powerlessness is unquestionably both innocent and moral. Translated into a Middle East context, Israel is portrayed as permanently guilty while the Palestinians are excused from all responsibility regardless of their behavior.
Another reason for HRW’s Israel obsession is simply that the world has changed; HRW’s original raison d’être disappeared with the collapse of Soviet Communism. For a short time, NGOs battled against the remnants of apartheid South Africa, but in the absence of a globally popular human rights campaign, HRW reinvented itself as a "research organization." Yet HRW now specializes in glossy publications that lack professional substance. Usually based on unverifiable "eyewitness" testimony, embellished with commentary from a self-proclaimed arms expert, HRW’s reports make for eye-catching if unreliable battlefield accounts.
HRW’s recent report on Israel’s alleged misuse of drones during the Gaza war is a prime example. Analyzing a very limited number of cases, the report’s claims of wrongdoing rely on dubious eyewitness accounts.
At the same time, the hostility displayed toward Israel by HRW and other NGOs became fodder for Arab demagogues eager to use the rhetoric of human rights to delegitimize Israel.
HRW is able to grease the wheels of the U.N. machine in its favor by demanding international investigations into alleged Israeli "war crimes," most recently in the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon war and the Gaza conflict. The synergy between HRW and relevant U.N. bodies was recently crystallized when the U.N. Human Rights Council appointed HRW board member Richard Goldstone to head its Gaza inquisition. HRW’s benign image would be a perfect cover for those intent on creating a kangaroo court to hang Israel. When NGO Monitor highlighted the conflict of interest, Judge Goldstone promptly resigned from the HRW board.
The likes of HRW benefit from a halo effect that persuades journalists to accept their every claim as gospel, without first checking the "evidence" provided.
Yet this façade is slipping under the weight of HRW’s activities within Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most notorious human rights abusers. According to Arab News, HRW’s senior Middle East professional Sarah Leah Whitson, along with board and Advisory Committee member Hassan Elmasry, attended a dinner where they asked "prominent members of Saudi society" to make up for the "shortage of funds" due to the global financial crisis "and the work on Israel and Gaza which depleted HRW’s budget for the region." This tacit admission that HRW targeted Israel to the detriment of analyzing genuine human rights violations was accompanied by Ms. Whitson’s odious invocation of "pro-Israel pressure groups."
HRW has failed to provide an alternative account of events, and its only defense has been an absurd attempt to cast a distinction between soliciting Saudi officials and prominent members of society who owe their very position to the regime.
Serious questions are rightly being asked of a human rights organization that sees fit to have its pockets lined with the gold of one of the world’s most oppressive countries.
Gerald Steinberg is executive director of NGO Monitor and chairman of political science at Bar Ilan University in Israel. Dan Kosky is communications director at NGO Monitor.