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Human Rights Watch (HRW), one of the world’s largest non-government organizations, is failing in its mandate to protect universal human rights. In closed societies where the organization’s work is most needed, and where its work is most difficult to pursue, HRW repeatedly falls far short of fulfilling its mission.

The organization’s recent reports on migrant workers demonstrate these severe shortcomings. One report (“Walls at Every Turn”) examined Kuwait, where migrant workers face serious abuse such as extortion and sexual exploitation. The other report (“Slow Reform”) addressed the worldwide problem of violations against migrant workers, with an emphasis on Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and United Arab Emirates. So far, so good.

But when HRW’s researcher Bill Van Esveld chose to publish an op-ed on this important topic, his focus was on migrant workers in Israel. Instead of drawing attention to the problem of closed societies, which lack basic democratic mechanisms to address the mistreatment of migrants, and where international outcry may be the only publicity allotted to the victims, Van Esveld chose to highlight the one open country in the region that, in fact, has its own very public, vibrant debate on the most appropriate policies to implement regarding migrant workers.

This op-ed is indicative of how HRW’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) division downplays the systematic abuses of human rights taking place in closed, totalitarian regimes, while targeting open, democratic societies. This ideological double standard violates the universality of human rights and highlights the moral decomposition within HRW.

Other reports by HRW further demonstrate this troubling trend. A 35-page HRW report on a decade of human rights in Syria describes the state of Syrian human rights as “bleak,” a categorization that does not do justice to the egregious violations committed at the highest institutional levels. The equally feeble “recommendations” section adopts a bureaucratic approach, directed exclusively to President Bashar al-Assad. He is enjoined to enact, amend, introduce and remove a variety of laws; and to set up commissions. To alleviate restrictions on freedom of expression, HRW urges: “stop blocking websites for their content.”

Similarly, in a recent report on Saudi Arabia, MENA overlooked the extent to which King Abdullah and the rest of the Saudi leadership are responsible for the very repressive practices that they are asked to counteract. The regime’s totalitarian grip on its citizens is minimized, with HRW naively turning to King Abdullah to enforce equal rights and freedoms.

Post-colonial ideology

This failure to properly address closed societies, and to focus primarily on democracies, led HRW founder Robert Bernstein to denounce the organization that he began. He explained in a New York Times op-ed (Oct. 2009) that HRW has “cast aside its important distinction between open and closed societies” and has abandoned its “original mission to pry open closed societies, advocate basic freedoms and support dissenters.” Van Esveld’s article is another example.

There are a number of factors driving HRW’s moral decline. First, HRW’s leaders reflect a post-colonial ideology that patronizingly excuses the abuses of non-Western regimes and magnifies the alleged sins of democracies. HRW’s lack of access to reliable information in closed societies also contributes to the agenda bias. But, instead of criticizing the potential harassment, or worse, for individuals who speak out against the regime, HRW echoes their silence.

In contrast, the open nature of democracies enables an obsessive, often aggressive stance regarding accusations of abuse in these nations. For instance, NGO Monitor’s research has shown that HRW’s ability to access every aspect of Israeli society feeds a hyper-critical approach to Israel and a loss of perspective and context.

The number and intensity of NGO reports and critiques of open societies should not be confused with the advancement of a universal human rights agenda. Saudi Arabia executes homosexuals, Iran stones adulterers, and Qatar discriminates against women, but HRW’s MENA division persistently downplays these human rights violations. Now add to this list Kuwait’s treatment of migrant workers. Without major reform of the MENA division, and a renewed commitment to seriously addressing the human rights abuses in closed societies, HRW will continue to lose credibility.

Frayda Leibtag is a researcher at NGO Monitor