HRW Goes to Cover-up mode

The widespread criticism of Human Rights Watch (HRW) for soliciting funds from the Saudis (see NGO Monitor’s May 27 analysis, based on the Arab News) by touting the need to counter Jewish and “pro-Israel pressure groups” has dulled the sheen on HRW’s moral armor. And as usual, the cover-up adds to and highlights the core failures – HRW’s pseudo-technical reports, ideological double standards, and legal double-talk.

The cover-up began with the effort to disguise the nature of HRW’s Saudi connection. According to Arab News (whose version was not challenged), HRW officials spoke about the “shortage of funds because of the global financial crisis and the work on Israel and Gaza, which depleted HRW’s budget for the region.” MENA Division head Sarah Leah Whitson boasted: “Human Rights Watch provided the international community with evidence of Israel using white phosphorus and launching systematic destructive attacks on civilian targets.”

In other words, Israel was the main course for the hungry Saudis at this dinner in Riyadh. But later in a defense posted in the WSJ, Whitson tried to erase the evidence of the emphasis on Israel, “Believe it or not, some Arabs believe in human rights too.” And in a Jerusalem Post interview, she belatedly blamed the Arab News report, pointing to Saudi press censorship. Whitson only blamed the Arab News version when the damage became clear.

Whitson also attacked critics (NGO Monitor at the top of the list) for calling attention to the fact that HRW sold its soul by embracing a regime that had one of the world’s worst human right records. In response, she charged that these critics failed to distinguish “between a government and its people”. She added “Certainly not everyone is tainted by the misconduct of their government. …There are private individuals in Saudi Arabia who are not part of the ruling government.” HRW wants us to believe that their guest list was limited to ordinary Saudis promoting human rights, and that their presentation was the same as the one presented to Jewish donors in New York, Toronto and San Francisco. (To prove this, Whitson only needs to send out the powerpoint used in Riyadh.)

When Jeffrey Goldberg (The Atlantic) pressed Executive Director Ken Roth (a Jew who was not in Riyadh) regarding the guest list, Roth was very evasive. At the end, he admitted “As for whether any government people were there, the closest was a guy from the national human rights commission and someone from the Shura Council; not sure whether you’d consider them government or not.”

Goldberg concluded that HRW “is attempting to raise funds from Saudis, including a member of the Shura Council (which oversees, on behalf of the Saudi monarchy, the imposition in the Kingdom of the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic law) in part by highlighting her organization’s investigations of Israel, and its war with Israel’s ‘supporters’ who are liars and deceivers.” Greatly understanding the case, he concluded: “It appears as if Human Rights Watch, in the pursuit of dollars, has compromised its integrity.”

In another line of attack, HRW officials denied that they were selling their attacks on Israel to raise funds. On this issue, Roth went on the offensive against NGO Monitor: “There’s a cottage industry out there devoted to criticizing anyone who criticizes Israel….  Every time we publish something on Israel they target us.  The fact that we publish far more extensively on other Middle Eastern governments (as well as the PA, Hamas, etc) is irrelevant, apparently.”  And in responding to David Bernstein’s WSJ oped, Whitson declared “Human Rights Watch in recent years has published more reports and news releases on rights problems in Saudi Arabia than any other human rights organization in the world.”

Roth and Whitson demand full immunity against all criticism, no matter how shoddy and tendentious. No one is supposed to admit that HRW’s frequent “research reports” on Israel are a mix of “eyewitness” testimony (“there were no Hamas/Hezbollah forces anywhere”), pseudo-technical analysis, and uniformed speculation.  HRW is criticized because its reports are so bad.

As for the claims on the agenda, the data shows until 2006, Saudi Arabian human rights behavior was hardly on HRW’s agenda. Using a systematic methodology to compare the activities, NGO Monitor data show that between 2004 and 2006, HRW criticism of Israel was 300% greater than the almost non-existent focus on Saudi Arabia. In other words, in HRW’s world, Israel was by far the greater source of human rights violations.

The change – as much as it was — took place in 2008, after the NGO Monitor reports on HRW’s obsessive anti-Israel agenda were published. Some donors then earmarked money for a wider agenda, dragging Roth and Whitson along. But Israel continues to be the main target, with more press conferences, major reports, and United Nations lobbying. HRW is not campaigning for an “independent UN inquiry” on Saudi treatment of women, minorities, or members of other religions. And there is no evidence of HRW soliciting potential Israeli donors on the basis of the organization’s record on Saudi Arabia, Iran, Libya, Syria or Hamas.

If Roth and Whitson are serious about defending their organization’s record on Israel, and explaining the Saudi appeal, they are going to have to better than slamming critics and denying the evidence. If these responses are the best that they can do, they and HRW will be remembered as a organization that began by campaigning for freedom for prisoners of conscience, and ended as a Wahabi ally.