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Thursday, February 23, 2017
- After its May trip to Saudi Arabia recently garnered attention, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has come under a hailstorm of criticism by defenders of Israeli policy who claim that the trip raises ethical questions about HRW’s work in the Middle East.
The allegations were based on an article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) online opinion section – a reprint of a month-old blog post by George Mason University law professor David Bernstein – that accused HRW staff of going to Saudi Arabia “to raise money from wealthy Saudis by highlighting HRW’s demonisation of Israel”.
HRW denied any impropriety, noting that it raises money from private sources worldwide – not governments – and that it highlighted all of its work in the region during the Saudi Arabia trip.
“The point of my post,” wrote Bernstein, “is not that HRW is pro-Saudi, but that it is maniacally anti-Israel.”
The allegations have filtered their way up to the Israeli government and its most staunch defenders in the U.S., including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of Washington’s most powerful interest groups and the hub of the so-called “Israel lobby”.
“For an organisation that claims to offer moral direction,” Israeli government spokesperson Mark Regev told the Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, “it appears that Human Rights Watch has seriously lost its moral compass.”
However, of more than 30 releases in June and July from its Middle East and North Africa division, HRW was critical of Israel in only three of them, whereas Saudi Arabia was criticised five times, and Israel’s regional archrival, Iran, racked up nine critical releases.
HRW has responded by insisting the trip, taken in late May, was in no way to raise money from the Saudi government or Saudi officials, citing a policy that they take no money from governments, “directly or indirectly”.
“Just to be clear, we’ve never solicited any money from any government official or government,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East and North Africa director of HRW who was named in the WSJ post as a participant on the trip, told IPS.
HRW explicitly states the policy on its website, where it says it is “supported by contributions from private individuals and foundations worldwide”.
Furthermore, Whitson disputed the characterisation of the dinner as a fundraising event.
A Saudi HRW supporter, Emad bin Jameel Al-Hejailan, organised the dinner, initially reported on May 26 by the English-language Saudi outlet the Arab News.
“Our host organised a dinner for us among his friends – some civil society, businessmen, human rights activists and journalists,” Whitson told IPS. “We talked about our work.”
“This was not a fundraising dinner where people had to buy tickets to attend dinner,” she said. “We didn’t actually walk away with checks.”
Though the WSJ version didn’t, the original version of Bernstein’s post on the website ‘the Volokh Conspiracy’ linked to the Arab News story on the dinner, on which the post appears to largely be based.
Noting criticism of Israel, the Arab News story says, “Keeping with its mission of even-handed criticism, Human Rights Watch has also leveled criticism at other states in the region, including Saudi Arabia.”
However, the WSJ article by Bernstein says, “Apparently, Ms. Whitson found no time to criticize Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record.”
Bernstein goes on to claim that HRW doesn’t have “the felt need to discuss any of the Saudis’ manifold human rights violations”.
“We certainly highlighted our report on white phosphorus in Gaza” – a March report on Israel’s banned use of the chemical over civilian centres – “because it was the most recent report we had released and there is a lot of interest in that in the region, and our work in Saudi Arabia,” Whitson told IPS.
“There was far more interest in our work in Saudi Arabia than we expected,” Whitson added. “We thought there would be much more caution and sensitivity about our work on Saudi Arabia.”
The accusation of impropriety has also morphed into a claim that not only did HRW inappropriately highlight work in Israel during its Saudi Arabia trip, but that it also sought to raise funds from government officials.
That claim was made by Atlantic blogger Jeffery Goldberg after an e-mail exchange with HRW executive director Ken Roth and later, citing Goldberg, reiterated by Block in an e-mail to IPS.
Goldberg said that Roth had acknowledged that “the director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division is attempting to raise funds from Saudis, including a member of the Shura Council [an official Saudi body].”
However, in the e-mail excerpts cited by Goldberg, Roth emphatically restated the HRW policy on not collecting government funds, and said only that “a guy from the national human rights commission and someone from the Shura Council” were at the dinner in question – not that they were solicited for funds.
Despite that, the AIPAC spokesperson restated Goldberg’s mistaken claim in an e-mail to IPS.
“HRW has repeatedly demonstrated its anti-Israel bias,” Block wrote. “And for an organization that claims to be objective about human rights to go hat in hand to raise money from the Saudi ruling elite, while bragging about and seeking to further its Israel-bashing is deeply revealing of the group’s fundamental hypocrisy.”
While AIPAC remained steadfast, the author of the original WSJ post backed down from some of his initial accusations.
“[I]f Ms. Whitson did indeed discuss Saudi human rights abuses during her trip, I apologize for suggesting otherwise,” wrote Bernstein Wednesday in the comment section of a Think Progress blog addressing the attacks on HRW.
However, Bernstein maintained that “it’s extremely unwise for a human rights group to raise money in a totalitarian country, even from human rights advocates in that country.”
Whitson said the claim had no grounds, noting that the notion “that any money from Saudi Arabia is tainted because it comes from a country with a totalitarian ruling regime is a gross generalisation.”
“The ethnic background of our donors is irrelevant to the work we do,” Whitson told IPS. “It’s not relevant to our work in Israel that many, many of our donors are Jewish. And it’s not relevant for the work that we do that we get money from Arab countries.”
“Should people be criticising us for the fact that much of our support base is made up of Jews?” Whitson said. “Should that imply that our work on Israel is in fact too soft?”