From Gulag Liberators to Saudi Retainers
Human Rights Watch has betrayed its original mission.
By Gerald M. Steinberg
National Review Online - July 21, 2009, 4:00 a.m.
Human Rights Watch was founded in 1978 in New York (as Helsinki Watch) with
the mission of using public demonstrations and other forms of "naming and
shaming" to free prisoners of conscience in the Soviet Union and Eastern
Europe. Many Gulag denizens, including Anatoly (now Natan) Sharansky, later
recognized HRW's role in gaining their freedom. Shortly thereafter HRW began
advocating on behalf of political prisoners and torture victims in other
totalitarian regimes, including in Chile, Argentina, and Greece.
But since then, HRW has lost its moral compass, and the organization is
using its substantial budget ($42 million in 2008) to repeatedly attack
Israel by exploiting the language of human rights and international law.
Tendentious reports and press conferences, using distorted legal rhetoric in
place of credible evidence, target Israeli responses to terror attacks from
Arafat, Hamas, and Hezbollah.
My organization, NGO Monitor, annually releases a systematic analysis of
agenda, and our reports clearly show that HRW singles out Israel in the
Middle East. For years, this arbiter of international morality and human
rights had very little to say about Libya, Saudi Arabia, or Palestinian
terrorists. HRW's recent cautious criticism of Saudi policy came only after
a reorganization of the organization's board - and then only after receiving
unwelcome attention for its see-no-evil treatment of the Kingdom. In May
2009, Arab News reported that HRW officials went to Saudi Arabia to raise
funds, advertising the numerous condemnations and pseudo-research reports
against Israel in the Gaza war. Some of the founders, including Robert
Bernstein, are in strong disagreement with the organization they built.
How and why did this human-rights superpower turn into a major
Israel-basher, along with London-based Amnesty International (which began
with a similar mission at about the same time)? And why do such groups
appear to be credible and moral - if not as vocal - only when it comes to
human-rights violations outside the Middle East, such as those in China?
Part of the answer is the addiction to the influence, power, and money that
lies just below the moral fašade. The collapse of the Soviet empire forced
groups like HRW to create new objectives if they wanted to keep the
donations coming (and they succeeded; HRW executive director Ken Roth has a
$350,000 salary package). The struggle against South African apartheid was
but a short-lived substitute.
HRW and Amnesty transformed from human rights groups to "research
organizations," claiming expertise in the complexities of international law
and armed conflict. They added a few self-proclaimed experts in these
fields, and began producing impressive-looking battlefield reports based on
unverifiable "eyewitness testimony" and emotive graphics. The Arab-Israeli
conflict was a prime target - and HRW's agenda fit directly into the
Palestinian political strategy of isolating and demonizing Israel through
the vocabulary of human rights.
The campaign to label Zionism as racism, endorsed by the U.N. in the
mid-1970s, returned in the late 1990s as the Oslo process exploded, giving
the NGO network a powerful platform. For the Arabs and Iran, anti-Israel NGO
activists who labeled Zionism as "neo-colonialism" and the "new apartheid"
became convenient allies. Double standards promoting anti-Israel positions
provided direct access to the United Nations Human Rights Commission (now
Council), led by moral stalwarts such as Iran, Libya, Pakistan, and Cuba. In
every round of violence, including the 2002 Jenin "massacre" myth, the 2006
Lebanon war, and numerous others, HRW officials called for international
investigations of Israeli "war crimes" and "violations of international
law." Meanwhile, HRW's annual income grew as fast as Bernie Madoff's
Most recently, during the Gaza war, the U.N. Human Rights Council appointed
HRW board member Richard Goldstone to head the inquisition. This highlighted
the symbiotic relationship between powerful political NGOs and the
anti-Western and anti-Israel regimes that control the relevant U.N.
frameworks. And as a U.S.-based NGO with many Jewish donors, HRW was a
welcome ally in Israel-bashing. (Goldstone resigned from HRW, and his name
was quickly removed from the website, after NGO Monitor highlighted the
conflict of interest.)
Because the U.N. amplifies the role of NGOs, these organizations receive
enhanced media coverage and exercise "soft power." Journalists usually
accept and repeat the obsessions and automatic condemnations published by
human-rights superpowers, without bothering to check the "evidence"
presented. And this media attention, in turn, helps the top NGOs get more
money from foundations promoting radical agendas (like George Soros's Open
Society Institute, and the Ford Foundation), na´ve donors, and now, perhaps,
the Saudis. (HRW has also established a relationship with Qaddafi in Libya,
praising the "spirit of reform.")
But power and money are only part of the explanation for the radical
political agenda. HRW, like other once-liberal organizations, has been
captured by activists with anti-democratic ideologies, strong egos, and
major chips on their shoulders. Following Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Joseph
Massad, and others, the NGO world is filled with anti-nationalists and
anarchists who define military power as inherently evil and victimhood as
moral, regardless of context or behavior. Thus, an Israel that can defend
itself is on the bad side of the moral ledger, along with the United States;
Palestinians - the world's most successful victims - are patronizingly
excused from all responsibility to act morally.
Another factor in HRW's disproportionate emphasis on Israel is the number of
anti-Israel Jews among its top officials, beginning with Executive Director
Kenneth Roth. Roth has often held press conferences in Jerusalem's American
Colony Hotel, home base for the pro-Palestinian media, in order to attack
Israel. As suicide bombers were slaughtering hundreds of Israelis, Roth's
solution was to call for sending police into Gaza's slums to arrest the
perpetrators and bring them to trial. In 2006, Roth condemned Israel's
response to Hezbollah rocket attacks and kidnapping of soldiers as an "eye
for an eye" approach resulting from "the morality of some more primitive
Reed Brody, another Jew, led the HRW delegation to the infamous 2001 NGO
Forum of the U.N. Durban Conference, which labeled Israel "an apartheid
state." Brody was also active in the case brought against Prime Minister
Sharon in a Belgium court while hundreds of Israelis were being killed in
Arafat's terror campaign.
For many years, HRW's founders and board members paid little attention to
these dimensions, relying instead on Roth's cool assurances, stage presence
from the NPR studios to the salons of Davos, and unprecedented fundraising
success. Some minor obsessions over Israel could be overlooked when measured
against HRW's status as an NGO superpower and moral arbiter.
But now the facade is thinning, and HRW has become a subsidiary of Saudi
Arabia, one of the top human-rights abusers in the world. According to Arab
News, Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of HRW's Middle East and North
Africa (MENA) division, and Hassan Elmasry, a member of both the HRW Board
of Directors and the MENA advisory committee, attended a "welcoming dinner"
and encouraged "prominent members of Saudi society" to make up 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." Whitson has reportedly
sought to reel in the Saudis by touting HRW's (invented) "evidence of Israel
using white phosphorus and launching systematic destructive attacks on
civilian targets," and by invoking the "pro-Israel pressure groups" that
"strongly resisted the report and tried to discredit it."
In response to extensive ridicule, Whitson and Roth lashed out at their
critics (they accused NGO Monitor of lying), but they have not offered any
details to contradict this version of events or the systematic analysis
exposing HRW's targeting of Israel. They have also tried to sell a
distinction between soliciting the Saudi regime for money, and wooing
wealthy private individuals and Wahhabi religious officials in Saudi Arabia
who, we are assured, are genuinely concerned about human rights. Right.
In terms of its budget and ideological agenda, HRW's embrace of the Saudis
makes sense, because it can compensate for the group's loss of support from
liberal Jews. In addition, this new partnership is based on a shared agenda
of attacking Israel and the legitimacy of a Jewish nation-state - while more
than 50 officially Islamic countries are universally accepted.
But as a result, HRW's halo has been tarnished, perhaps beyond repair. The
long history of cynical manipulation of moral rhetoric notwithstanding, the
absurdity of a Saudi-supported human-rights organization that targets Israel
may be a step too far. For the first time, Roth and Whitson find themselves
being held accountable and answering charges, rather than playing
prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner. If this also becomes true of
Amnesty International and the other human-rights superpowers that have gone
bad, this will mark a major step in restoring the moral foundation of
universal human rights.
- Prof. Gerald Steinberg is executive director of NGO Monitor and chair of
political science at Bar Ilan University.