David Bernstein’s (Ongoing) Caricature of Human Rights Watch

by Kevin Jon Heller

David Bernstein is back with another attack on Human Rights Watch.  This time, he’s up in arms that an HRW official had the temerity to criticize Israel in Saudi Arabia during a fundraising dinner:

A delegation from Human Rights Watch was recently in Saudi Arabia. To investigate the mistreatment of women under Saudi Law? To campaign for the rights of homosexuals, subject to the death penalty in Saudi Arabia? To protest the lack of religious freedom in the Saudi Kingdom? To issue a report on Saudi political prisoners?

No, no, no, and no. The delegation arrived to raise money from wealthy Saudis by highlighting HRW’s demonization of Israel. An HRW spokesperson, Sarah Leah Whitson, highlighted HRW’s battles with “pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations.” (Was Ms. Whitson required to wear a burkha, or are exceptions made for visiting anti-Israel “human rights” activists”? Driving a car, no doubt, was out of the question.)

Apparently, Ms. Whitson found no time to criticize Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record. But never fear, HRW “recently called on the Kingdom to do more to protect the human rights of domestic workers.”

Bernstein has previously described HRW as “almost cartoonishly biased against Israel.”  The only thing cartoonish, however, is Bernstein’s blatant misrepresentation of Whitson’s work.  Here is a list of her recent comments on Saudi Arabia, which take all of about 30 seconds to find on HRW’s website:

  • Criticized Saudi Arabia’s failure to protect rights, including “giving women better access to work, education, health and justice, and easing restrictions on their travel.”
  • Urged governments to criticize the lack of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia.
  • Criticized Saudi Arabia’s use of the death penalty for non-serious crimes.
  • Demanded that Saudi Arabia release political prisoners.
  • Criticized Saudi Arabia for imposing draconian discipline against a lawyer who attempted to represent a rape victim.
  • Asked Saudi courts to stop trials for “insulting” Islam.

I could go on, but you get the point.


12 Responses

  1. Surely there is a moral difference between raising funds in free nations through appeals to ideals of universal human rights and raising money in repressive nations through appeals highlighting pressure brought against their enemies.

    More even that that, the former type of fundraising does not imperil the organization’s mission, but fundraising Bernstein highlights does, since any significan reliance on such funds will necessarily mute criticism of the repressive government.

    Bernstein may be reflexive in his response to NGO attacks on Israel, but the fundraising he opposes is hardly innocuous.

  2. Kevin,

    Give me a call when HRW sends representatives to Efrat to raise money to investigate human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, and brags to the Israeli donors about how HRW has been fending off the “pro-Arab lobby.”

  3. At the risk of posting twice on what is essentially the same topic (Here and at Volokh Conspiracy) I would have thought that HRW was sufficiently beyond parody, especially after their debacle of an “investigation” into the alleged Israeli beach shelling.

    That they should attempt to raise money from the people who’s agenda they are furthering is hardly surprising.  Perhaps they can stop by Syria while they’re in the neighborhood.

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  5. HLS,

    I see: it’s okay in your book to sarcastically attack Whitson for not criticizing Saudi Arabia for X, Y, and Z during an event, an attack obviously intended to make her seem soft on the Saudis, without mentioning that Whitson has repeatedly criticized Saudi Arabia for X, Y, and Z in the recent past.  Noted for future reference.

  6. Professor Heller,

    Putting aside Professor Berstein’s post, are your comfortable with HRW going to Saudi Arabia and using its work vis-a-vis Israel or Jewish entities in the US as the focus of its fund raising?  I agree with you that Professor Berstein’s criticism is myopic (to be charitable), but I think the point is using one’s work against Israel as a donation argument in an Arabic country is very troublesome.

    For example, pretend that HRW attended a right-wing event to raise funs with the argument that they were “sticking it to the Arabs” with their focus on women’s rights. 

  7. NSD,

    I think that is a very fair question — and I appreciate the civil tone in which you ask it.  My answer depends on whether HRW is even-handed in its fundraising.  If it fundraises with progressive Jews by highlighting its criticisms of Hamas, no.  But if it is one-sided, absolutely.  I have an email into a friend at HRW to ask precisely that question; I’ll report the results when I get them.

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  9. Too bad SLW didn’t make any of those criticisms while she was speaking to the Saudis in person.  Instead, she just touted HRW’s anti-Israel bonafides.  And until last year, HRW rarely issued reports on any kind on Saudi Arabia.  See our analyses of HRW’s Mid-East report dating back to 2004.

    And for more on HRW’s moral failings when it comes to protecting universal human rights, see http://www.ngo-monitor.org

    Anne Herzberg
    Legal Advisor

  10. HLS,

    A position that could be taken seriously if only it was accompanied by an actual explanation of how I mischaracterize his argument and why my counter-evidence is irrelevant!

  11. Kevin, I’ll bite.

    You represent his argument as: HRW kow-tow to repressive facists, and refute it with evidence that they don’t always do so.  He can fairly argue that his argument is only that HRW at least sometimes do, bolstered with evidence of a recent occasion when they appear to have done just that. So whilst I think that  mis-representation may be too strong, OTOH, your evidence compounds (imho) Bernstein’s point as much as it refutes it.

    Consider this version: Although in the past, HRW have criticised the blatant and institutionalised abuse and denial of human rights by the quasi-police state of Saudi Arabia, they have never quite managed to convey one iota of the enthusiast denunciation they reserve for their favorite democratic, subject-to-law free country, Israel.

    Whilst I and my ilk traditionally attribute this to either the modern left’s pathetic victim-worship, or worse to anti-semitism full stop, we now have another possible reason. Applying our justifiably bleak view of human nature and Occam’s razor, this new rationale is our new favourite. Simply put: cashola.

    Hence it is that we find on a recent trip to Saudi Arabia, HRW goodthinker of the week Sarah Leah Whitson. Whitson has previously made clear that she is aware of Saudi Arabia’s legion failings in the Human Rights department, but she wasn’t there for such trivia this time. This time she was there for the twin peaks of HRW existence: to raise money, and as an incident thereto to slam Israel and HRW’s stalwart work against the might of the nefarious global Israel lobby.

    I respectfully suggest that my version is at least as offensive despite the full disclosure of your relevant facts.

    More seriously, HRW pride themselves on being independent, but this raises two quasi-existential threats to them. First, the poisonous allure of Israel-bashing does sometime threaten to contanimate and devalue not only their other work, but the numerous legitimate criticisms that might be made of Israel. Secondly, I know that it is almost sweetest if rich Saudis can be convinced to fund HRW, but there is a real risk of giving very wrong impressions by soliciting same. HRW appear not to have so much managed that risk as blatantly embraced it.

    Surely even you, overwhelming sympathetic to HRW and more or less antipathetic to Israel, can see how easy is must be for a neutral observer to dismiss HRW’s criticisms of Israel when given examples such as this???

  12. Let’s see.  DB writes:

    <i>highlighting HRW’s demonization of Israel.</i>

    And what “demonization” was that?

    <i>An HRW spokesperson, Sarah Leah Whitson, highlighted HRW’s battles with “pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations.”</i>

    Uh huh.  So, HRW has opposed “pro-Israel pressure groups.”  This is “demonizing” Israel.

    DB is worth reading on legal topics, but when Israel comes up, his rhetoric tends to, well, demonization.

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