Bernstein, Human Rights Watch, and NGO Monitor (Updated)
David Bernstein is in high-dudgeon mode again about Human Rights Watch’s fundraising in Saudi Arabia. This time, he is up in arms about a statement Ken Roth made to The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg during a recent email exchange. Goldberg asked Roth if his “staff person attempt[ed] to raise funds in Saudi Arabia by advertising your organization’s opposition to the pro-Israel lobby?” Roth responded:
That’s certainly part of the story. We report on Israel. Its supporters fight back with lies and deception. It wasn’t a pitch against the Israel lobby per se. Our standard spiel is to describe our work in the region. Telling the Israel story — part of that pitch — is in part telling about the lies and obfuscation that are inevitably thrown our way.
After inserting an editorial “!!!!!!” after “lies and deception,” Bernstein claims that “director Roth has now revealed to Goldberg that he thinks that (apparently all) criticism of HRW’s ‘reporting’ on Israel amounts to ‘lies and deception’ — although anyone who has studied the issue can present numerous examples in which HRW was wrong, and Israel’s supporters correct, including my first link above. The logical conclusion is that HRW is institutionally hostile to Israel.”
Notice Bernstein’s clever rhetorical move: he interprets Roth to be claiming that “apparently all” criticism of HRW amounts to “lies and deception” and then rebuts his own interpretation by pointing out that HRW has been wrong before (a claim that he supports only by linking to his own previous posts about HRW).
I highly recommend that readers take a look at the entire email exchange between Goldberg and Roth and judge for themselves whether Roth said anything particularly scandalous. Pay particular attention to Roth’s first email, in which he explains why it is so important for HRW to work with progressive forces in repressive countries like Saudi Arabia:
It’s a pity that David Bernstein didn’t bother to do the most basic fact-checking before posting his opinion piece today (Human Rights Watch Goes to Saudi Arabia,” July 14, 2009), where he alleges that Human Rights Watch “said not a word about the status of human rights” in Saudi Arabia during our recent trip there, where one of our supporters hosted a dinner for us. Had he asked me, and not just “someone who claims to have worked for HRW,” the only source he ever cites, he would know that we did indeed spend much of the time in serious discussion about Saudi violations, including its troubled justice system and the lack of women’s rights, as well as our work in the region, including Israel. Mr. Bernstein implies that our work on Saudi has gone soft, focusing only on foreign domestic workers; had he checked our website, he’d know that Human Rights Watch in recent years has published more reports and press releases on a variety of rights problems in Saudi Arabia than any other human rights organization in the world. What’s really at the heart of Mr. Bernstein’s gripe is his misconception that efforts to raise support among Saudis are unseemly because, well, if they live in a totalitarian country, they must be bad people too. Human Rights Watch accepts funding from private individuals and foundations the world over, which we never allow to affect the independence of our work; we are proud to have a Saudi on the Middle East Advisory Committee and look forward to building an even stronger support base throughout the region. Support from citizens of Arab countries for the work of Human Rights Watch – including our vocal, public criticism of rights violations by their governments – is something to be applauded, not denigrated. Believe it or not, some Arabs believe in human rights too.
What is most disturbing about Bernstein’s vendetta against HRW is its consistent elision of the difference between criticizing Israel and being “anti” Israel. Here is how Bernstein describes the supposed effect of HRW’s fundraising in Saudi Arabia in an even more recent post:
Human Rights Watch’s fundraising in Saudi Arabia has cast a welcome light on the organization’s anti-Israel agenda. Much of the response among HRW’s defenders has been along the lines of, “how dare you attack a human rights organization? Typical right-wing Zionist crap, attacking the messenger.”
This criticism, of course, presumes that HRW is acting in good faith as a neutral human rights arbiter. The other possibility is that HRW’s Israel policy is driven by a leftist “anti-colonialist” agenda masquerading as a human rights agenda, and using the halo effect of HRW’s human rights work in other regions to provide it with credibility.
The evidence strongly suggests the latter.
Notice how Bernstein claims that many of HRW’s defenders dismiss criticism of the organization as “typical right-wing Zionist crap,” implying that those defenders are (by definition?) anti-Zionist. What Bernstein seemingly refuses to accept is that it is possible to believe both that Israel has a right to exist and that it violates human rights and commits war crimes. (Lest we forget, Bernstein responded to my post criticizing Dershowitz’s understanding of proportionality by claiming that I “think Israel shouldn’t exist.”) That attitude — which essentially reduces to “Israel, Love It or Leave It” — is unfortunate, because it makes productive debate impossible.
It is also difficult to overstate just how slanted Bernstein’s description of HRW’s work really is, in light of the organization’s consistent and unremitting criticism of Hamas, the Saudis, Iran, etc. (And its willingness to admit when its criticism of Israel turns out to be mistaken.) That tendentiousness is particularly ironic given that Bernstein bases his recent posts on “reports” issued by NGO Monitor, an organization that — unlike HRW — makes absolutely no effort to be critical of both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict:
NGO Monitor’s objective is to end the practice used by certain self-declared ‘humanitarian NGOs’ of exploiting the label ‘universal human rights values’ to promote politically and ideologically motivated anti-Israel agendas.
NGO Monitor at least gets credit for truth in advertising: every single report it has issued in 2009 has attacked an NGO or state or other organization that criticized Israel.
No wonder Ken Roth is sensitive about criticism of HRW. As the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.
UPDATE: In the spirit of fairness, I want to direct readers’ attention to a new post by Bernstein criticizing me. There is no point in responding to it; I’ll just remind readers that I don’t teach in New Zealand and don’t teach human rights law — it’s Australia and international criminal law, respectively. It is, of course, never fun to be criticized by name in a major blog. But that is the price one pays for not blogging under a pseudonym. Let me just reiterate that I genuinely respect Bernstein for always blogging under his own name, despite the criticism of him by me and by others.
UPDATE 2: “Noisms” has an excellent post about the controversy over the fundraising at International Law Observer. Noisms — who has been critical of HRW in the past but rejects claims that the organization is “anti-Israel” — makes the excellent point that perceptions of HRW’s partiality may (to some extent) reflect the fact that western media outlets pay far more attention to its criticisms of Israel than to its criticisms of countries like Saudi Arabia.