Bernstein, Human Rights Watch, and NGO Monitor (Updated)

by Kevin Jon Heller

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.

20 Responses

  1. Thanks for the endorsement.NGO Monitor’s reports are fully sourced, and the methodology is transparent, consistent and professional, in contrast to the pseudo-legal and -technical mix from HRW and Amnesty. And yes, due to the constant barrage of “research reports” related to Israel, NGO Monitor has a full plate.
    Unless you think that NGO superpowers should be immune from criticism because they say that they are doing good things, you are welcome to partake in the debate. You can use our methodology and track record in Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Lebanon (on Hezbollah), Saudi Arabia, and anywhere else. Or send us a donation (we don’t do Riyadh) and we will expand the research team. We don’t yet have Roth’s $40 million budget.And to see a few of examples (fully sourced) of what HRW got wrong on Israel, Hamas, and Hezbollah (Roth’s “lies and deceptions”), follow this link

  2. Heller, I’m not really following your unfounded attack on NGO Monitor.  We track NGOs, not the “sides” in the Arab-Israeli conflict and you obviously haven’t read “every single report” from 2009, otherwise, you would know that we praise NGOs where such praise is merited like in our report last week on NGO reporting on Iran or our report on Kav La Oved’s UPR statement (which is very critical of Israel).

    Anyway, quit trying to do a bait and switch on the real issue here:  the illegitimacy of HRW  (self-proclaimed paragons of human rights) shilling for cash from Saudi elites, responsible for maintianing one of the world’s most repressive regimes, touting its record of “standing up” to the “Israel Lobby”.

    Anne Herzberg
    Legal Advisor
    NGO Monitor

  3. I blog about Human Rights Watch, and Kevin Jon Heller “responds with lies and deception.”

    And Kevin, some people who are pro-Israel “support human rights, too.”

  4. Note that the first quote is directly from HRW director Roth talking about pro-Israel people, with no qualifications.

    The second is from HRW Middle East director Whitson, suggesting falsely that I wrote or suggested that  no Arabs support human rights.

  5. It’s not worth getting into a fight over whether NGO Monitor is a credible critic of HRW and other NGOs that have the temerity to criticize Israel.  Readers should check out their reports and judge for themselves which side is pseudo-legal and pseudo-technical.

    That said, I think Ms. Herzberg’s comment is revealing: HRW is “shilling for cash from Saudi elites, responsible for maintaining one of the world’s most repressive regimes.”  As Roth pointed out, HRW’s fundraising was focused on progressive forces in Saudi Arabia and was accompanied by serious criticisms of the Saudi regime.  Ms. Herzberg’s dismissal of those forces as “elites, responsible for maintaining” the Saudi regime thus simply makes his point about how slanted criticism of HRW tends to be.

    As for David, I don’t know what quotes he is talking about — I hope he will elaborate.  For the record, I certainly never suggested that one cannot be pro-Israel and pro-human rights, and neither did Roth.  There are a great number of progressive Israeli individuals, groups, and parties that are passionate defenders of human rights.  And although I believe that conservative elements in Israel and in the US ultimately do Israel far more harm than good, I don’t doubt that they love Israel and sincerely believe that what they are doing is right.  I wish David and other conservatives would grant their ideological opponents the same respect.

  6. Kevin, the first quote is what Ken Roth said about HRW’s pro-Israel critics, as quoted by Goldberg.  The second quote is from Whitson, who responded to my piece by stating, as you quote her above, that “Believe it or not, some Arabs believe in human rights too,” even though there was absolutely nothing in my piece that suggested that no Arabs believe in human rights.  Such obnoxious and dishonorable rhetoric by Roth and Whitson doesn’t exactly help their case.

  7. I would also suggest readers check out the trackbacked post at Augean Stables, a conservative blog.  Once again proving that HRW’s critics have no desire to actually acquaint themselves with the organization’s work, the author claims that HRW never “call[ed] for an independent UN inquiry into war crimes in” Sri Lanka.  Apparently, this report from April — confusingly entitled “Sri Lanka: Government Admission Shows Need for UN Inquiry” — doesn’t exist.


  8. Berstein (since we have apparently dropped the professor title on this thread), if you copy my posts, could you please clean up my spelling errors!!!!!!!

  9. Kevin, David, others: – HRW’s Saudi adventure reflects the wider decay resulting from economics (follow the money), ego, the imperative of organizational survival, and ideology. These have transformed ex-human rights groups like HRW and Amnesty into “research” organizations, claiming expertise that they do not have in advanced military technology, asymmetric warfare, and international law. “Reports” from HRW and Amnesty claiming to dissect complex battlefield events are a mix of unverifiable “eyewitness” allegations and speculation based on a few scraps of questionable (at best) information. Look at HRW’s latest bogus “report” on IDF use of drones or Amnesty’s 127-pager on Gaza. A few people collecting “testimony” and looking at damage after a battle cannot possibly be able to reach the conclusions claimed by the authors. And the obsessive focus on Israel gets HRW and Amnesty headlines (most journalists cut and paste), gives them a platform on the UN Human Rights Circus, satisfies the ideological edge, and keeps the money flowing. Sri Lanka, the Congo, or women’s rights in Saudi won’t do this, so why bother?  – Gerald

  10. I’m not sure you’re parsing that particular Augean Stables comment in the only manner possible.

    “Don’t forget calling for an independent UN inquiry into war crimes in Sri Lanka.”

    It seems to me he’s contrasting their Sri Lanka stance with the lack of a call to investigate Saudi Arabia in a similar manner.

    The link in that particular comment isn’t very informative, as it really discusses only the UNHRC.

  11. Kevin, you should be in good spirits about being smeared by David Bernstein on the Volokh blog–it means your academic fortunes are about to skyrocket.  Recall:  Bernstein smears Massad, Massad gets tenure.  Bernstein mixes it up with Leiter (lots of times, and fun each time!), and Leiter goes from Texas to Chicago.  The pattern really is clear.

    Not that a sensible person would want to leave Melbourne!

  12. Dear Brian,

    It’s just like you to recklessly throw around the term “smear.”  Please explain exactly what you mean by “smear,” and how what I wrote about Kevin constitutes a “smear,” as opposed to, say, pointed criticism.

  13. Or maybe I’ll just by the t-shirt, “I’ve been smeared by Brian Leiter.”  Should be an academic best-seller.

  14. MG,

    I can’t be certain, but I’m pretty sure my interpretation of the Sri Lanka statement is correct.  It comes after a quote that ends with “HRW is not campaigning for an ‘independent UN inquiry’ on Saudi treatment of women, minorities, or members of other religions,” which seems to imply that the Sri Lanka statement is sarcastic.  And if you click through the link, Augean Stables says that — ridiculously — “[a]s I have often mentioned here, Charles Jacobs HRC predicts that if the perps in human rights violations are ‘people of color’, then the human rights community has nothing to say. Sri Lanka is a QED for the theory.”  That seems consistent with my interpretation that Augean Stables believes — wrongly — that HRW has not asked for a UN inquiry for Sri Lanka (because the perps are people of color).  Agree?  Disagree?

  15. Gerald,

    I have a simple question for you: how many NGO Monitor employees go into conflict or post-conflict situations — especially Gaza — to interview witnesses?

  16. Kevin,
    You wrote: “I have a simple question for you: how many NGO Monitor employees go into conflict or post-conflict situations — especially Gaza — to interview witnesses?”
    Simple? You seem to be entirely unfamiilar with reality here. Israelis who go to Gaza without the IDF do not come out alive — in fact, some Israelis who just go near Gaza are killed, and one — Gilad Shalit — was kidnapped three years (via a tunnel from Gaza into Israel) and is still being held. Perhaps you would like to reconsider your question after reading NGO Monitor’s systematic research reports on over 100 NGOs. This resesarch is not dependent on examining “witnesses” whose allegations may or may not be accurate. Instead, we examine NGO reports, and identify blatantly false claims (Gaza beach — June 2006, as noted by M. Gross), double standards, invented legal arguments, contradictions, etc. I suspect you will agree that this work is both necessary and important, and decide to join in speaking truth to (HRW) power.

  17. It certainly seems that Bernstein and Goldberg have made some substantive points against HRW’s actions in Saudi Arabia and their subsequent defensive statements.

    Seems as well that KJH is not addressing these, but instead prefers to defend HRW’s record from accusations of being anti-Israel.

    Whitson and Roth were quite evasive and general regarding the substance of the discussions in the Riyadh parlor meetings – this is quite disturbing and leads to the impression that they might be representing HRW and its goals to the Saudis in a manner that is different than the manner they wish to portray to the West.

  18. I suppose either reading is possible, let’s just say that the blog in question could benefit from clearer writing.

    Logically, it’d flow better if they were pointing out that no one had called for such things against Sri Lanka, but that’s not the only possibility.  I just tend to give people the benefit of the doubt as to reading when the alternative is a factual error.

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