Human Rights Watch Cozies Up to Saudis

At what point does a human rights watchdog group forfeit its claim to impartiality and moral integrity?

Perhaps when one of its executives uses her organization’s rap sheet against Israel as an incentive for scaring up funds from hirelings of a repressive Arab regime.

As disclosed by David Bernstein in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Sarah Leah Whitson, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division, went to Saudi Arabia last May with the following sweetener for her audience of would-be donors: Didn’t they know that her outfit routinely did battle with “pro-Israel pressure groups in the U.S., the European Union and the United Nations”? (Exactly what such groups exist in the European Union and United Nations, Whitson apparently failed to elaborate.)

According to Bernstein, Whitson did not take the opportunity to criticize her host country’s own abominable human rights record, except to call attention to the plight of its domestic workers. His source for this accusation was “someone who claimed to have worked for HRW,” who further informed Bernstein that there’s virtually no cross-current within the organization between research and policy on the one side and fundraising efforts on the other -- a claim belied slightly by the fact that Whitson, according to her bio page at the HRW website, has written numerous articles on Lebanon, Egypt, and Israel, all in her capacity as an HRW representative.

Indeed, her prose is usually more sober than her overseas table talk. See, for instance, this rebuttal she published to an article in Counterpunch -- an ultra-left newsletter that questions the “official” story of how the Twin Towers fell and has never met a supposed perfidy of the Jewish state it didn’t take at face value -- which argued that Hezbollah did not willfully target Israeli civilians with its Katyusha rockets. Not that Whitson is immune from using fashionable leftist cant even when she combats her leftist critics; she has referred to Hezbollah as the “Islamic Resistance” while defending HRW’s record on objectively reporting war crimes in the 2006 Israeli assault on Lebanon.

Ken Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, at first denied Bernstein’s account in an angry dispatch to the Journal, in which he claimed that the delegation he was part of in Riyadh “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.” Moreover, Roth said, “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.”

Roth’s letter, however, raised two interesting questions. First, why was Israel even brought up in this setting, and was it in such a context as Bernstein alleged -- namely, to show that HRW is on the same anti-Zionist page as its Saudi interlocutors? Second, who were those interlocutors, exactly -- were they all rich private citizens or functionaries of the regime?

Into this dispute came The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, whose blog has become an invaluable compendium of interviews with embarrassed public figures. In a prologue to his email exchange with Roth, Goldberg noted that Whitson, if the charges against her were true, was swimming in especially fetid waters because the term “pro-Israel lobby” refers on the Arabian Peninsula not to AIPAC or evangelical Zionists who endorse the U.S.-Israeli special relationship, but rather to a sinister conspiracy of Jews who look, as Goldberg put it, to “dominate the world politically, culturally and economically.”

This is Mearsheimer-Walt territory, without the pretense of scholarly endeavor.