PJ Media

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.

Saudi Arabia is ground zero for paranoid Islamic politics. Founded on a strict Wahhabist doctrine of Islamic social control, its media is entirely state-run; its women are kept in a state of second-class citizenry (if not sexual servitude), prohibited from driving cars or appearing unveiled in public; Jews from other countries are denied entry; and its homosexuals are executed in the capital in a site colloquially known as “Chop-Chop Square” (whose name tells you enough about the means of execution). The House of Saud also underwrites particularly virulent anti-Semitic editions of the Koran, many of which find their way into American prisons and madrassas around the world, many of which graduate members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist cells. And Saudi Arabia, one can’t forget, was home to 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11.

Goldberg first got Roth to admit that he was not present at Whitson’s fundraising confab, which Roth explained included a “a guy from the national human rights commission and someone from the Shura Council; not sure whether you’d consider them government or not.” The Shura Council, established in 1993, is the unelected body of 150 government advisers, who recommend what laws to pass on everything from inflation to foreign policy; so it is safe to say that a “guy” from it indeed qualifies as Saudi government. The Shura Council’s role in pushing reform on the treatment of Saudi domestic workers — evidently, the ewe-lamb of HRW’s human rights concern in the kingdom — has not mitigated its role in supporting some of the most reactionary state laws in existence. Additionally, the presence of such a flunky indicates the government’s eagerness to hear what a prominent human rights NGO is selling on Saudi soil; no doubt the Shura Council’s man was there to report back on how some of the country’s richest and most philanthropically inclined citizens responded to such salesmanship.

After a few back-and-forth missives, in which Roth was oblique and evasive, Goldberg put it to him plainly: “I’m simply asking the question, did your staff person attempt to raise funds in Saudi Arabia by advertising your organization’s opposition to the pro-Israel lobby?” To this Roth finally 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.”

HRW’s “standard spiel” is precisely the problem. When confronted with a roomful of potential benefactors and state monitors, all of whom were well disposed toward antipathy toward Israel, if not a Protocols-style conception of international Jewry, is it really responsible to play into such prejudices at all, much less for the sake of getting checks signed for humanitarian work? One also wonders what “lies and obfuscation” emanate from a country known for its libel tourism and unmatched ability to silence any Western criticism of how its vast oil wealth gets spent.