Some Rights Causes Are More Equal Than Others

The London Times obtained an internal email from Sam Zarifi, director of AI’s Asia-Pacific program, expressing similar concerns. “We should be clear that some of Amnesty’s campaigning … did not always sufficiently distinguish between the rights of detainees to be free from torture and arbitrary detention, and the validity of their views,” Zarifi wrote to AI staffers. AI later published a letter from Zarifi essentially confirming this statement.

Sahgal later told the Guardian, “I think the [AI] leadership is ideologically bankrupt, as has been shown in the handling of this. There have been systemic failures even before I went public. Questions need to be asked of the political and senior leadership. There is a deep misogyny in the human rights movement.”

Likewise, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has sometimes sacrificed advocacy for oppressed groups to avoid offending Muslim sensibilities. Scott Long, former director of HRW’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program, repeatedly accused British gay rights advocate Peter Tatchell of “Islamophobia” in Tatchell’s campaign against Iran’s execution of homosexuals. Long charged that Tatchell had misrepresented criminal rapists and heterosexuals as gay martyrs. Rather than sticking with the facts, Long’s 2009 essay “Unbearable Witness” attacks Tatchell’s motives as deriving from anti-Muslim prejudice. Although Long wrote this 18-page article indicting Tatchell and other gay rights advocates, he apparently never published a report on Iranian repression of homosexuals that was the subject of dozens of interviews conducted by HRW.

HRW’s advocacy on the separate but related subject of Israel vis-à-vis its Muslim neighbors shows similarly skewed priorities. Last year, the organization’s fundraising and personnel were criticized for anti-Israel bias. Its own founder, Robert L. Bernstein, censured HRW in a New York Times op-ed published on October 20, 2009: “The plight of their citizens [of Arab and Iranian regimes] who would most benefit from the kind of attention a large and well-financed international human rights organization can provide is being ignored as Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division prepares report after report on Israel.”

Between January 2009 and August 2010, HRW published seven reports on Israel (two ostensibly about rights violations by Palestinians also criticized Israel), two on Iran, none on Egypt, and two primarily on Saudi Arabia. None addressed Iran’s oppression of homosexuals, Egypt’s abuse of Christians, or Saudi subjugation of non-Muslims, women, and homosexuals. HRW’s 2009 report Human Rights and Saudi Arabia’s Counterterrorism Response focuses on detainee mistreatment without mentioning “Islamic extremism,” except in reference to a New York Times Magazine article.

By shielding Islamic people, religion, ideologies, governments, and societies from the open criticism routinely applied to all others, these rights groups effectively favor oppressors over victims. Long’s public abuse of Tatchell while shortchanging Iranian abuse of homosexuals illustrates the point: HRW sacrificed advocacy for homosexuals to advocacy for Islam.

In June, HRW apologized for Long’s personal attacks on Tatchell, although not for alleging that Tatchell had gotten his facts wrong. Joseph Saunders, HRW’s deputy program director, confirmed the apology’s text. In August, Long left HRW, citing health reasons. HRW has not responded to requests to clarify whether Long resigned or was fired. His name has disappeared from the organization’s website. In September, HRW published a 56-page report critical of Saudi treatment of women and religious minorities.

There is nothing inherently wrong with focusing on certain groups or causes. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has as its particular mission advocacy on behalf of African-Americans. The Anti-Defamation League was founded “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people.” These organizations advocate for other people besides and have done much good for many. They need not fight all battles to help some, and their primary constituencies offer a lens through which they pick and choose their battles.

By contrast, the ACLU, AI, and HRW present themselves as rights groups with a general mandate. Their unwillingness to apply the same standards to critics of Islam, Islamists, and the Muslim world as to those supporting them amounts to hypocrisy and dereliction of a self-imposed duty to promote rights standards evenhandedly. In the struggle against Islamist attempts to claim special privileges at others’ expense, victims are well advised to seek help from alternative sources to vindicate their rights.

This article was sponsored by Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.