Human Rights Watch Protects the Arab Tyrants

By Steinberg, Gerald M. | Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Human Rights Watch Protects the Arab Tyrants


Steinberg, Gerald M., Middle East Quarterly


In October 20 1 1 , as the Libyan uprising neared its end with the death of Mu'ammar al-Qaddafi, Human Rights Watch (HRW) - a highly influential global organization claiming to promote universal moral principles-published a statement condemning Western governments for their "apparent eagerness to embrace Qaddafi because of his support on counterterrorism, as well as lucrative business opportunities" that, according to HRW, "tempered their criticism of his human rights record in recent years."1

What this statement conspicuously failed to note is that HRW had been an active participant in this eager embrace of the Qaddafi regime. Led by Executive Director Kenneth Roth and Sarah Leah Whitson, director of its Middle East and North Africa division, HRW has an overall dismal record with regard to "naming and shaming" Arab dictatorships. Over the years, it has devoted few resources to opposing the daily human rights violations that are characteristic of these regimes and has even built alliances with some. In 2009, for example, Whitson visited Saudi Arabia, where, instead of speaking out against attacks on women, minorities, and others, she sought funds to expand HRW's role in the campaign to market the U.N. 's Goldstone report which falsely accused Israel of committing war crimes.2

HRW is a financially flush but morally bankrupt organization. With an annual budget of approximately $50 million, it is a highly visible institution with direct access to the international media, diplomats, political leaders, and United Nations bodies. Yet its documented and quantifiable behavior with regard to the Middle East demonstrates a determined effort to avert its eyes from the worst human rights abuses while focusing on postcolonial ideologues ' favorite whipping boy,3 Israel - the only democracy in the region.

HRW'S POLITICAL IMPACT AND THE "HALO EFFECT"

The warped agenda that focuses disproportionately on the Jewish state was the basis for criticism voiced by HRW's founder Robert Bernstein in 2009 regarding the organization's failure to direct resources to the practices of totalitarian Arab regimes.4 Detailed documentation and global campaigns on these countries would have required hard work, including obtaining access for researchers as well as responding to threats to their lives and personal safety. Israel, by contrast, was "low hanging fruit."5 Access, safety, and working conditions in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are far more comfortable for Western human rights activists (and for journalists and diplomats) than Damascus, Tripoli, Gaza, or Baghdad. The focus on Israel is also part of the wider post-colonial ideology, which prefers targeting Western democratic societies for their supposed failings.

But HRW is not simply passive with respect to authoritarian Middle Eastern countries. The organization's very limited criticism and actual cooperation with closed Arab regimes has added to the protection that they receive (or extort) from other watchdog international organizations. The agenda of the U.N. Human Rights Council (or Commission prior to 2006), for example, has been manipulated by the powerful Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) with its rotating membership often including these dictatorships. The OIC members have had no interest in drawing attention to or investigating their own violations. At the same time, their highly biased agenda was supported by the nongovernmental organization (NGO) network active in the U.N., including HRW. Roth, as the head of HRW, indirectly acknowledged this neglect and sought to justify the selective targeting and double standards as "higher expectations" for democracies.6

Furthermore, in forming the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) division in the 1 990s, Roth brought in Joe Stork and then Sarah Leah Whitson, both of whom had records reflecting ideologically based activism, a warped romanticism toward violent Arab strongmen, and double standards regarding human rights.

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