By David Bernstein
A delegation from Human Rights Watch was recently in Saudi Arabia. To investigate the mistreatment of women under Saudi Law? To campaign for the rights of homosexuals, subject to the death penalty in Saudi Arabia? To protest the lack of religious freedom in the Saudi Kingdom? To issue a report on Saudi political prisoners?
No, no, no, and no. The delegation arrived to raise money from wealthy Saudis by highlighting HRW’s demonization of Israel. An HRW spokesperson, Sarah Leah Whitson, highlighted HRW’s battles with “pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations.” (Was Ms. Whitson required to wear a burkha, or are exceptions made for visiting anti-Israel “human rights” activists”? Driving a car, no doubt, was out of the question.)
Apparently, Ms. Whitson found no time to criticize Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record. But never fear, HRW “recently called on the Kingdom to do more to protect the human rights of domestic workers.
There is nothing wrong with a human rights organization worrying about maltreatment of domestic workers. But there is something wrong when a human rights organization goes to one of the worst countries in the world for human rights to raise money to wage lawfare against Israel, and says not a word during the trip about the status of human rights in that country. In fact, it’s a virtual certainty that everyone in Whitson’s audience employs domestic servants, giving her a perfect, untaken opportunity to boast about HRW’s work in improving the servants’ status. But Whitson wasn’t raising money for human rights; she was raising money for HRW’s propaganda campaign against Israel.
Someone who claims to have worked for HRW wrote to me, “I can tell you that the people on the research and policy side of the organization have little, if any, contacts with people on the donor side.” If that’s true, apparently this is yet another exception HRW makes for Israel: Ms. Whitson, who gave the presentation to potential Saudi donors, is director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division.
Also, as a Nathan Wagner comments at Opinio Juris: “Surely there is a moral difference between raising funds in free nations through appeals to ideals of universal human rights and raising money in repressive nations through appeals highlighting pressure brought against their enemies. [Moreover], the former type of fundraising does not imperil the organization’s mission, but fundraising Bernstein highlights does, since any significant reliance on such funds will necessarily mute criticism of the repressive government.”
Finally, some would defend HRW by pointing it that it has criticized Saudi Arabia’s human rights record rather severely in the past. The point of my post, though, is not that HRW is pro-Saudi, but that it is maniacally anti-Israel. The most recent manifestation is that its officers see nothing unseemly about raising funds among the elite of one of the most totalitarian nations on earth, with a pitch about how the money is needed to fight “pro-Israel forces,” without the felt need to discuss any of the Saudis’ manifold human rights violations, and without apparent concern that becoming dependent on funds emanating from a brutal dictatorship leaves you vulnerable to that brutal dictatorship later cutting off the flow of funds, if you don’t “behave.”
Mr. Bernstein is a professor of law at George Mason University and the author of “You Can’t Say That! The Growing Threat to Civil Liberties from Anti-Discrimination Laws.” This article first appeared on the Volokh Conspiracy web site.