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July 16, 2009

Jeffrey Goldberg smears Human Rights Watch

Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic is accusing Human Rights Watch of "fundraising corruption" for allowing some of its officers to discuss the group's work in Gaza at a fundraiser in Saudi Arabia. The corruption charge is specious. Assuming Goldberg believes what he's saying, he got punk'd by an Israel-based group called NGO Monitor with ties to the Israeli government. The whole pseudo-controversy seems calculated to distract from HRW's latest revelations about Israel's use of white phosphorus in Gaza. 

It all began with a May 26 story in Arab News about the rising stature of Human Rights Watch in Saudi Arabia and the Muslim world. AN reported that prominent Saudi businessman and intellectual hosted a welcoming dinner for HRW officials during their recent visit to the kingdom. The host, who also happens to be a managing director at Morgan Stanley in London, reportedly praised group for its work in Gaza.

HRW attracted worldwide attention for its work on Israel and the Gaza Strip including its reportage on Israel's use of white phosphorous in Gaza.

A non-profit calling itself NGO Monitor picked up on the story nearly two months ago in a post entitled, "HRW Raises Funds in Saudia Arabia by Demonizing Israel." The author was incensed by the following passage in the Arab News story:

Human Rights Watch provided the international community with evidence of Israel using white phosphorus and launching systematic destructive attacks on civilian targets. Pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations have strongly resisted the report and tried to discredit it," said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa Division. [AN]

That's exactly what happened. HRW presented evidence that Israel was exploding white phosphorous shells in heavily populated areas of Gaza and inflicting hideous burns on civilians. Pro-Israel pressure groups absolutely freaked out about the HRW report and did their best to discredit it. HRW defended its work.

The IDF stopped using white phosphorus in the middle of the occupation after media reports revealed its effects on civilians. Yesterday, HRW published accounts of Israeli soldiers who admit using white phosphorous indescriminately in Gaza under unprecedently loose rules of engagement. HRW, FTW.

Predicatably, Israeli officials denounced HRW for its latest report.

Would it surprise you to learn that NGO Monitor is a pro-Israeli pressure group? According to his official bio, the group's founder and executive director, Professor Gerald Steinberg is a consultant for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and serves on a steering committee sponsored by the office of the Israeli Prime Minister.

Today, the Jerusalem Post reported that the Israeli Foreign Ministry has decided to take a "much more aggressive stance toward future reports issued by these [non-governmental] organizations":

The Foreign Ministry is currently considering how best to expand its focus and deal more systematically with this issue, and it is assumed this will be done together with the Prime Minister's Office, the Post has learned.

At a press conference last week, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the Foreign Ministry was currently involved in a reform that would place a much greater emphasis on dealing with NGOs, which Lieberman said were replacing diplomats as the engine for setting the international community's agenda. [JP]

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, said that for HRW to fundraise in Saudi Arabia was equivalent of feminists hitting up the Taliban for money.  According to the aforementioned Post story, Regev was responding to op/ed by Prof. David Bernstein that ran in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal , a version of which had originally appeared on the Volokh Conspiracy blog.  On the blog, Bernstein gave a hat tip to the "invaluable NGO Monitor" for highlighting the Arab News story.  

Let's review. We know that the founder and head of NGO Monitor consults for the Israeli Foreign Ministry and works with the Prime Minister's Office. As far as we can tell, all the current outrage about HRW in Saudi traces back to a a two-month-old post by none other than Gerald Steinberg on NGO Monitor.

The hubbub erupted just as the Israeli government attacked HRW's latest charges of reckless endangerment in Gaza and just as the Foreign Ministry and the PM's office are launching a larger offensive against NGOs that criticize Israel's rights record.

I'm not saying there's anything untoward going on here. Politicians, activists and opinion writers play off each other all the time. But it's bit rich for a pro-Israel pressure group to say that arguing with pro-Israel press is anti-Israeli.

Jeffrey Goldberg took the NGO Monitor smear even further in the Atlantic Monthly yesterday with a post headlined "Fundraising Corruption at Human Rights Watch." Corruption is a serious allegation, but all Goldberg has to go on is Bernstein's gloss of NGO Monitor's gloss of a two-month old Arab News story about how HRW officials promoted the organization's work in Gaza to potential Saudi donors.

Bernstein asserts in his op/ed that HRW didn't discuss Saudi Arabia's human rights record at the dinner party. How the would he know? The Arab News story doesn't say what, if anything, was said about Saudi Arabia's record.

Even if HRW didn't raise Saudi Arabia's human rights record at the dinner, what would that tell you? HRW was speaking to private citizens as guests at a semi-public event in a dictatorship. (It was public enought to get written up in the newspaper, anyway.) Criticizing the regime on Saudi soil might not have been prudent for them or their hosts.

A quick look at HRW's record would dispel any concerns that the organization is indifferent to Saudi Arabia's human rights record. Far from being an apologist for Saudi Arabia, HRW forcefully criticized Saudi Arabia's human rights record before the trip and continues to do so.

A quick glance at the Saudi Arabia page of the HRW website shows 14 pages of press releases assailing the regime for its record on women's rights, LGBT rights, the death penalty, burning Yemenis, blasphemy charges. HRW has publicized erosion of the country's rights and freedoms under King Abdullah and given an award to Saudi human rights lawyer Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim for defending the rights of his countrymen. Most recently HRW has been in the news castigating the regime for abuses against domestic workers.

Bernstein tries to head off this criticism by insisting that he's not concerned that HRW is pro-Saudi, just that it's anti-Israeli:

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." [WSJ]

Bernstein's trying to equate clashing with particular advocacy groups over a report on Gaza with being against Israel. What a ridiculous logical fallacy.

Israel is a country. Like all countries, it sometimes violates human rights. You can criticize the rights violations without condemning the entire country. Just because you answer a critique of a report levied by a pro-Israel group doesn't make you anti-Israel or even anti-group.

Bernstein puts quotes around "pro-Israel forces" suggesting that Sarah Leah Whitson expressed a desire to fight pro-Israel forces. The AN story contains no such quote.

Finally, it's offensive for Bernstein and and Goldberg to claim that accepting donations from individual Saudis is inherently more problematic than taking money from anyone else. One of the fundamental problems with any private charity is that the money comes from the people who feel like giving it. However, getting money from individual Saudis is not the same as being beholden to the regime.

It's ridiculous to say that, as Goldberg does, that human rights organizations should only accept money from the citizens of democratic states. Which is tantamount to saying that they can't agitate for human rights unless they already have them.


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After Jeffrey Goldberg's frantic and idiotic arm waving and screaming during the run-up for Iraq II (WMD! WMD! WMD! WMD! . . . Ad nauseum, Ad nauseum) I haven't wasted any time reading him.

Also, one can raise funds from some specific individuals within a country without necessarily endorsing the government of that country.

Finally, it's offensive for Bertetaking money from individual Saudis is any more problematic than taking money from anyone else.

Lindsay, there's some kind of typo or editing problem in the excerpt above.

I think Ms Beyerstein has missed the point, or at least the point I will make. Suppose I am an employer & behave badly in some way towards my employees. Then someone approaches me asking for money for a campaign against bad employers. They mention my bad employment practices but put much greater emphasis on the bad practices of a rival employee. I'm likely to interpret this to mean any money I give to them is going to be used against my rival, not me, so I might decide to contribute to them knowing my rival will be knocked, not me. This is like being a hired gun, and unfortunately this is what Human Right Watch has become by using these tactics.

Candidly, what makes you so sure that the guests at the banquet were committing human rights abuses? Just living in a country doesn't make you a human rights abuser. To assume these people had worse motives than any other potential HRW donors is flat-out racist.

This is "like being a hired gun"? Not if the charity donations with no strings attached and proceeds to investigate all bad employers. You write "so I might decide to contribute to them knowing my rival will be knocked, not me." The Saudis don't know that. On the contrary, they know that HRW regularly denounces abuses by Saudi Arabia. (cf. 14 pages of press releases on the HRW website).

Again, what's with the racist assumption that individual Saudi Arabians don't want the human rights abuses of their government exposed? Lots of Americans support human rights groups that criticize America's human rights record.

Lindsay Beyerstein wrote: Candidly, what makes you so sure that the guests at the banquet were committing human rights abuses? Just living in a country doesn't make you a human rights abuser

There were government officials atteding the HRW fundraiser. Specifically: an official from the Saudi government's human rights organization and the Shura religious council.

It's highly unlikely that Sarah Leah Whitson of HRW would defend free speech in such a setting (since the Saudi human rights people have been pushing for speech restrictions at the UN HRC) or equality for women (esp. with the Shura council presence).

All this meeting signifies in my opinion is that HRW is becoming more firmly a part of the global human rights establishment as represented by the UN HRC. This does not represent a major departure for HRW, as they have been supportive of the UN activities and forgiving of its flaws.

Most likely the changes will be that the HRW gets even softer about imposing "Western notions of human rights" on Islamic nations and more neutral about the right to defame Islam and the Koran.

I think the White Phosphorus issue is a red herring. These are US-made smoke shells. The WP is embedded in felt to make it burn slowly and make a lot of smoke. They're not good incendiaries. The buildings in Gaza are all stone and concrete, there is almost no lumber used in construction. So the buildings don't burn.

There are about 1.3 million people in Gaza, how many were hurt by WP?

What is wrong with investigating allegations made by powerful political orgs like HRW? Just because they say that they are moral does that exempt from corruption, distortion, and lying? Are they the only ones entitled to investigate and accuse? Indeed, the screaming attacks on serious critics makes me think that HRW has plenty to hide. Maybe NGO Monitor is right and HRW's reports are a mix of fiction and ideology. I read some of NGO Monitor's ( sober assessments that catch HRW in the act of falsifying reports. For those who care about human rights, this is a sobering revelation.

There's nothing wrong with investigating. NGO Monitor is anything but sober in its analysis, though. HRW raises funds in Saudi Arabia by demonizing Israel" isn't a sober-minded headline. Demonizing? That's not analysis that's assumption, an assumption totally unsupported by the news item that the "analysis" was supposedly based on.

Other recent hyperbolic headlines from NGO-M: "Amnesty in 2008: Anti-Israel Obsession Continues to Undermine Moral Principles", "Amnesty's Gaza "Report" and call for Arms Embargo: Abolishing Israel's Right to Self Defense", "The NGO Front in the Gaza War", ""Hijacked by Hatred": British NGOs Use Christmas for anti-Israel Attacks", "NGO Lawfare".

Daniel Levy
The 'Swiftboating' Of Human Rights Watch

These attacks on the global gold standard of NGOs demonstrate no objectivity or credibility -- they come from a narrow and misguided right-wing Israel advocacy agenda.

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