Friday, July 17, 2009

The Saudi and Human Rights Watch Controversy

An online "bloggosphere" debate seems to be taking shape over Human Rights Watch and a fundraising trip one of its officials made to Saudi Arabia to raise funds allegedly using HRW's fighting against Israel as a "hook" for Saudi donors.

Credit goes to "The Debate Link" for assembling some of the key documents related to this debate in a single place and to providing an interesting perspective on the matter.

The discussion is unfolding as follows: This article was published in a Saudi newspaper which reports on how at a fundraising dinner the focus of the fundraising evening was a discussion of how HRW has been able to "battle" Israel and its supporters.

Picking up on this story was the Israeli based NGO "NGO Monitor" which was the tip off for "the Volokh Conspiracy" blog which picked up on this story, criticized HRW for the practice of raising funds from regimes such as Saudi Arabia and was then reproduced by the Wall Street Journal. Responses to this criticism of HRW came on the "Opinio Juris" blog in which criticisms of HRW were dismissed by pointing out that HRW and the individual who had travelled there for fundraising was a critic of Saudi Arabia as well. Simultaneously in "The Atlantic" a discussion between the author and a HRW representative is reproduced in an attempt to answer the question "...did your [HRW] staff person attempt to raise funds in Saudi Arabia by advertising your organization's opposition to the pro-Israel lobby?" To which the answer was, in a nutshell, 'we report on Israel and its supporters respond with lies and deceptions' but no straight yes or no was given.

Many of the critiques raised in this debate are valid. It's worrying that the wealthy elite in a country like Saudi Arabia would be solicited for funds when such donations could have the effect of immunizing those elites from criticism--assuming HRW will not bite the hand that feeds it. Similarly, it's worrying that "fighting" against Israel is a valid fundraising pitch as it offers incentives for HRW to apply greater scrutiny to Israel and conclude that Israel is at fault since such reporting against Israel could pay dividends in the form of fundraising. It is also revealing that the responses of HRW to the Atlantic which suggest that when Israel "fights back" (as an aside, fights back against what? If HRW fighting Israel, or critiquing it? There's a difference, but this may just be semantics) it's supporters fight with lies and deception with the implication that HRW is the only truth of the matter. Certainly, HRW is not infallible (see for example here and here.)

An interesting aspect of this debate which has not arisen as a subject of much discussion is how the Israeli Prime Minister's office, is using HRW's trip to Saudi Arabia as evidence that this organization has lost its "moral compass" and is making this story its opening salvo in "...a battle Jerusalem has decided to wage with NGOs it deems biased against Israel."

This blog has explained before why Israelis see groups such as HRW and Amnesty International with such suspicion. these sorts of NGO's however, serve important roles and should not be seen as the enemy, rather, they should be highly informed, impartial observers who call things fairly, and who bring to light issues that countries need to correct, or take responsibility for. For this reason, pointing to HRW as immoral because they are taking money from Saudis after pumping up their Israel fighting credentials (which, as mentioned, is disturbing) seems to ring somewhat hollow. Even if HRW is exposed as being hypocritical or immoral in its fundraising practices that does not make it wrong. Just because a group reports violations in one place and not in another, does not make the violations it reports on any less true just as it does not mean the violations being ignored have not happened.

The strategy Israel should adopt in exposing bias and defending itself against criticisms it finds unfair is to evaluate, with a fine toothed comb, every word of every report relating to Israel put out by such groups. Israel (within reason of course, and without getting bogged down by needing to dedicate to many resources to this matter) should carefully investigate and examine each of the reports it takes issue with, as well as the ones it does not take issue with, and criticize even the tiniest inaccuracy. Israeli investigators should produce their own findings, even if they are expected to match up with HRW's, and in cases where they feel they have been taken out of context, should produce a counter report explaining exactly what happened. These investigations should be fully transparent and conceal only what would endanger national security. It is in this way that bias can be exposed and ended.

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