HRW and Self-Criticism: Fallout from the Saudi Arabian Fundraising Junket

NGO Monitor has just posted a further discussion of the HRW Saudi-Arabia fund-raising junket scandal. Part of what the dispute reveals is the very tenuous hold that HRW has on empirical reality, and the nasty ad hominem-style arguments they resort to in their defense. Self-criticism, which is what they call on others to do all the time, is apparently not their long suit.

In his defense of HRW against criticisms from outside, Roth had commented:

“The fact that we publish far more extensively on other Middle Eastern governments (as well as the PA, Hamas, etc) is irrelevant, apparently.”

Similarly, in responding to David Bernstein’s WSJ oped, Whitson declared

Human Rights Watch in recent years has published more reports and news releases on rights problems in Saudi Arabia than any other human rights organization in the world.

Now Roth’s comment is outright dishonest. As an email exchange with someone who is not necessarily familiar with the details, this is a bit like Enderlin drawing me a false map of Netsarim junction — a way to dismiss a subject without addressing it. Whitson’s comment is more careful. She just doesn’t mention that their work on Saudi Arabia is a) very recent, and b) more than anyone else in the way that 2 is more than 1. (Human Rights Complex means minimal attention to what “primitive” people do to each other.)

NGO Monitor comments that they criticize HRW because their reports are “so bad”:

HRW’s frequent “research reports” on Israel are a mix of “eyewitness” testimony (”there were no Hamas/Hezbollah forces anywhere”), pseudo-technical analysis, and speculation… As for the claims on the agenda, the data shows until 2006, Saudi Arabian human rights behavior was hardly on HRW’s agenda. Using a systematic methodology to compare the activities, NGO Monitor data show that between 2004 and 2006, HRW criticism of Israel was 300% greater than the almost non-existent focus on Saudi Arabia. In other words, in HRW’s world, Israel was by far the greater source of human rights violations.

The change – as much as it was — took place in 2008, after the NGO Monitor reports on HRW’s obsessive anti-Israel agenda were published. Some donors then earmarked money for a wider agenda, dragging Roth and Whitson along. But Israel continues to be the main target, with more press conferences, major reports, and United Nations lobbying. HRW is not campaigning for an “independent UN inquiry” on Saudi treatment of women, minorities, or members of other religions.

Don’t forget calling for an independent UN inquiry into war crimes in Sri Lanka.

In defending his organization to Goldberg, Roth later commented:

We report on Israel. Its supporters fight back with lies and deception.

This is fascinating rhetoric. Either of he believes it — which means he does not allow any empirical evidence to get in the way of his own belief in his halo — or he doesn’t care — in which case he has no scruples about lying in order to get people not to listen to criticism of his organization. In either case, we’re dealing with a man who has a tenuous relationship to empirical reality.


The kind of effect Roth’s rhetorical stance can have on people who (want to) believe him shows up in a long post at Opiniojuris by Kevin Jon Heller in which he criticizes Bernstein’s attack on HRW and dismisses Goldberg’s piece as making a mountain out of a molehill.

Notice how Bernstein claims that many of HRW’s defenders dismiss criticism of the organization as “typical right-wing Zionist crap,” implying that those defenders are (by definition?) anti-Zionist. What Bernstein seemingly refuses to accept is that it is possible to believe both that Israel has a right to exist and that it violates human rights and commits war crimes.

This trope of “anyone who criticizes Israel gets accused of being anti-Zionist” belongs with the media’s favorite “we’re criticized by both sides, we must be doing something right.” Above all, it’s dishonest — criticism of Israel has to reach really vicious levels before anyone claims it’s anti-Zionist, whereas Palestinians find anything short of complete adulation intolerable (to use Obama’s word). Throw in for good measure, “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.” They’re all even-handed distortions of empirical reality.

Moreover, the notion that you can accuse Israel of violating human rights and commits war crimes without feeding the frenzy of rabid anti-Zionism that uses the same language, strikes me as aggressively naive. Any definition of war crimes you can apply to Israel applies ten fold to the USA, and a thousand fold to Israel’s enemies (who are only prevented from worse crimes by Israeli resistance). And that’s precisely what HRW does. Heller continues:

It is also difficult to overstate just how slanted Bernstein’s description of HRW’s work really is, in light of the organization’s consistent and unremitting criticism of Hamas,

Here’s where a link would be useful. In fact, HRW’s remarks on Hamas, like their criticisms of Saudi Arabia represent a fairly late phenomenon. In the period when Hamas first developed suicide bombing against civilians (1993-95), they had nothing to say; in the period when Hamas was doing suicide bombings on an average of twice a week (2001-2003), they posted 17 comments (compared with 68 on Israel).

the Saudis, Iran, etc.

All pretty vague. I doubt Heller’s done a fraction of the research NGO Monitor has done; indeed, I’ll bet he takes Ken Roth at his word.

(And its willingness to admit when its criticism of Israel turns out to be mistaken.)

Now it get’s interesting. The link is to a discussion of the Gaza Beach Affair, which I covered quite extensively (last update here). Here’s the passage to which Heller refers:

On Monday, the Human Rights Watch, while sticking to its demand for the establishment of an independent inquiry into a blast on a Gaza beach 10 days ago that killed seven Palestinian civilians, conceded for the first time since the incident that it could not contradict the IDF’s exonerating findings.

This was a grudging admission [think Otto to Archie in a Fish Called Wanda], after a closed door meeting in which Mark Garlasco, the alleged “military expert” found his claims that Israeli shells had killed the child systematically challenged by the Israeli experts. But begrudging admissions hardly make an “admission” of error. On the contrary, when HRW came out with a report two weeks after this news item, they concluded that: “an Israeli artillery shell caused the explosion.”

Heller concludes:

That tendentiousness is particularly ironic given that Bernstein bases his recent posts on “reports” issued by NGO Monitor, an organization that — unlike HRW — makes absolutely no effort to be critical of both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict:

    NGO Monitor’s objective is to end the practice used by certain self-declared ‘humanitarian NGOs’ of exploiting the label ‘universal human rights values’ to promote politically and ideologically motivated anti-Israel agendas.

NGO Monitor at least gets credit for truth in advertising: every single report it has issued in 2009 has attacked an NGO or state or other organization that criticized Israel.

Yes. Unlike HRW, which pretends to apply its standards to the whole world, NGO Monitor has a much more restrained goal (and budget). It’s job is to keep dishonest NGOs like HRW and AI honest. The way to criticize NGO Monitor is not by complaining on its focus, but by complaining about it’s methods and its use of (or failure to use) empirical evidence.

No wonder Ken Roth is sensitive about criticism of HRW. As the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

And as the saying should go, “If you want people to believe you, you should try being honest; and if you want people to give you money for fighting for human rights around the world, you should be balanced.” No wonder Ken Roth is sensitive about criticism: he’s staffed his organization with some of the most biased of post-colonialist, anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian people available; he deserves neither his reputation, nor his support.

6 Responses to HRW and Self-Criticism: Fallout from the Saudi Arabian Fundraising Junket

  1. Solomonia says:

    Human Rights Watch Evasions…

    An interesting exchange between Jeffrey Goldberg and HRW’s Ken Roth in which Roth hems and haws and jives and dodges rather than admit that yes, Human Rights Watch did plug its anti-Israel bona fides to do fundraising in Saudi Arabia:……

  2. nelson says:

    The piece that follow (I’ve wrote for Pajamas Media 3 years ago) is somewhat long, but might be pertinent for the current discussion.


    Nobody trusts the government. The politicians are corrupt. The government is always lying to the people. It works against the people’s true interests and only promotes the selfish interests of its own members and their friends. Those in power invent scary threats to distract the public’s attention from their own wrongdoings.

    No, I’m not talking about the US. Well, not exclusively at least. Everything I’ve just said has been repeated day in day out, for years and decades, by the papers and the electronic media wherever there’s anything resembling a free press. That’s the MSM’s real message in all democratic nations. Whatever else they talk about is secondary.

    Is it true? Often it is. Is it the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Each one of us can judge by him or herself. And, as we have been doing so collectively for some time, the MSM has been losing most reliability it might once have had, to the point that, in countries like the US, it is not only as little trusted as the government and the politicians themselves, but it’s clearly seen as just another partisan political player.

    That’s, however, quite a small consolation, because the damage they, the MSM, could do has already been done and, even without being trusted, they can go on doing it. What’s exactly this damage? The corrosion and eventual destruction of public trust. No open society can work without it and, though the government and all state institutions must always be closely watched, it works at its very best when the people’s default attitude towards these is one of conditional trust, not one of perpetual mistrust.

    While a measure of scepticism is necessary and healthy, cynicism is counterproductive and eventually dangerous. Whatever else the MSM have been doing since at least the end of WW2, they have more often than not been treating governments, politicians, democratic institutions and public figures as guilty unless otherwise proved. Through the criminalization of normal politics, they have contaminated the public with a universal cynicism. In the meanwhile they have created the social space for a different kind of politics.

    In a healthy society there’s an amount of credibility that can conditionally be given or lent to its democratic institutions. If these are under perpetual suspicion, that credibility will likely migrate to alternative ones such as religious authorities, revolutionary groups, cultural agents and so on. In the US, the MSM seem to have been the first to benefit from this migration of credibility. With their own demoralization, a result both of transparent partisanship and sheer incompetence, other newly-created institutions began to attract and almost to monopolize the credibility the society had to offer. Among these, the most important were the NGOs.

    When no American president would be taken at his word were he to say “the sun shines” or “the sky is blue”, nobody, especially the MSM, doubted the good intentions of such organizations as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International or the International Red Cross. Even those who weren’t exactly sympathetic towards, say, the UN or the ICC, didn’t spend much time questioning the workings and doings of those NGOs. And it wasn’t only their good intentions that were given a free-pass, but whatever they said or reported, their numbers and value-judgements as well.

    Thus they became influential and, in a democracy, this means powerful.

    Ultimately, however, such organizations can only survive if there’s no suspicion about their agendas and, above all, if they can and are willing to prove again and again they do not operate with double standards. When they’re under suspicion, it is not enough for them to protest a vestal-kind of immaculate purity. It’s part of their job to demonstrate their own innocence, because, lacking true accountability, not representing anyone officially nor being in any way elected for their job, the burden of proofs lies always with them.

    A single suspicion of using double standards, if not convincingly dispelled, is enough to begin undermining whatever work they have done. It is not enough for them to be fair (if they are), they must also look as fair as fair can be. But, as has been seen in several recent cases, that’s obviously not happening: rather the opposite is taking place. These organizations are wasting their laboriously (and perhaps unjustly) accumulated capital of credibility by showing their true partisan colours.

    When people realize they’re untrustworthy, it will become evident that the world can live well or equally unwell without their dubious help. Those organizations will then be reduced to what they more and more really seem to be, that is, political parties, with all their recognized partisanship, but none of their legitimacy in electoral politics. The same fate awaits most other NGOs and the one important thing that still protects their current influence is the complicity of the MSM.

    Their credibility depends on the majority taking them at their word and not scrutinizing too deeply their workings, not because these are always necessarily good, but rather because, from the majority’s point of view, these go on below the radar. Once they become obsessive about something, say, about Israel or Guantanamo Bay, the neutral public may also become more curious about them.

    That’s because their survival depends on staying far from the spotlight that should instead be focused on the subjects they’re talking about or dealing with. It is important for their stated neutrality not to look like an active player in any controversial or noisy cause. They must look like non-actors and most publicity about them is potentially harmful for their future. Any publicity, even if highly sympathetic, that distracts from the subjects they should be discussing, any discussion of their own nature, methods, alliances, income sources and so on will only do them harm in the long term.

    Obviously, what’s taking place now was bound to happen sooner or later. Credibility is a scarce good in the political market and particularly so in a time when both the politicians themselves and the press have lost theirs. As these were losing their credibility, the NGOs have been accumulating it, even if only due to the public’s distraction or disinterest in them. When it became clear that lack of credibility was a growing obstacle for policy making, those organizations that had it couldn’t resist trying to become active political agents. An important share of power was theirs to take. The siren-song must have sounded irresistible. Or else, they’ve been co-opted by other players.

    Whatever their intentions might have been earlier, once they entered the power-game, it was easy to foresee that they’d bend to its own dynamics, which consists in working mainly to achieve more power and influence and not to lose those already acquired. As these organizations became more powerful and influential, their previous credibility wasn’t enough anymore to confer legitimacy on them, because it could stem only from accountability and it was precisely thanks to its lack that they accumulated their capital of credibility to begin with.

    Accountability is the counterweight of power and influence particularly in situations where credibility isn’t and won’t be granted for free, where it is not aprioristically given in good will, but must rather be conquered and kept with much care and effort. That is the paradox about those NGOs: as they become more powerful and influential, they also become less necessary and, yes, less credible too. If they want, for instance, to arbitrate international conflicts without having been chosen or elected in any democratic or representative way to do so by anyone, then there are lots of questions about themselves they must answer whenever asked.

    It is important to stress that these NGOs became political actors exactly because the traditional ones were losing the credibility to perform certain tasks. Much of this lack of credibility results from the invariably adversarial, even antagonistic, way in which the MSM have been covering politics in general for over half a century. It’s not all that obvious that the media’s main role should be that of the only watchdog, because in a democracy that’s first of all the role of other political and representative institutions, such as the independent judiciary or the political opposition.

    Due to the complexity of modern democratic societies, the MSM managed to achieve a virtual monopoly first on credibility-granting and then, even when losing its own, on the withdrawal or corrosion of other people’s, organizations’ and institutions’ credibility. They have thus managed to corrode much of the democratic institutions’ legitimacy.

    There’s, however, an even worse consequence to all this. In a world where people feel attracted to strains of thought that explain in simple and intentional terms complex and impersonal phenomena, the MSM, by working as a machine or mechanism the function of which is to automatically cast suspicion on anything and everything, became a source less of information than of perpetual mistrust. They do not have to spread conspiratorial theories themselves, though they don’t always refrain from doing so. It’s enough for them to suggest that anything that happens is done by someone and that anything that’s done by anyone is motivated by something suspicious. Putting always in doubt whatever is clear, looking always for something hidden where what’s obvious or mere chance might explain things perfectly well, turning rational questioning into an inquisitorial prosecution, perverting method into obsession, what they have been doing is creating the ideal breeding ground for all kinds of paranoia.

  3. […] Ken Roth is sweating. Here he is, defending himself to his board about the Saudi scandal. Here’s where the rubber meets the road: Does he lie to and dissemble from his own people? […]

  4. […] posted several pieces on the latest dust-up between HRW and NGO Monitor recently, that raise fundamental questions […]

  5. […] Human Rights Watch got criticism for raising money in Saudi Arabia for, of all things (it shouldn’t be a surprise actually, but anyway) human rights. In their […]

  6. […] is the only ‘human rights organization’ that I know that fund raises (and here) in totalitarian […]

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