Human Rights Watch (HRW), one of the world’s largest human rights organizations, can’t get anything right.
Just one year ago, in the introduction to HRW’s 2012 World Report, Executive Director Kenneth Roth praised the so-called “Arab Spring,” urging support for the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood governments in Tunisia and Egypt. He called the Arab Spring “a transformative moment, an historic opportunity for a long-suppressed people to seize control of its destiny.” According to Roth, “Islamic movements are hardly monolithic or implacably opposed to rights” – in particular women’s rights.
However, in HRW’s 2013 World Report, Roth flip-flops. He writes that the “euphoria” of the Arab Spring, which HRW helped foster, “seems a thing of the past.” This year this is “fear that the uprisings’ biggest winners are Islamists who might limit the rights of women, minorities, and dissidents.”
Roth’s backtracking was most likely a response to sharp criticism from women’s rights groups following the publication of HRW’s 2012 World Report. A coalition of women’s groups published an open letter, attacking Roth’s desire to “constructively engage” with Islamic regimes.
They also criticized his lack of attention to the rights of women, gays, and religious minorities, noting that Roth only mentioned these victim groups in the context of minimizing the “disturbing positions” of “many Islamic parties.” He continued, “But so have many of the autocratic regimes that the West props up.” Here, they rightly called out Roth, stating, “Are we really going to set the bar that low? This is the voice of an apologist, not a senior human rights advocate.”
In fact, it is entirely duplicitous of Roth to be critical of the new governments without acknowledging his and HRW’s own failure to stand up to the systematic infringement of women’s rights in oppressive regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, and other Middle Eastern countries.
As NGO Monitor’s detailed analyses have shown, HRW’s priorities in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have been based on factors such as ideology and media attention. Rights violations and armed conflicts that are out of the media focus continue to be low on the agenda, while ideology led to cozying up to some of the world’s worst dictatorships, namely Saudi Arabia and the Qaddafi regime.
In May 2009, MENA director Sarah Leah Whitson led a fund-raising trip to Saudi Arabia – one of the major violators of the norms that HRW claims to promote – where she marketed HRW’s work combating pro- Israel “pressure groups” to solicit funds from “prominent members of Saudi society” including the ruling Shura Council (the formal advisory body to the King). Whitson bragged to the Saudi leaders about HRW’s role in anti-Israel activities in the US Congress and the United Nations, boasting that this propaganda campaign was instrumental in the UN’s “fact-finding mission to investigate the allegations of serious Israeli violations during the war on Gaza,” to be headed by Justice Richard Goldstone, who was also a member of HRW’s board at the time.
Around the same time, she visited Libya, authoring a wildly misnamed op-ed “Tripoli Spring” following the trip. Whitson extolled Muammar Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam as “the real impetus for transformation” via his Gaddafi Foundation and two semi-private papers. Her embrace continued after a second visit in December 2009, when she referred to Saif as one of the “forces of reform,” comparing his foundation to HRW.
This is the same Saif al-Islam Qaddafi who, during the revolution in Libya, vowed to “fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet” against pro-democracy forces. In June 2011, Saif was indicted by the International Criminal Court on two counts of crimes against humanity for his role in trying to put down the uprising.
In January 2010, when the regime imposed censorship on the internet and blocked access to YouTube, Whitson was silent.
Two years later, long after the rebellion began and the Qaddafi regime had killed hundreds, if not thousands, of political opponents, Whitson belatedly reversed course. In a February 2011 Los Angeles Times op-ed, she acknowledged the façade of Saif’s human rights “reforms.” But she did not acknowledge or apologize for her horribly mistaken earlier assessment.
Indeed, in a 2012 video on the Arab Spring, Whitson is seen praising the Arab Spring, and HRW’s efforts to support the revolutionaries – including HRW’s efforts to bring Qaddafi to the International Criminal Court. Her past relations with Saif were not discussed.
Roth’s and Whitson’s reversals reflect the wider moral failure of HRW in the Middle East. HRW misread the reality in the Middle East and focused disproportionate resources on Israel. But, it was unable to foresee the revolutions. HRW compounded this mistake by misgauging the support for human rights within the parties that came to power, leading it to embrace what has turned out to be new variations of the old repressive regimes.
The “Arab spring,” which was to bring universal human rights to the Middle East, seems to have failed. And now it’s too late for HRW to reclaim its moral authority.