Human Rights Watch (HRW), since its foundation in 1978, has become one of the worst violators of principle in the bizarre system of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Created to denounce abuses of human rights in the Communist-ruled countries, it soon made a 180-degree turn, devoting its main attention to the Western Hemisphere and alleged misdeeds by the U.S. and its local allies. Its offshoot, Americas Watch, was synonymous, beginning in the 1980s, with ferocious criticism of any attempt to block the spread of Cuban-style Communism in Central America.
The end of Soviet Communism left HRW, had it truly believed in its stated goals, with a wide and varied field of targets for investigation around the world. In particular, radical Islamist regimes like Wahhabi-dominated Saudi Arabia and the clerical dictatorship in Iran, with their associated proxies, should have come under sharp examination by HRW.
But, as when it concentrated fire on U.S. policy in Latin America, HRW soon seemed obsessed with a single country: Israel. HRW epitomizes the dual standard that holds the Jewish state to the highest possible criterion for human rights protection, while neglecting the gross and continuous denial of human rights in Israel's neighbors. Moderate Muslims recognize that while Israeli reality is far from perfect, Israel has created a democratic culture that is absent from the rest of the Middle East. This includes equal political rights, extending to Israeli Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, who are elected to the parliament (Knesset), who have access to their own religious courts if they desire them, and who otherwise benefit as citizens of the country.
HRW criticizes Israel relentlessly, accusing the state of breaking international law, including committing "war crimes," but seldom offers constructive solutions for the problems it examines. Recently, the organization was embarrassed by the revelation that its representative, Sarah Leah Whitson, had travelled to Saudi Arabia - the worst offender against human rights, liberties, and dignity of any Muslim country - to raise money for the organization.
Ms. Whitson's pitch for support from the Saudis was bold. HRW, she said, needed to balance its activities against "pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations." (Pro-Israel activities in the UN? Perhaps HRW should change its name to Hallucination Watch.) When HRW came under criticism for its Saudi strategy, the organization's director, Kenneth Roth, replied, "We report on Israel. Its supporters fight back with lies and deception."
But Israel and its supporters are not alone in finding the HRW posture on Saudi Arabia abysmal. Millions of Muslims around the world object to the absence of minimal human rights in Saudi Arabia, and many consider the ongoing propagandistic assault on Israel, in Muslim and Western media, as a means to divert attention from repression in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries. Sarah Whitson's HRW fundraising junket would have better been dedicated to inquiries about the many well-known and uniquely perverse forms of Saudi misrule. These include the maintenance of a paramilitary "religious militia," the mutawiyin (often miscalled a "religious police") to terrorize the population into submission to Wahhabi norms of morality. The mutawiyin chiefly carry out this mission by lashing women in public with leather-covered sticks, arresting and beating couples suspected of not being married, and raiding homes where it is believed alcoholic drinks are kept. Prior to the coming of Wahhabism, such "morals patrols," imitated by the Iranians under Khomeini, were an aberration in Islam.
The fate of the mutawiyin, who are deeply hated by the Saudi public, is a major issue in analyzing the country's future. As noted in a column published by the Hudson Institute last month ("Saudi Arabia Moves Backward," at www.gatestoneinstitute.org/2009/07/saudi-arabia-moves-backward.php), the mutawiyin have increased their aggressive behavior in response to attempts by reformers associated with Saudi King Abdullah to hold them accountable for their excesses. But resistance to their brutalities remains strong. Even the chief Muslim cleric in the kingdom, grand mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al-Asheikh, according to the Arab News of August 9, 2009, called on the mutawiyin to act gently, to "be patient and put up with any harm they have to face while urging people to do good." Such an appeal, while falling short of the basic, democratic demand for abolition of the mutawiyin, illustrates the extent to which Saudi subjects have become discontented with their situation.
Other appropriate topics for an HRW investigation of Saudi Arabia include refusal of the right of public non-Muslim worship; discrimination against non-Wahhabi Muslims; notorious mistreatment of women (the kingdom being the only country in the world where women are forbidden to drive); infliction of arbitrary and excessive punishments, including beheadings; forced marriages and forced divorces; encouragement of female genital mutilation; extremist indoctrination in schools; cultural vandalism, and many more items on a long and - for Saudi reformers and their supporters - a depressing list.
But HRW, busy with its campaign against Israel, prefers to go to Saudi Arabia for money rather than for monitoring. When it does criticize the Saudis, it typically concentrates on issues it can spin for minimum damage to its standing with the Saudi rulers. For example, HRW is concerned, as all people should be, that a quarter of the Saudi population consists of immigrant service workers with no rights of any kind. But Saudi public opinion high and low wants to see fewer poor Asians and Africans in the country, so the issue does not elicit the level of controversy seen in the discussion of other state policies. HRW should focus on the problems that stir greater protest and debate: isn't this what human rights monitoring is supposed to mean?
HRW has also distinguished itself by its outspoken condemnation of anti-terrorism measures around the world. Thus, the organization has just scored the Saudi kingdom for one of its few praiseworthy actions - a rehabilitation project in which some 4,000 alleged Al-Qaida supporters are currently being taught to renounce extremism. HRW praises the Saudi anti-terrorism effort for "its intentions, innovations, and apparently low rate of acts of violence pursued by those released." But it attacks the program for its absence of Western-style legal guidelines for arrest and length of detention. Apparently HRW cannot see that such norms are absent in all aspects of Saudi life, but that before Saudi Arabia can be reformed, Wahhabi radicalism must be defeated.
The HRW fund-raising tour of the Saudi kingdom had another aspect that went unnoticed among the organization's Western critics:
Just when Ms. Whitson's anti-Israel trip to the kingdom was disclosed, Arab media reported an official Saudi campaign to silence Walid Abu al-Kheir, a leading human rights lawyer in Saudi Arabia. Al-Kheir had successfully sued the Saudi ministry of the interior. The ministry is headed by the ultra-Islamist Prince Nayef bin Abd Al-Aziz (the first prominent Saudi to accuse Zionists of perpetrating 9/11). Al-Kheir challenged the false imprisonment of a Saudi reformist, Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Shamiri. But the eyes of HRW were turned elsewhere.
HRW has betrayed the idealistic goals with which it was originally formed. It exploits human suffering for its own ideological ends. It protects extremists. More than any other among the many corrupt NGOs at work around the world, HRW merits the title of charlatans.