A day after the United States announced its withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council over what it described as “chronic anti-Israel bias” and a lack of reform, a letter emerged which shed light on the dynamics behind the decision.
The international NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) posted a letter from Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the UN, which accused the group of organizing with other NGOs to block US efforts to reform the council.
Specifically, Haley wrote that the US had discussed reforms that would have addressed the presence of human rights abusers and the singling out of Israel by the council. She charged that HRW and allied organizations wrote a letter telling member states not to address the US reform proposal.
In all, there were three letters opposing reforms circulating among member states – one each from Russia, China, and the NGOs. This meant, Haley wrote to HRW, that: “You put yourself on the side of Russia and China – and opposite the United States – on a key human rights issue.”
For those of us who have followed HRW under the leadership of its executive director, Kenneth Roth, the development didn’t come as a surprise. For the past two decades, the organization has engaged in a virulent anti-Israel witch hunt that has diverted attention away from serial human rights violations around the globe.
HRW founder Robert Bernstein blasted the organization’s pathological anti-Israel animus in a 2009 op-ed published in The New York Times, in which he lamented the turn the organization had taken regarding the Middle East. At HRW, Bernstein wrote, the organization originally drew distinctions between liberal and repressive states, focusing on the latter. However, HRW, “with increasing frequency, casts aside its important distinction between open and closed societies.”
Bernstein observed that this change in focus was most apparent in the Middle East, where HRW “has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region,” even though the region “is populated by authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records.”
BERNSTEIN’S OP-ED was published just months after HRW had been hit by a series of scandals that called into question the group’s impartiality, including an incident that to this day remains a moral stain on HRW’s polished image.
In the spring of 2009, Sarah Leah Whitson, the organization’s top Middle East official, traveled to Saudi Arabia and, as part of her pitch, said that she needed to raise funds to fight “pro-Israel pressure groups.”
With her long record of anti-Israel activism she was the perfect match for the job. Among her influences, Whitson counts notorious Israel detractor Norman Finkelstein, for whom she said she has “tremendous respect and admiration… because as you probably know, making Israeli abuses the focus of one’s life work is a thankless but courageous task that may well end up leaving all of us quite bitter.”
Whitson’s trip to Saudi Arabia appalled Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. When he repeatedly asked the group’s director, Kenneth Roth, if the story was true, Roth failed to give Goldberg a straight answer. Finally, Roth acquiesced, “We report on Israel. Its supporters fight back with lies and deception.” This prompted Goldberg to conclude, “It appears as if Human Rights Watch, in the pursuit of dollars, has compromised its integrity.”
This observation goes to the crux of the problem. Central to HRW’s activity are the group’s investigative reports into human rights abuses around the world, which enjoy great legitimacy in policy circles and exposure in the media. However, a quick look at HRW’s website reveals that the organization might not be as impartial and trustworthy as it claims to be. Rather, the data reveals a shocking and disproportionate focus on Israel – a country that for all its flaws and legitimate criticism remains the only true democracy in the Middle East.
To get a sense of HRW’s disturbing anti-Israel bias, consider this: over the past five years, the NGO has authored seven special reports on Israel. In comparison, the organization published none condemning North Korea, one of the worst criminal regimes in the world; and only three reports addressed the human rights violations of the repressive, theocratic regime in Iran.
HRW bias is for everyone to see, not just for Robert Bernstein, who distanced himself from the organization he founded because it had become too focused on Israel. Is it any wonder that HRW opposed the reforms promoted by the US in the UN Human Rights Council?
It’s time we stop seeing HRW as an impartial voice on human rights, and more like the political activist group it really is.
Joshua S. Block is CEO and President of The Israel Project.