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Human Rights Watch Goes to Saudi Arabia, UPDATE:

I blogged in June about a trip a delegation from Human Rights Watch took to Saudi Arabia, where Sarah Leah Whitson, director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa division, spoke at an event at which funds were raised for HRW. She highlighted HRW's work in Gaza, and HRW's battles with "pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations."

The piece, based on a story in Arab News (with a hat tip to the invaluable NGO Monitor), was reprinted today in the Wall Street Journal's OpinionJournal.com. This, in turn, was spotted by the Israeli Prime Minister's Office, as detailed by the Jerusalem Post:

In the opening shot of a battle Jerusalem has decided to wage with NGOs it deems biased against Israel, the Prime Minister's Office on Tuesday slammed a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) fundraising delegation to Saudi Arabia as evidence the organization has lost its "moral compass."

"A human rights organization raising money in Saudi Arabia is like a women's rights group asking the Taliban for a donation," Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev said Monday.

"If you can fundraise in Saudi Arabia, why not move on to Somalia, Libya and North Korea?" he said. "For an organization that claims to offer moral direction, it appears that Human Rights Watch has seriously lost its moral compass."

Ms. Whitson has responded, both in the Post and on in the comments on OpinionJournal, asserting that contrary to the impression left by the Arab News (which, she notes without irony, is subject to government censorship), she did criticize Saudi Arabia's abysmal human rights record in front of her Saudi audience. Perhaps Ms. Whitson will share a transcript of her remarks with us.

Meanwhile, Ms. Whitson acknowledges that the trip involved fundraising, and she says that HRW obtaining funding from Saudi Arabia is something to be "applauded." She also does not deny that her pitch involved trumpeting HRW's battles with what Arab News quotes her as calling "pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations."

For my part, if Ms. Whitson did indeed criticize Saudi human rights abuses during her trip, I apologize for suggesting otherwise. [Clarification: Whitson says that she "discussed" Saudi human rights problems during her trip, but doesn't state that she publicly mentioned any of them, much less criticized them, at the fundraising dinner at which she criticized Israel and its supporters, in front of "prominent members of Saudi society, human rights activists and dignitaries."] But I still think (a) it's extremely unwise for a human rights group to raise money in a totalitarian country, even from human rights advocates in that country; the organization may become dependent on that funding, which in turn could be cut off by the government at any time, creating pressure on the organization to downplay its criticisms of that country; (b) it's more than unwise for HRW to specifically raise money in Saudi Arabia by portraying itself as an organization doing battle with "pro-Israel forces," which implies that HRW is serving as an "anti-Israel force." This suggests either that HRW isn't concerned about its reputation for evenhandedness, or that it's so maniacally anti-Israel that its leaders just assume that being anti-Israel is somehow the obvious even-handed position that it embraces. This obviously plays into the hands of critics like myself who have previously accused HRW of a lack of objectivity with regard to Israel. I certainly can't imagine HRW going to Israel and raising money with the pitch that it is trying to counter-balance "pro-Arab" or "pro-Saudi" "pressure groups".

I'll close with a quote from commenter "Patrick" at the Opinion Juris blog (scroll down), with whom I rarely agree:

HRW pride themselves on being independent, but this raises two quasi-existential threats to them. First, the poisonous allure of Israel-bashing does sometime threaten to contaminate and devalue not only their other work, but the numerous legitimate criticisms that might be made of Israel. Secondly, I know that it is almost sweetest if rich Saudis can be convinced to fund HRW, but there is a real risk of giving very wrong impressions by soliciting same. HRW appear not to have so much managed that risk as blatantly embraced it.

PloniBenPloni (mail):
Any reference to the organization should henceforth read, "Human Rights Watch, a Saudi-funded group..."
7.14.2009 10:18pm
PeteP (mail):
How much you wanna bet their 'report' starts out with 'We found the following problems , that are all the fault of the USA, and especially the Bush Administration' ?
7.14.2009 10:29pm
Hadur:
I guess this is the "transparency" that HRW likes to talk about.
7.14.2009 10:31pm
rosetta's stones:
"...she did criticize Saudi Arabia's abysmal human rights record in front of her Saudi audience. Perhaps Ms. Whitson will share a transcript of her remarks with us."

Yes, perhaps she will. I look forward to that. I'd prefer video, frankly, so we can both hear what she said and see how she dressed for the occasion.

And how did her group respond when she got the no Jews allowed notice?
7.14.2009 10:35pm
Danny (mail):
Well you can't compare apples and oranges. Israel is supposed to be perfect, and Saudi Arabia gets praised if it is not obviously, blatantly sponsoring terrorism or lashing a rape victim at the moment
7.14.2009 10:52pm
Cornellian (mail):
She did criticize Saudi Arabia's abysmal human rights record in front of her Saudi audience.

I have my doubts - I hear she was seen getting off the plane back home and still had all her limbs.
7.14.2009 11:47pm
Tony Tutins (mail):

it's extremely unwise for a human rights group to raise money in a totalitarian country, [because] the organization may become dependent on that funding, which in turn could be cut off by the government at any time

Eerily reminiscent of our dependence on foreign oil -- if Saudi Arabia cut us off as they did in the 70's we'd be in a world of hurt. And yet we still buy their oil, because we're more dependent on foreign oil than ever.

Hey at least this way some of our petrodollars find their way back to the US.
7.15.2009 12:34am
Danny (mail):
Not to pretend that there are any universal standards here - for the poster human rights are for the countries / tribes / people he favors, and not for the others
7.15.2009 12:36am
Thoughtful (mail):
Tony: The oil analogy is poor. Saudi Arabia does not sell us oil as a gift. It benefits from the sale, and choosing to not sell it to us, or attempting to raise the price by limiting their output, hurts them tremendously. Oil is fungible and sold throughout the world. Cutting their sales to us because they don't like some policy of us hurts them far more than us. This is very different than ending a charitable contribution.

DavidB: "it's extremely unwise for a human rights group to raise money in a totalitarian country, [because] the organization may become dependent on that funding, which in turn could be cut off by the government at any time."

I'm unclear how this comment relates to totalitarianism, as opposed to governments in general. Wouldn't a charity become dependent on donations from democratic as well as totalitarian governments, and can't both types of government, if displeased, end funding? I agree that charitable groups should not take donations from (any) government.
7.15.2009 1:01am
jcz (mail):

But I still think (a) it's extremely unwise for a human rights group to raise money in a totalitarian country


In the context, I read this to imply that Saudi Arabia is a totalitarian country. But is it, or is it merely authoritarian?
7.15.2009 8:05am
Ugh (mail):

it's extremely unwise for a human rights group to raise money in a totalitarian country, even from human rights advocates in that country; the organization may become dependent on that funding, which in turn could be cut off by the government at any time, creating pressure on the organization to downplay its criticisms of that country


How far does this extend? No country's government is perfect. Hell, you could argue that this should extend to the United States due to its recent embrace of torture, wars of choice based on lies, secret prisons, indefinite detention, etc. etc. etc. The U.S. could designate HRW as a terrorist sponsoring organization tomorrow which would cut off funding.
7.15.2009 8:31am
DavidBernstein (mail):
Free countries don't prohibit their inhabitants from sending money to non-violent causes the country's government disagrees with. Unfree countries do. If HRW somehow became seen as a "threat" to Saudi Arabia, the government will certainly prohibit its residents from sending it money.
7.15.2009 8:40am
[insert here] delenda est:
I agree with you and the commenter Patrick and the consensus on this thread. But, btw, the blog is opinio juris - and to think you now have a co-blogger in common! :)

As for totalitarian vs authoritarian, they certainly aren't mutually exclusive! But whilst perhaps totalitarian, with its implications of 'total' control, is best kept for extreme cases thereof such as North Korea or Soviet Russia, it does not appear plainly inapplicable to Saudi Arabia.
7.15.2009 9:08am
Seamus (mail):

"If you can fundraise in Saudi Arabia, why not move on to Somalia, Libya and North Korea?"



Uh, because there's no money to be had there?
7.15.2009 10:16am
The Unbeliever:
And how did her group respond when she got the no Jews allowed notice?
Follow-up question: would that restriction have actually barred any members of the HRW delegation from attending?
"If you can fundraise in Saudi Arabia, why not move on to Somalia, Libya and North Korea?"
Uh, because there's no money to be had there?
For the publicity of having HRW come in for a photo op at a state dinner, I'm sure Kim Jong Il could scrape up a few thousand dollars. He may have to put his next few missiles on layaway, but hey, these are tough economic times and all.
7.15.2009 10:26am
Mitch 500:
This post is spot on. HRW's actions are utterly disgraceful: going to Saudi Arabia, where homosexuals are executed and flogged, women are forbidden from driving, and criticism of the government is outlawed, in order to raise money by appealing to Saudi hatred of Israel. Would having actual principles be too much to ask of a self-professed human rights organization?
7.15.2009 10:30am
neurodoc:
Thoughtful: It benefits from the sale, and choosing to not sell it to us, or attempting to raise the price by limiting their output, hurts them tremendously. Oil is fungible and sold throughout the world. Cutting their sales to us because they don't like some policy of us hurts them far more than us.
It is folly for oil producers to leave the product in the ground rather than pump all sell it. You should tell that to OPEC, which seems to think otherwise, since they regularly get together for the reason that cartels do, that is to manipulate the market and benefit themselves by limiting their output.

Now, if what you meant, that the Saudis can't strike at us directly by refusing to sell to us, since others will step in to do so, that might be true, but that doesn't mean they can't cause us indirect and other harms. There is a reason that we have been kissing their behinds for more than sixty years, and it isn't because those behinds smell so good or the Saudis are otherwise so wonderful apart from their oil.
7.15.2009 10:32am
neurodoc:
HRW's battles with what Arab News quotes her as calling "pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations"
I expect that Ms. Whitson can go on at great length about those "pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations" and HRW's battles with them, and would do so, and does do so, at the drop of a hat. I wonder if she can and would so willingly call out powerful pro-Arab (e.g., Organization of the Islamic Conference) or pro-Saudi (all those upon whom the Saudis lavish their $$$) "pressure groups," giving the details of whatever battles HRW has done with them. I doubt it.
7.15.2009 10:39am
neurodoc:
It is folly for oil producers to leave the product in the ground rather than pump all sell it.
That should have been, "It is folly for oil producers to leave the product in the ground rather than pump and sell it?"
7.15.2009 10:42am
[insert here] delenda est:
It is folly for oil producers to leave the product in the ground rather than pump all sell it.

It doesn't matter whether there is a missing conjunctive, the point is not right anyway.

Selling oil is broadly speaking the exchange of one asset, oil, for another: a foreign currency, and typically (certainly in the case of sales to the US) USD. By necessity, most of that USD then ends up in USD-denominated assets such as shares.

Can anyone see how the rational oil-producer might not always consider that exchange to be in his best interests at any given particular time?
7.15.2009 11:06am
Assistant Village Idiot (mail) (www):
Thoughtful, I take your point that any government can discourage or even forbid money being sent out of the country to a particular group. But the likelihood of Saudi Arabia doing so is much greater than say, NZ. As a practical matter, the contrast is reasonable.
7.15.2009 11:21am
Benjamin Davis (mail):
"Tainted money? Taint enough of it." - Booker T. Washington at the turn of the 20th century about fundraising for Tuskegee Institute.
Best,
Ben
7.15.2009 11:45am
David M. Nieporent (www):
Going to Saudi Arabia is bad enough by itself, but going to Saudi Arabia and saying, "Give us money so that we can take down your enemy Israel" is even worse.
7.15.2009 12:04pm
The River Temoc (mail):
I think an important fact is missing from all this discussion: who, exactly, did Human Rights Watch raise money *from* in Saudi Arabia? Was it private citizens? The government? Members of the royal family (who are, in effect, the government), and if so, which ones?

In general, I would tend to agree that HRW should not be raising money from the Saudi government, but I would not have a problem with raising money from private citizens.

Suppose a particularly liberal-minded Saudi businessman -- say, one who favors abolishing the law that requires women to have permission to travel abroad -- wants to donate to a human rights organization. Why should he not be allowed to do so?
7.15.2009 12:25pm
neurodoc:
Can anyone see how the rational oil-producer might not always consider that exchange to be in his best interests at any given particular time?
The OPEC nations seem to believe otherwise, that it is not always folly for them to slow down on pumping oil out of the ground. Their cartel exists for the purpose of constraining oil production so as to yield themselves the maximal benefit from this resource under their feet.
7.15.2009 1:08pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
'I read this to imply that Saudi Arabia is a totalitarian country. But is it, or is it merely authoritarian?'

Authoritarian if you're Muslim, totalitarian if you're anything else.
7.15.2009 1:53pm
Seamus (mail):
Free countries don't prohibit their inhabitants from sending money to non-violent causes the country's government disagrees with.

Really? I'm an inhabitant of the United States, yet I'm prohibited from sending money to non-violent causes in Cuba, solely because my country's government disagrees with them.
7.15.2009 2:31pm
rosetta's stones:
There's degrees of prohibition, Seamus. Nobody's monitoring your bank account transactions (not for that anyways), and I know more than one lefty proffy that's long vacationed in Cuba.
7.15.2009 2:47pm
DennisN (mail):
If HRW condemns Israel for its defensive actions against the Palestinian terrorists, and fails to condemn the Pal Terrorists even more strongly, they are revealed as a terrorist group themselves.

Benjamin Davis:
"Tainted money? Taint enough of it."


That's a keeper.
7.15.2009 4:10pm
Ken Arromdee:
Suppose a particularly liberal-minded Saudi businessman -- say, one who favors abolishing the law that requires women to have permission to travel abroad -- wants to donate to a human rights organization. Why should he not be allowed to do so?

Well, he should be allowed to do so, and we should be allowed to complain about it.

Assuming you're asking why it shouldn't be considered proper rather than why it shouldn't be allowed: even if such a person exists, it's very unlikely that we could distinguish between such a case and a more troubling one. It's why we have rules about appearance of impropriety--because even though it may not always be impropriety there's no way for an outside observer to tell.

It's also unlikely that this progressive Saudi has Western beliefs in human rights for all types of human rights, not just for the particular issue he's liberal on.
7.15.2009 6:37pm
Diane Meskin (mail) (www):
NGO Monitor's May 27 report revealing HRW's Saudi Arabian (mis)adventures is part of the ongoing and systematic analysis of this NGO superpower's confused mix of speculation, pseudo-research, ideology, and international legal rhetoric. See HRW Goes to Saudi Arabia to Demonize Israel and Raise Money, HRW profile.

Diane Meskin
Researcher, NGO Monitor
7.16.2009 4:26am
Thoughtful (mail):
Neurodoc's understanding of basic oil economics is as poor as that of the politicians that have been kissing Saudi butt for 60 years...
7.16.2009 12:17pm

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