Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Human Rights Watch and Saudi Donations

Human Rights Watch usually makes the news while highlighting egregious human rights violations in countries around the world. From Turkey to China, and even in western democracies, Human Rights Watch has established a whistle blower.

The latest appearance of Human Rights Watch in the news does not look so pretty. The Wall Street Journal and the Atlantic Monthly both report and comment on a Human Rights Watch trip to Saudi Arabia. Was the trip taken in defense of women's rights? Was the focus on the rights of foreign domestic workers or the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia?

The main focus of the latest Human Rights Watch trip to Saudi Arabia was not in pursuit of justice but of money. It was a fund raising trip. The Wall Street Journal describes it as follows in their editorial today, July 15.

"The delegation arrived to raise money from wealthy Saudis by highlighting HRW's demonization of Israel. An HRW spokesperson, Sarah Leah Whitson, highlighted HRW's battles with "pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations." (Was Ms. Whitson required to wear a burkha, or are exceptions made for visiting anti-Israel "human rights" activists"? Driving a car, no doubt, was out of the question.)'

It doesn't take much courage to criticise Israel on Saudi soil. To the contrary, it is pretty much expected. It would have been far more courageous to lend voice and support to lonely and fearful voices of conscience within Saudi Arabia. But the trip by Saraah Leah Whitson was not about courage and giving solace. It was about money.

The Atlantic Monthly attempted to get the Human Rights Watch side of the picture. Ms. Whitson claimed that there was indeed discussions during the visit of women's rights and the rights of domestic workers. There is undoubtedly a large number of Saudis who would like a more liberal version of Islam to prevail in Saudi Arabia. The large number of Saudis educated in the west along with the nagging voice of conscience make for a viable base of support for human rights in Saudi Arabia. Put simply, human rights is not an foreign import unwanted by Saudi Arabia's people.

This makes Ms. Whitson's appeal all the more questionable since she based her fund raising appeal largely on the Human rights Watch record in Israel. This certainly does not take any great amount of courage. If money was raised from donors in Saudi Arabia based on their approval of HRW's activities in Israel, what might the donors expect within Saudi Arabia? If Sarah Leah Whitson had focused on the situation in Saudi Arabia, she might have raised less money. But the money would have likely had less strings attached to it.

The fund raising trip to Saudi Arabia raises a multitude of questions about the role of donations and their source in the setting of the HRW agenda and priorities. Saudi Arabia has a record of giving money to Muslim terrorist groups in exchange for their staying out of Saudi Arabia. Who knows? It might work for Human Rights Watch as well.

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