Bernstein maintained that "it's extremely unwise for a human rights group to raise money in a totalitarian country, even from human rights advocates in that country."
Whitson said the claim had no grounds, noting that the notion "that any money from Saudi Arabia is tainted because it comes from a country with a totalitarian ruling regime is a gross generalisation."
"The ethnic background of our donors is irrelevant to the work we do," Whitson told IPS. "It's not relevant to our work in Israel that many, many of our donors are Jewish. And it's not relevant for the work that we do that we get money from Arab countries."
"Should people be criticising us for the fact that much of our support base is made up of Jews?" Whitson said. "Should that imply that our work on Israel is in fact too soft?"
Let's review. The problem with HRW's fundraising in Saudi Arabia is two-fold: (1) Totalitarian (or even run-of-the-mill authoritarian) governments will only allow fundraising for human rights NGOs to the extent that the NGO is at worst only a minor nuisance to it. If HRW becomes dependent on Saudi money, it will have a significant incentive softpedal Saudi Arabia's human rights violations; (2) HRW specifically asked for money in Saudi Arabia due to its research and publicizing of Israel's alleged human rights violations in Gaza, and the cost of its battles with "pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations" (as if the U.N., with dozens of Arab and Muslim countries, is a hot bed of pro-Israel sentiment!). So HRW went to the elites of a totalitarian nation, with some representatives of the government in the audience(!) to ask for money to help it combat the controversial policies of a liberal democracy.
On point 1, Whitson has intentionally distorted the point to an issue of the "ethnic background of our donors." Elsewhere, she responded to me by concluding that "believe it or not, some Arabs believe in human rights too." If Whitson has some reason to believe that HRW's mission won't be compromised by fundraising in totalitarian nations, say that HRW is limiting its fundraising in such countries to 5% of its budget so it doesn't become dependent, let her say so. But her claim that the issue I raised is the "ethnic background" of HRW's donors is egregiously dishonest.
As for point 2, HRW director Ken Roth has claimed that the pitch regarding Israel was made in the broader context of discussing HRW's work in the Middle East, and did not amount to a request for funds specifically to combat Israel. ("I've been told that we talked about the range of our work in the region, including Israel, Saudi and elsewhere.... That's [the Israel stuff] certainly part of the story. We report on Israel. Its supporters fight back with lies and deception. It wasn't a pitch against the Israel lobby per se. Our standard spiel is to describe our work in the region. Telling the Israel story — part of that pitch — is in part telling about the lies and obfuscation that are inevitably thrown our way.")
So, HRW acknowledges that it used its reporting on Israel and its battles with Israel's supporters as part of its pitch in Saudi Arabia. The only remaining question is how prominent this was. Given HRW's constant refrain that it believes in "transparency," HRW should release a transcript of the remarks made before the Saudi elites, or, better yet, a video. And while they're at it, how about releasing data on how much money comes from citizens of repressive regimes, how much of that money is earmarked, and for what?
Meanwhile, here is lawprof Maimon Schwarzchild's account of his acquaintance with a vociferously anti-American and anti-Israel senior staffer at HRW.
UPDATE: HRW has now sent a statement on the controversy to its Board of Directors, which I reprint below:
A number of recent media reports have suggested that Human Rights Watch has compromised its neutrality by meeting with potential donors at receptions in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East. These reports are based on misleading assumptions and wrong facts.
Human Rights Watch does not accept donations from any government. All of our US$44 million annual budget is raised from private individuals and foundations. Of that sum, almost 75% comes from North America and about 25% from Western Europe, with less than 1% from all other regions of the world combined. As an organization with a global mandate, we are naturally endeavoring to diversify our financial base and have begun to actively explore funding in regions as diverse as Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
Accordingly, Human Rights Watch staffers made presentations on our work to two private audiences in Saudi Arabia in May (as well as to audiences in Amman and Beirut). [click to continue reading]
These were receptions in private homes, hosted by people who were interested in Human Rights Watch and who invited other guests to learn more about us. Among the guests at one of those receptions were the deputy head of the Human Rights Commission of Saudi Arabia and a member of the Shura Council, a government-appointed consultative body. Neither of these individuals was solicited for funds, nor would Human Rights Watch ever accept funds from such officials, in any country. Government officials are, of course, important interlocutors for our advocacy on Saudi human rights policy.
We seek to apply our rigorous methodology in an even-handed way to serious human rights violations wherever they occur. A key source of our credibility in talking to governments is that we are not singling them out for criticism but rather looking at similar issues in more than eighty countries.
At the receptions in Saudi Arabia, we discussed and answered questions about our work in Saudi Arabia, which includes coverage of women's rights, the juvenile death penalty, domestic workers, and discrimination against religious minorities. No other human rights group has produced a more comprehensive, detailed and thorough body of work on Saudi Arabian human rights issues in recent years than Human Rights Watch.
The audience also heard a presentation about the situation in Gaza, which dominated worldwide headlines earlier this year and is naturally a matter of concern to those in the region who are interested in human rights. We feel Human Rights Watch distinguished itself with accurate, sober, and impartial work on the Gaza conflict in early 2009, including coverage of Israel's use of white phosphorous , as well as Palestinian political violence during the conflict. We also discussed criticism leveled against Human Rights Watch, particularly by US-based groups and commentators, that we are biased against Israel. We sought, in part to juxtapose that criticism with the charges we face in much of the Middle East (and from some Western critics) that our US donor base makes us "soft" on Israeli human rights violations.
We reject the idea that an individual's nationality, ethnicity or religion can be taken as a proxy for their political or ideological beliefs or that the backgrounds of our supporters influence our coverage.
By the same token, no assumption should ever be made that a Saudi citizen's support for human rights reflects or is captive of Saudi government policy. Human Rights Watch is eager and delighted to find supporters of the human rights ideal -- financial or otherwise -- in any and all countries of the world. To draw such communities into an active, international network is an important part of our mission and does not impair our political neutrality. It threatens no-one but the human rights violators we seek to expose.
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