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 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.

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