Abuses of non-Western regimes excused, democracies' sins magnified
by Frayda Leibtag
Human Rights Watch (HRW), one of the world's largest non-government organizations, is failing in its mandate to protect universal human rights. In closed societies where the organization's work is most needed, and where its work is most difficult to pursue, HRW repeatedly falls far short of fulfilling its mission.
The organization’s recent reports on migrant workers demonstrate these severe shortcomings. One report ('Walls at Every Turn') examined Kuwait, where migrant workers face serious abuse such as extortion and sexual exploitation. The other report ('Slow Reform' ) addressed the worldwide problem of violations against migrant workers, with an emphasis on Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and United Arab Emirates. So far, so good.
But when HRW's researcher Bill Van Esveld chose to publish an op-ed on this important topic, his focus was on migrant workers in Israel. Instead of drawing attention to the problem of closed societies, which lack basic democratic mechanisms to address the mistreatment of migrants, and where international outcry may be the only publicity allotted to the victims, Van Esveld chose to highlight the one open country in the region that, in fact, has its own very public, vibrant debate on the most appropriate policies to implement regarding migrant workers.
This op-ed is indicative of how HRW's Middle East and North Africa (MENA) division downplays the systematic abuses of human rights taking place in closed, totalitarian regimes, while targeting open, democratic societies. This ideological double standard violates the universality of human rights and highlights the moral decomposition within HRW.
Other reports by HRW further demonstrate this troubling trend. A 35-page HRW report on a decade of human rights in Syria describes the state of Syrian human rights as 'bleak,' a categorization that does not do justice to the egregious violations committed at the highest institutional levels. The equally feeble 'recommendations' section adopts a bureaucratic approach, directed exclusively to President Bashar al-Assad. He is enjoined to enact, amend, introduce and remove a variety of laws; and to set up commissions. To alleviate restrictions on freedom of expression, HRW urges: 'stop blocking websites for their content.'
Similarly, in a recent report on Saudi Arabia, MENA overlooked the extent to which King Abdullah and the rest of the Saudi leadership are responsible for the very repressive practices that they are asked to counteract. The regime’s totalitarian grip on its citizens is minimized, with HRW naively turning to King Abdullah to enforce equal rights and freedoms.
This failure to properly address closed societies, and to focus primarily on democracies, led HRW founder Robert Bernstein to denounce the organization that he began. He explained in a New York Times op-ed (Oct. 2009) that HRW has 'cast aside its important distinction between open and closed societies' and has abandoned its 'original mission to pry open closed societies, advocate basic freedoms and support dissenters.' Van Esveld's article is another example.
There are a number of factors driving HRW's moral decline. First, HRW's leaders reflect a post-colonial ideology that patronizingly excuses the abuses of non-Western regimes and magnifies the alleged sins of democracies. HRW's lack of access to reliable information in closed societies also contributes to the agenda bias. But, instead of criticizing the potential harassment, or worse, for individuals who speak out against the regime, HRW echoes their silence.
In contrast, the open nature of democracies enables an obsessive, often aggressive stance regarding accusations of abuse in these nations. For instance, NGO Monitor's research has shown that HRW's ability to access every aspect of Israeli society feeds a hyper-critical approach to Israel and a loss of perspective and context.
The number and intensity of NGO reports and critiques of open societies should not be confused with the advancement of a universal human rights agenda. Saudi Arabia executes homosexuals, Iran stones adulterers, and Qatar discriminates against women, but HRW's MENA division persistently downplays these human rights violations. Now add to this list Kuwait's treatment of migrant workers. Without major reform of the MENA division, and a renewed commitment to seriously addressing the human rights abuses in closed societies, HRW will continue to lose credibility.
More Quotes About "Palestine"
"There is no such country as Palestine. 'Palestine' is a term the Zionists invented. There is no Palestine in the Bible. Our country was for centuries part of Syria. 'Palestine' is alien to us. It is the Zionists who introduced it".
- Auni Bey Abdul-Hadi, Syrian Arab leader to British Peel Commission, 1937 -
"There is no such thing as Palestine in history, absolutely not".
- Professor Philip Hitti, Arab historian, 1946 -
"It is common knowledge that Palestine is nothing but Southern Syria".
- Representant of Saudi Arabia at the United Nations, 1956 -
Concerning the Holy Land, the chairman of the Syrian Delegation at the Paris Peace Conference in February 1919 stated:
"The only Arab domination since the Conquest in 635 c.e. hardly lasted, as such, 22 years".
"There is not a solitary village throughout its whole extent (valley of Jezreel, Galilea); not for thirty miles in either direction... One may ride ten miles hereabouts and not see ten human beings. For the sort of solitude to make one dreary, come to Galilee... Nazareth is forlorn... Jericho lies a mouldering ruin... Bethlehem and Bethany, in their poverty and humiliation... untenanted by any living creature... A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds... a silent, mournful expanse... a desolation... We never saw a human being on the whole route... Hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil had almost deserted the country... Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes... desolate and unlovely...".
- Mark Twain, "The Innocents Abroad", 1867 -
"In 1590 a 'simple English visitor' to Jerusalem wrote: 'Nothing there is to bescene but a little of the old walls, which is yet remayning and all the rest is grasse, mosse and weedes much like to a piece of rank or moist grounde'.".
- Gunner Edward Webbe, Palestine Exploration Fund,
Quarterly Statement, p. 86; de Haas, History, p. 338 -
"The land in Palestine is lacking in people to till its fertile soil".
- British archaeologist Thomas Shaw, mid-1700s -
"Palestine is a ruined and desolate land".
- Count Constantine François Volney, XVIII century French author and historian -
"The Arabs themselves cannot be considered but temporary residents. They pitched their tents in its grazing fields or built their places of refuge in its ruined cities. They created nothing in it. Since they were strangers to the land, they never became its masters. The desert wind that brought them hither could one day carry them away without their leaving behind them any sign of their passage through it".
- Comments by Christians concerning the Arabs in Palestine in the 1800s -
"Then we entered the hill district, and our path lay through the clattering bed of an ancient stream, whose brawling waters have rolled away into the past, along with the fierce and turbulent race who once inhabited these savage hills. There may have been cultivation here two thousand years ago. The mountains, or huge stony mounds environing this rough path, have level ridges all the way up to their summits; on these parallel ledges there is still some verdure and soil: when water flowed here, and the country was thronged with that extraordinary population, which, according to the Sacred Histories, was crowded into the region, these mountain steps may have been gardens and vineyards, such as we see now thriving along the hills of the Rhine. Now the district is quite deserted, and you ride among what seem to be so many petrified waterfalls. We saw no animals moving among the stony brakes; scarcely even a dozen little birds in the whole course of the ride".
- William Thackeray in "From Jaffa To Jerusalem", 1844 -
"The country is in a considerable degree empty of inhabitants and therefore its greatest need is of a body of population".
- James Finn, British Consul in 1857 -
"The area was underpopulated and remained economically stagnant until the arrival of the first Zionist pioneers in the 1880's, who came to rebuild the Jewish land. The country had remained "The Holy Land" in the religious and historic consciousness of mankind, which associated it with the Bible and the history of the Jewish people. Jewish development of the country also attracted large numbers of other immigrants - both Jewish and Arab. The road leading from Gaza to the north was only a summer track suitable for transport by camels and carts... Houses were all of mud. No windows were anywhere to be seen... The plows used were of wood... The yields were very poor... The sanitary conditions in the village [Yabna] were horrible... Schools did not exist... The rate of infant mortality was very high... The western part, toward the sea, was almost a desert... The villages in this area were few and thinly populated. Many ruins of villages were scattered over the area, as owing to the prevalence of malaria, many villages were deserted by their inhabitants".
- The report of the British Royal Commission, 1913 -