Sarah Leah Whitson of HRW answers my questions


Sarah Leah Whitson, the senior Human Rights Watch official at the center of the controversy over meetings with potential givers in Saudi Arabia, kindly and conscientiously reached out to me to answer my questions.

She also chided me for not reaching out to her before posting my questions. I had some lame reply about blogging and its immediacy, but she had a point.

In any case, while I still have broader critiques about HRW’s notion of balance — Israel on the one side, the rest of the Middle East on the other — Whitson’s replies directly addressed my questions, and were not in any way evasive.

Here are my questions and her replies (I summarize, but also include direct quotes from our conversation):

* Does/ would HRW solicit funds in Israel?

Whitson first of all made clear these were not fund-raisers in Riyadh ("I wish" was how she put it), but not exactly not fund-raisers: They were friends of HRW making their friends, colleagues and acquaintances aware of its work and mission.

"They are informal dinners hosted by friends and supporters, where they come to ask us questions."

And yes, there were two similar private events in Tel Aviv recently.

* Does/Would it do so through presentations that expose human rights abuses by Palestinian authorities and by Arab governments?

It does, because just as the Saudis in Riyadh raised concerns about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, so did Israelis raise concerns about abuses by Hamas, Hezbollah and others in the Arab world.

"The questions tend to be pretty aggressive and critical," she said. 

Questions in Arab capitals tend to be informed by Arab or pro-Arab critics of HRW as overly soft on Israel, and questions in Tel Aviv would be informed by critics there who say NGOs have a bias against Israel. Whitson said interlocutors in Tel Aviv had clearly read critiques of the organization by Gerald  Steinberg of NGO Monitor, and those in Arab capitals were familiar with the criticisms of Norman Finkelstein and Mouin Rabbani.

She added (and I wish she had done this in the presentation I addressed in this blog post) that HRW was the first organization, in 2007, to attempt to expose Hezbollah war crimes against Israeli civilians at a Beirut press conference; Hezbollah-intitiated pressures on the hotel management shut the presser down.

"There’s nobody that has done as detailed an investigation of attacks" on Israel by Hezbollah, "targeting their claims that they don’t target civilians, that they target military facilities."

* We get it: The targets were private citizens. We also understand that if one is to make representations about abuses, one does so to offficials: "Government officials are, of course, important interlocutors for our advocacy on Saudi human rights policy."

But why are they in the same room? Are we to seriously believe that the HRW official told the potential givers, "We need your money to fight your government’s abuses" and then turned to the government officials and said "Nu, nu nu?"

HRW did not control the invitation list in Riyadh, Whitson said. In any case, she said, she did not have a problem with the two government officials who attended: One was the deputy head of the Saudi Arabian human rights commission. It is true that such bodies in the Arab world are filled by government appointees; Whitson says that governments bring them into existence to address concerns raised by HRW and other groups and that — in Jordan and Egypt at least — they have proven their independence with critical, tough reports. She suggested that the jury was still out on the Saudi body, but she saw it as positive that the official wanted to hear about HRW’s concerns.

The official from the religious Shura Council, not a body known for its love of liberties, was a wheelchair-bound physician who had just joined the Shura and whose specific interest was disabled access; Whitson says there is virtually no such access in Saudi Arabia, and the Shura official was interested in introducing such reforms.

"There are no disability rights, no disabled facilities in Saudi Arabia," she said.

One issue I did not get around to addressing — because it had to do with broader conceptial notions and not with the specifics of recent events — is the wisdom of raising the "Israel lobby" in meetings in the Arab world, in terms of showing how HRW gets hit by all sides in fulfilling its mission.  Maybe another conversation.

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