This article originally appeared in The Jewish Advocate
By Charles Jacobs & Sasha Giller
January 6, 2011
Friends of Israel have long fumed over what they felt was the human rights community’s disproportionate and unfair criticism of the Jewish state: Major rights organizations typically portray Israel as among the cruelest of nations, while this planet’s actual dictatorships and tyrannies get wrist slaps.
Last year, this charge was bolstered by scandals engulfing Human Rights Watch (HRW), an NGO behemoth with an annual budget of $44 million.
In October, Robert L. Bernstein, HRW’s founder and a former chairman, blasted his own organization in The New York Times for obsessively focusing on Israel, while ignoring authoritarian Arab and Iranian regimes and terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas. Bernstein charged that HRW “lost critical perspective on a conflict” by blaming Israel, the “repeated victim of aggression.”
HRW used Bernstein’s criticism to raise funds from Israel’s adversaries. The Wall Street Journal reported that HRW officials visited Saudi Arabia and bragged to potential donors about the organization’s “battles with pro-Israel pressure groups in the US.” HRW’s head Kenneth Roth affirmed this account and even admitted his focus on Gaza was intentional. “It’s not that we’re exclusively focusing on Israel. But if the question is, ‘Why are we more concerned about the [Gaza] war rather than on other rights abuses [in Israel]?’ Well, we’ve got to pick and choose; we’ve got finite resources,” he told Tablet Magazine.
What’s the basis of Roth’s selectivity? A study published in Foreign Policy by two university sociologists from Canada, James Ron and Howard Ramos, found that HRW’s bias extends beyond Israel: HRW publications pay little attention to the “worst places on earth” in terms of poverty, repression and conflict. What explains this bizarre focus?
We have proposed a theory – The Human Rights Complex – to explain this human rights “selectivity.” Western rights groups, predominantly composed of decent white folks, seek to scold behavior they deem immoral – but only when it’s committed by people like themselves. When confronted with evil committed by non-Westerners, rights advocates avert their eyes. Off the record, rights activists explain that Westerners don’t have moral standing to criticize “others.” “We,” after all, stole the land from the Indians, enslaved blacks, invaded other countries or what have you. In truth, however, in today’s PC world, criticizing the “other” invites painful accusations of bigotry, racism and Islamophobia. Criticizing your own is saintly. HRW’s recent Saudi visit did not establish this long settled policy. It was simply meant to monetize it.
But who’s the real victim here? While these virtue-seeking folks march under the banner of “not in my name,” as they morally preen in the hope of ridding themselves of the taint of “Western crimes,” they do enormous damage, yes to Israelis and Americans, but much more to the millions of victims of non-Western oppressors their much touted “compassion” conveniently ignores.
HRW’s treatment of Mauritania’s black slaves cinches our case. The Islamic Republic of Mauritania has more slaves per capita than any other nation on Earth. It abolished slavery in 1905, 1961 and 1980; the country criminalized it in 2007, but the UN, the US State Department, and Amnesty International report that slavery continues. According to UN reports – confirmed by our Mauritanian abolitionist allies – slaves in Mauritania are the wholly owned property of masters, passed on through their estates, like furniture or cattle. Slave girls are given as wedding gifts.
You might think black slaves would be a top priority for an American rights champion. But there’s a problem. While the slaves are African, their masters are not white Europeans; they are Arab-Berber Muslims.
HRW knows all this but won’t tell anybody. Its reports have mentioned slavery in Mauritania only four times since 1994. Why? Because there is no political gain, no expiation, no dollars – or dinars.
Actually, HRW twice – just twice – did tell the truth. In 1990 and 1994, HRW’s Africa bureau made it clear that slavery in Mauritania was part of a general program to Islamize and Arabize the country’s Africans. One report went on to describe several tortures inflicted upon “uppity” slaves, among them the Camel Treatment: “The slave’s legs are tied to the sides of a camel who has deliberately been denied water for up to two weeks. The camel is then taken to drink and as the camel’s stomach expands, the slave’s legs, thighs and groin are slowly dislocated.”
The human rights movement, founded in response to the civilized world’s failure to act during the Holocaust, was originally dedicated to Western values of freedom – and a universal standard of human conduct. No more. After valiantly fighting Soviet tyranny, the rights movement morphed into its current anti-Western posture. Once, in the 1990s, HRW told the world that Arabs have black slaves. That report actually led to a popular movement in the US to end slavery around the world. But today, as its officials tell us, HRW has other fish to fry, and so it has abandoned these, and millions whose oppressors are non-Westerners – people whose suffering it deems to be none of its business. It doesn’t do “human rights.” It’s doing something else.
Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously omitted mention of one additional Human Rights Watch report on Mauritania - Africa Watch, Mauritania: Slavery Alive and Well, 10 Years after It Was Last Abolished, New York, 1990.