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Who Will Watch the Watchers?

For years it has been clear to those who bear the brunt of criticism from human rights watchdogs like Amnesty and the UN Human Rights Council, that something is wrong with the international system aimed at exposing gross violations and war crimes. The overwhelmingly disproportionate criticism heaped on Israel and other democratic states, and the near blindness to the brutal oppression that takes place in dozens of other countries, especially Arab states, makes the entire pretense of international human rights law look like a sham.

But last week, one of these bodies was caught with its pants down. Two months ago, the Saudi-based newspaper Arab News described a fund-raising event for Human Rights Watch held in the Saudi kingdom, where high-level Saudi dignitaries were treated to a powerful presentation where the organization not only petitioned the brutal elites for funding, but paraded the fact that they were doing battle against pro-Israel pressure groups in the West — a clear repudiation of their purportedly objective status. Credit for exposing them goes to NGO Monitor’s Gerald Steinberg, who published a report on the dinner in May; but it only caught the attention of major Western media this past week, with a piece by David Bernstein in the Wall Street Journal, followed by another by Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic.

The last piece, by Goldberg, is the most damning, because for the first time Human Rights Watch goes on record admitting both the fundraising and the explicit anti-Israel appeal. Because it details the email exchange between Goldberg and the executive director of HRW, Ken Roth, it’s really worth reading the whole thing, first how he tries in vain to dodge the question, and then how he admits it (“That’s certainly part of the story. We report on Israel. Its supporters fight back with lies and deception.”)

All this is very damning for an organization that for years has tried rebuffing accusations of being blatantly anti-Israel. As one commentator writing at the (British) Spectator put it, “Whatever Israel’s faults, there is something deeply wrong about a human rights organisation trying to raise money in a religiously oppressive monarchical state out of criticising a liberal democracy. It does make one wonder how people committed to human rights can get it so wrong.”

It also makes one wonder how the world can continue to take such organizations so seriously.