Commentary Magazine


Dictatorships and Double Standards

Over on the Volokh blog, David Bernstein has been conducting admirable work on Human Rights Watch and its obsession with Israel. Yesterday he profiled Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director, who, it turns out, is not just a Norman Finkelstein admirer but was deeply involved in anti-Israel activism when she was hired. She is in good company at HRW with people like Joe Stork, HRW’s deputy Middle East director, who used to edit the viciously anti-Israel Middle East Report. Another is Lucy Mair, the Israel/Palestinian-territories researcher until 2007, who used to write for Electronic Intifada, the pro-terrorism website.

Yes, they churn out agitprop. But the difference in the treatment to which they subject Israel as opposed to Arab dictatorships has another cause, which is more difficult to attribute to pure animosity. It is the desire to protect access, which is always a primary concern for activists and journalists who wish to work in authoritarian societies.

A couple of months ago, Whitson wrote a gushing piece for Foreign Policy entitled “Tripoli Spring.” She had been granted access to Libya, one of the most repressive countries on earth, for a tour of the liberalization initiatives pursued by Qaddafi’s son and probable successor, Saif al-Islam. Access was duly rewarded with good PR. Whitson mentions in her piece the death of Fathi al-Jahmi, a democracy activist who had been imprisoned in solitary confinement and denied medical care by the Libyans since 2004, but as an example of how Libya is reforming: “What Fathi al-Jahmi died for is starting to spread in the country.” This astonished al-Jahmi’s brother, who replied in a piece for Forbes:

For nearly a year, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch hesitated to advocate publicly for Fathi’s case, because they feared their case workers might lose access to Libyan visas.

Only on the day of Fathi’s death [May 21, 2009] did Human Rights Watch issue a press release that announced what we had known for two months: That Fathi appeared frail and emaciated, could barely speak and could not lift his arms or head. . . .

Perhaps because they still fear antagonizing Gaddafi, in their May 21 statement Human Rights Watch didn’t call for an independent investigation and stopped short of holding the Libyan regime responsible for Fathi’s death. . . .

Sarah Leah Whitson is one of the Human Rights Watch researchers who last saw Fathi before he was rushed to Jordan [to die]. She wrote an article for Foreign Policy upon her return from Libya, where she described efforts by the Gaddafi Foundation for International Charities and Development, which is headed by the Libyan leader’s son, Saif al-Islam, as a “spring.” The organization is actively menacing my brother’s family. Some family members continue to endure interrogation, denial of citizenship papers and passports, round the clock surveillance and threats of rape and physical liquidation.

Now compare Whitson’s dismissive treatment of a Libyan political prisoner with her organization’s obsessive treatment of certain Palestinians, on whose behalf HRW regularly launches PR campaigns (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for examples).

If Israel can be implicated — and if there’s no worry of reprisal — HRW will come to your aid with guns blazing: demands will be made, press releases will be e-mailed, letters will be sent to high-ranking government officials.

But if you’re a democracy activist rotting — well, actually, dying — in a Libyan prison, you’ll barely be noticed, especially when HRW’s people in your country might be expelled if too much noise is made about human-rights abuses. And when you do get some attention, it might come in the form of an article apologizing for your jailers and using your very death as an example of how things are changing for the better. The effect is that democracies get pilloried, while dictators and oppressors are given kid-gloves treatment in order to retain access to their countries. A glimmer of how this works is visible in a recent Amnesty International report on Saudi Arabia:

Researching human rights in Saudi Arabia is a tough challenge. The government continues to prevent Amnesty International from visiting the country in order to undertake first hand research on human rights, although it has permitted the US-based organization Human Rights Watch to visit several times.

How interesting.