Watching Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is an advocacy group, with its headquarters in New York, founded in 1978 as Helsinki Watch to monitor the Soviet Union’s compliance with the Helsinki Accords. Since then it has morphed into an extremely well-fundedits budget in 2017 was $76 millionand internationally known NGO whose ostensible purpose is to monitor and report on violations of human rights in every country around the world. HRW is similar to Amnesty International (although it is not a mass-based organisation like Amnesty) and produces lengthy annual reports about alleged human rights violations in literally every country.

It is also one of the most deeply biased organ­isations with which I am familiar, a typical but highly significant component of the American “woke” Left and its value systemso much so, that describing it as “Orwellian” is not an exaggeration. The term “Orwellian” of course refers to the critique given by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four of Stalin’s propaganda machine during the early Cold War, which described any institution in the communist world by the exact opposite of its actual reality, the “People’s Democracies”, Stalin’s name for his enslaved satellites in Eastern Europe, arguably being the most egregious. Many of the findings published by HRW are in the grip of a very similar phenomenon, in which the greater the degree to which a nation is democratic and pro-Western the more it is subject to intense criticism, and the greater the degree to which a nation is totalitarian and anti-Western, the more its human rights record is whitewashed or ignored.

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How HRW treats Iran is an example of this bias. The brutality and totalitarianism of the Islamic Republic of Iran can hardly be exaggerated. For a first conviction for theft, the penalty is amputation of four fingers of the right hand; for a second conviction, the thief’s left foot is chopped off. Between 1980 and 2009, about 150 persons in Iran were reportedly stoned to death for adultery. Between 2000 and 2020, 2134 persons were flogged, for such offences as participating in peaceful protests, engaging in extramarital relationships, attending mixed-sex parties, and drinking alcohol. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated that equality of the sexes was “one of the biggest mistakes of Western thought”. Conversion from Islam to another religion is punishable by death. There is a small Jewish community in Iran, which is apparently left alone unless it shows support for Israel. However, Iranian Jews are prohibited from holding significant decision-making positions in the government, from serving on the Guardian Council, or becoming president, or a judge, or a military commander. Nor can they be elected a member of the Iranian Parliament except for one seat specifically reserved for the Jews, or inherit property from a Muslim. The treatment of other minority groups such as the Baha’i is even worse.

HRW posts annual reports for individual countries, including one on “Iran: Events of 2020”. It begins by stating truthfully that “Iranian authorities continued to repress their own people”, and then continues with several paragraphs outlining some of their repressive measures (at least in a watered-down version), as one would expect any human rights watchdog to do. It then adds the following:

Broad United States sanctions also impacted the country’s economy and Iranian access to essential medicines and harmed their right to health … Following the United States withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement on Iran’s nuclear activities, the United States has increasingly targeted Iran with broad economic sanctions. While the United States government has built exemptions for humanitarian imports into its sanction regime, banking restrictions have drastically constrained the ability of the government to finance humanitarian imports, including vital medicines and medical equipment, causing serious hardships for ordinary Iranians and harming their right to health, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the burden on the health care system.

In other words, according to HRW, it is not the government of the ayatollahs which is harming ordinary Iranians, but the government of the United States, always to be condemned.

That the United States is always wrong may also be seen in the shocking response of HRW to the killing in Pakistan of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 by American military forces, at a time when Barack Obama was President and Hillary Clinton the Secretary of State. According to the website NGO Monitor, “On May 3 [2011] HRW executive director Ken Roth tweeted: Ban Ki-moon wrong on Osama bin Laden. [The UN Secretary General had commended the killing.] It’s not ‘justice’ for him to be killed even if justified; no trial, conviction.” One day earlier HRW had issued a statement, “US: Osama Bin Laden killed in shoot out”, making the odious comparison between the killing of Bin Laden and alleged violations by “the US and other countries”.

HRW’s Asia director said that “if [Bin Laden] wasn’t shooting at the soldiers, the killing should be investigated”, while Kenneth Roth criticised UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for calling the death “an act of justice”, arguing that “even if [the killing was] justified, Bin Laden was not given a trial and there was no conviction … Bin Laden was denied due process.” Roth later pressed the Obama administration for fuller accounting of the gun fight that preceded Bin Laden’s death: “White House still hasn’t clarified: Osama Bin Laden ‘resisted’ but how did he pose lethal threat to US forces on the scene? Need facts.” Presumably the 2997 persons murdered by Bin Laden’s terrorists on 9/11 were, as they died, also wondering what sort of “lethal threat” they posed to Al Qaeda.

HRW issues annual reports on virtually every nation, including Australia. The chief HRW researcher for Australia is Sophie McNeill, the left-wing former ABC journalist. Its most recent Australian report begins by describing the country as “a vibrant multicultural democracy with robust institutions”, but then attacks it on asylum-seekers and refugees and on Aboriginal affairs, especially deaths in custody. The report’s criticism of Australian policy on refugees fails to take into account the fact that Australia has an absolute right to identify economic migrants who are trying to pass themselves off as refugees, a process which takes time and effort, and that Australia has a perfect right to limit the number of refugees and economic immigrants coming here, in order not to be swamped by vast numbers of impoverished peoples from the Third World who would threaten the jobs and living standards of Australian citizens. The report’s strictures on the Aborigines is a predictable critique of deaths in custody. A knowledgeable informant whom I consulted, who was in contact with an elected official of Aboriginal background in the Northern Territory, was told by that person:

when the Human Rights Watch “rapporteur” came to interview Aboriginal Australians, they only wanted to hear stories of white oppression of Aboriginal people. [This official] kept telling them their problems were not born of white versus black racism, but they are internal, cultural, and far worse than anything Aboriginal people experienced at the hands of white Australians today. But Human Rights Watch didn’t want to hear it. No tick boxes for that. They are a narrow misled organisation wedded to certain narratives of oppression.

There is also the failure to consider just why so many Aborigines are in custody. Apart from drunkenness, drug abuse and petty crime, a far higher percentage of Aborigines than whites are in custody for domestic violence offencesspecifically, violence by men against women and children. If these were white men who were accused of domestic violence, many radicals and feminists would wish to boil them in oil, and if they died in custody, their response would likely be, “Good riddance!” But because they are Aboriginal men, they become martyrs and the victims of white racism. A final point is that “human rights” are arbitrarily defined by HRW as those found in the agendas of the left wing of the ALP and the Greens. In HRW’s report on the UK its critique of human rights in Britain simply echoes the agenda of the Corbyn wing of the British Labour Party and the Green Party.

The pronouncement by HRW which has received the most recent publicity has been its accusation that Israel was “committing apartheid” against the Palestinians, announced on April 27. This claim received worldwide publicity, and was described by pro-Israel sources as preposterous and biased. HRW has a very long history of issuing extreme anti-Israel statements, which border on the openly anti-Semitic. There are several reasons for both its long-standing stance and its recent statement, apart from the central fact that Israel is America’s closest ally in the Middle East, which ipso facto marks it out for hostility by HRW. The most important factor is the background and attitude of the body’s head since 1993, Kenneth Roth. He is Jewish, the son of a German Jewish refugee who settled in Illinois. All the evidence that exists suggest that Roth has a very uneasy relationship with his Jewish background and, in particular, with his attitude towards the State of Israel. In 2011 Roth was married in an Anglican church. Since he became head of HRW he has singled out Israel for what one critic described as “significant levels of sarcasm, vitriol, and deep seated hostility”. A Jewish periodical recently stated that “Roth has long been noted for his hatred of Israel and his use of antisemitic rhetoric to attack it”. In 2017 Roth tweeted a link to an essay titled “White Supremacy and Zionism”, which contained a picture of the flag of the Civil War Confederacy and the flag of the State of Israel. His hostility towards Israel descends to levels of petty carping criticism, as in April 2015 when he attacked Israel for sending humanitarian aid to Nepal after an earthquake there. It seems clear that if anyone other than Kenneth Roth was the head of HRW, this body—although it would still almost certainly be unfriendly to Israel—would lack the continuing, central and relentless hostility associated with him as its head.

A recent HRW report, “A Threshold Crossed”, condemning Israel as an “apartheid” state, was written by an avowedly hostile opponent of Israel, Omar Shakir, who holds the position of “Israel and Palestine Director” at HRW. Shakir, who was expelled from Israel in 2019, has a long history of anti-Israel activity, such as signing a petition in favour of boycotting the Jewish state.

There is also the question of who exactly funds HRW, a matter which is opaque and shrouded in mystery. Its largest single donor is almost certainly George Soros, who in 2010 announced that he was giving HRW no less than $100 million over the next ten years.

The charge that Israel is an “apartheid state” is palpable nonsense: the 1.9 million Arab citizens of Israel enjoy exactly the same rights as do the Jews of Israel; the Arab List Party was, until the recent election, the third largest party in the Israeli parliament. HRW has attacked Israel’s 2018 “Nation State” law, which says that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel “is unique to the Jewish people”, a claim which should not be surprising. Much more surprising to most readers is the fact that, according to the constitutions of these states, Islam is the legally established religion in thirty countries, including virtually every Arab country in the Middle East apart from Lebanon and Syria. Perhaps the most unexpected national entity in which, according to its constitution, Islam is the established religion is Palestine—that is, the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, whose Basic Law of Palestine was adopted in 2002. Its Article 4 states that “Islam is the official religion in Palestine. Respect and sanctity of all other heavenly religions shall be maintained. The principle of Islamic Shari’a shall be the main source of legislation. Arabic shall be the official language.” The Basic Law is introduced with the phrase “In the name of God [Allah] the Merciful, the Compassionate”, as are all specifically Islamic documents. My guess is that not one reader in a hundred knows of the existence of Palestine’s Basic Law. If HRW has ever attacked this document as characteristic of an “apartheid state”, it must have done so in invisible ink.

Human Rights Watch is a component of the “woke” American Left, now engaged in a kind of left-wing imperialism. The contemporary Left has replaced class war with race war and sexuality war and, one must fear, with the same aim: the destruction of existing institutions.

William D. Rubinstein held Chairs of History at Deakin University and at the University of Wales, and is a frequent contributor to Quadrant. He wrote on A.J.P. Taylor in the June issue and on Black Lives Matter in March

14 thoughts on “Watching Human Rights Watch

  • IainC says:

    “Israel has no greater enemy than left-wing American secular Jews”.
    There are 2 billion poor souls living under fascist-left dictatorships, and another 2 billion poor suffering under the anti-progress and anti-technology campaigns and policies of the anti-Third World Greens, and HRW is most worried about 5 million Jews on a sliver of land smaller than the Mornington Peninsula in the only liberal democracy in the entire region?
    The poor Palestinians have been betrayed over and over again in the past 5o years. After that fat terrorist Arafat did the right thing and shuffled off, there was potentially a productive reset, but unfortunately the local Iranian Mafia, Hamas and Hezbollah, moved in to implement regional Iranian extra-territorial ambitions, and basically the PA is a paramilitary arm of Iran, whose publicly stated policy is the elimination of Israel. Is it any wonder no peace accords get very far, since part of it requires agreeing to Israel’s right to exist? The PA is not going to agree to that. The Trump-brokered Abraham accords were a real step forward, with a suite of Arab states normalizing relations with Israel and potentially able to kick the terrorists out of Palestine. Hey Presto! Cue 3000 rockets (sourced from Iran) fired into Israel to stymie this progress, knowing that the Israelis would hit back hard and stall any agreement, as all the old tropes got doled out once again. As usual, poor civilians who were forced to live on top of missile launch sites were once again collateral damage.
    The current plight of Aborigines is, in my opinion, a direct consequence of the hijacking of their culture, and its politically-driven fossilization into a pre-Western imaginarium, leading to a situation where they are not permitted to evolve and adapt. Many cultures, faced with advanced technological reality, assimilate and thrive. Activists here want Aborigines to stultify, in order to advance their own power structures. What’s good for the activist 1% has turned out to be fatal for the powerless 99%.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Good piece William, thank you, and may I say a good comment in my view from IanC. I’ve also read the hard copy a number of times and glean a bit more each time. The Jewish people are incredibly productive, intellectually and materially, and we all know these days where genius can sometimes lead, going all the way back to the ancient Greeks / Romans and the old Testament and New. One only has to read Josephus to get an understanding of this and the incredible self destruction that can lie waiting in hidden corners of this genius, and of course the Bolshevik revolution in more recent times. I wonder if this Kenneth Roth is in any way related to the late author Phillip Roth, of ‘Portnoy Complaint’ fame ?

  • rosross says:

    It is worth remembering that the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has also said Israel is an apartheid State and both Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who should know, identified it also as an apartheid State.

    To deny the reality of the State of Israel giving preferential treatment to followers of Judaism is foolish. Israeli and international human rights groups have clearly described how non-Jews in Israel are second-class citizens and how the Christians and Muslims in Occupied Palestine, which is everything beyond the original UN Mandate, have no human or civil rights.

    When people try to excuse the reality of Israel’s religiously apartheid nature, by pointing to other countries they overlook the fact that most of those to whom they point, if not all, are NOT claiming to be modern Western democracies as Israel does. Israel is judged by the bar it has set itself.

    Name one other Western democracy which has occupied and colonised a country belonging to others and then denied the indigenous people their freedom, justice and human and civil rights as Israel does to the Palestinians. There is none. All other developed democracies have created one state with equal rights for all where the indigenous people share the land with the colonisers. Israel fails to do this because it wants followers of one religion, Judaism, to remain in total control and a majority as citizens.

    If that is not apartheid then people need to refresh their understanding of the definition of the word and do a lot of reading about South African apartheid, which was sourced in race, not religion, but amounts to the same thing.

    Israel cannot have the ‘cake’ of claiming it is a modern democracy and then ask people to judge it by non-democratic, less developed, backward tyrannies instead of the bar it has set itself.

  • IainC says:

    I think the current efforts to create and legislate an Aboriginal apartheid system here in Australia*, including a race-selective parliament, is far more racist and egregious than anything Israel Derangement Syndrome sufferers can imagine happens in Israel.
    *I rang my super fund yesterday and there is a separate line iff you are AorTSI, another line for every other race and culture !!!!

  • lbloveday says:

    I am not an apologist for Iran or Islamic law, and think it is in many ways a barbaric nation, but nor can I not respond when someone writes:

    “For a first conviction for theft, the penalty is amputation of four fingers of the right hand; for a second conviction, the thief’s left foot is chopped off”.

    That reads as if the penalties describes are absolute rather than maximum, always applied (“left foot IS chopped off”), rather than seldom, and then for the most egregious offences, and never when committed out of need – for example stealing milk or bread for a hungry child.

    The maximum penalty for theft in South Australia is 15 years imprisonment, but how many people are sentenced to 15 years, let alone for a first conviction?

  • wdr says:

    Concerning the posting by rosross above, a number of points: 1. B’Tselem is a far left organisation, very similar to Human Rights Watch in its orientation, and whatever they say should be looked at critically. You can imagine what a similar body here would say about Aborigines- very few readers of Quadrant would agree with them. 2. Israel is plainly and obviously not an “apartheid state,” whatever that means. There are 2 million Arabs there who are citizens of Israel and have exactly the same rights as Jewish Israelis- with the sole exception that they are not conscripted into the Israeli army (although they may volunteer to serve, as some do)- all young Jewish Israelis, male and female have to serve in it. They have the vote,. The Arab Joint List party was the third largest party in the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) up to the recent election; it is now included in the current Coalition government. 3. If you want to know about Apartheid, I would advise you to read the Constitutions of the Arab states. In every Arab state except Lebanon, Islam is the established religion. The Constitution of Egypt, for instance, states that “Islam is the religion of the State,” although it has a large Christian minority. Islam is also the established religion of Palestine- i.e., of the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank. Article 4 of the Basic Law of Palestine states that “Islam is the official religion in Palestine. Respect and sanctity of all other heavenly religions will be maintained.” Presumably this is a reference to the other Monotheistic religions, and excludes Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. The Basic Law of Palestine begins with “In the name of God, the Merciful and the Compassionate,” which is how all Islamic prayers begin. Gaza is ruled by Hamas, a fundamentalist Islamic group which wants to establish Sharia Law throughout Palestine. Two days ago, it officially praised the Taliban for seizing power in Afghanistan. The recent conflict there arose because Hamas fired 3000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel, and Israel retaliated- its retaliation was widely reported in the news, especially on left-dominated sources like the ABC, but not the 3000 rockets which produced the retaliation. If the Cuban government fired 3000 rockets aimed at Florida, what do you think the American response would be, even under this current gaga pseudo-woke in the White House? To lbloveday: I’d be interested in seeing statistics. It would be useful to know how many arms and hands they actually chopped off. If statistics exist, please post. Thanks, Bill Rubinstein

  • STD says:

    rosross – sounds like Islamic Pi .
    Apartheid is race related – ah no it is not the same thing, it is a different thing.
    What race are the Jews that you despise? And for the ones you agree with what is their religious-political persuasion .
    The problem with Islam – the problem is Islam – the truth also matters too .

  • lbloveday says:

    Bill Rubinstein,
    Reliable statistics are not available, anecdotal stories from Iranians give a guide, but they are not statistics.
    I think Amnesty International gives a good pointer – eg Sept last year they issued a Press Release headed:
    “Iran: Horrifying plan to amputate fingers of four men convicted of robbery must be stopped”. .In one case the man had allegedly offended in 2015 and was first sentenced in 2017. They presumably thought it worth highlighting, and if amputation is endemic I think AI would do other than highlight a few cases.
    AI further reports “According to the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, a US-based human rights organization working on Iran, from 1 January 2000 to 24 September 2020, the Iranian authorities sentenced at least 237 people to amputation and carried out these cruel sentences in at least 129 cases”.
    I have no idea of the veracity of the figures, but a “US-based human rights organization” seems unlikely to me to have deliberately or grossly underestimated the number.
    That’s 11 cases PER YEAR, with amputation effected in just 6 ; does anyone believe there are only 11 people guilty of committing thefts per year? If there are, that presents an extremely strong argument for the deterrent effect!
    As a side issue, I read years ago of a man convicted of raping and killing a female child. His punishment was to be bound, a noose placed around his neck and attached to a crane. The male relatives were then invited to beat the bejesus out of him until the executioner decided to hoist him up. I know a good number of fathers of little girls who reckon that was justice, not barbarism.

  • lbloveday says:

    Additional to my comment about fathers of little girls.

    A smart strongly Left-leaning lawyer, fought in WW2, ex-boxer and Rugby player, good drinking mate of mine such that I gave the Eulogy at his funeral, strongly opposed corporal and capital punishment.
    “So what would you have done to someone who had kidnapped, tortured, raped and killed D (his daughter)?” I asked. “I hope Society would not do what you full well know I’d have done” he replied. As I said, “smart”.

  • rosross says:

    STD – 19th August 2021

    Jews are not a race, they are followers of a religion. The UN defines racism as religious as well as racial.

    I apply principles equally which is why I condemn misogyny and bigotry in all forms and all religions.

    Any study of religions makes it clear they are all misogynistic and bigoted at the fundamentalist level and Islam is no different in that regard to the rest. However, Islam is a much younger religion than Judaism, Christianity or Hinduism and so has some ‘excuse’ for its lack of development.

    Then again, Islam mostly has moderate followers and we do not judge Judaism or Christianity by their fanatics and should not judge Islam by theirs. Principles.

  • rosross says:


    I would make the point that where Christianity is an exception is the way that it has traditionally sought to care for others regardless of whether they were members of the religion and it still does. In ways other religions do not. Of course there was/is to some degree, a hope of converts, but Christianity still stands alone in demonstrating care for others regardless of their religious beliefs.

  • STD says:

    rosross, the Koran is Islam – to borrow a phrase from Tony Abbott” The Koran is the Old Testament on steroids. That being the case I suggest you grab a copy and start moderating.
    Yes and Mormons can also practice polygamy , but you don’t run the risk of having your moderate thought processing device removed from your shoulders .

  • rosross says:


    I have studied Islam as well as other religions. You can find the same levels of violence, misogyny, racism and intolerance in all religious teachings, including, it might surprise some to know, Buddhism.

    So, no, Islam does not stand out. Most Muslims are moderate and radicalism is linked closely to countries which have been subjugated under tyranny, often Western imposed tyranny, which is not surprising.

    Most Muslim nations do not decapitate people or cut off hands. You are using the most radical form of Islam to judge the entire religion. Do that with Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism and Islam looks little different. Hypocrisy is a bad look.

  • STD says:

    Hypocrisy certainly is a bad look – chanting death to America and living in America, if that is not strange it certainly looks weird.
    I worked for a women who lived in modern day Iran( one of the kindest people I’ve met) close to the Shah- she only had one piece of advice: “ Muslims are bad”, she was of the Baha’i faith which is a derived arm of Islam. Interestingly Israel ( the great middle eastern Satan)was the first country to offer these people a temple refuge in Haifa .
    PS, I hope that was not to bigoted for your tastes. It’s only the truth don’t be scared, try some.

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