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-funded—its budget in 2017 was $76 million—and 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 system—so 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.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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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  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 offences—specifically, 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