The problems with Human Rights Watch

Alex Emmons reports on yet another disturbing piece of news concerning Human Rights Watch.

HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH accepted a sizable donation from a Saudi billionaire shortly after its researchers documented labor abuses at one of the man’s companies, a potential violation of the rights group’s own fundraising guidance.

Human Rights Watch recently returned the gift from Saudi real estate magnate Mohamed Bin Issa Al Jaber, which came with the caveat that it could not be used to support the group’s LGBT advocacy in the Middle East and North Africa. The controversial donation is at the center of a contentious internal debate about the judgment and leadership of Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth.

After The Intercept began investigating the donation, the rights group published a statement on its website saying that accepting the funding was a “deeply regrettable decision” that “stood in stark contrast to our core values and our longstanding commitment to LGBT rights as an integral part of human rights.”

In 2012, Roth signed a memorandum of understanding with Al Jaber containing language that said the gift could not be used for LGBT rights work in the region. He was later pictured next to Al Jaber at a 2013 ceremony to memorialize the funding.

This revelation comes on the heels of the way that HRW provided cover for the recent Bolivian coup that overthrew Evo Morales and forced him to flee into exile.

In confusing and alarming situations such as these, millions of people around the world look to international human rights organizations for leadership and guidance.

However, far from standing up for the oppressed, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has effectively endorsed the events. In its official communiqué, HRW refrained from using the word coup, insisting Morales “resigned.”

HRW Americas director José Miguel Vivanco claimed President Morales stepped down “after weeks of civil unrest and violent clashes,” and did not even mention opposition violence against his party or the role of the military in demanding, at gunpoint, that he resign.

Therefore, Morales mysteriously “traveled to Mexico,” in the organization’s words, rather than fleeing there to escape arrest. HRW tacitly endorsed the coup government, advising it to “prioritize rights.”

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth went further, presenting the elected head of state fleeing the country at gunpoint as a refreshing step forward for democracy.

Roth wrote that Morales was “the casualty of a counter-revolution aimed at defending democracy… against electoral fraud and his own illegal candidacy,” claiming that Morales had ordered the army to shoot protesters.

Roth also described the coup approvingly as an “uprising” and a “transitional moment” for Bolivia, while presenting President Morales as an out-of-touch “strongman.”

I used to be a supporter of Human Rights Watch (HRW) but I am often wary of US-based human rights organizations. While they often do worthwhile work in highlighting abuses in many countries and the US, at crucial moments they sometimes uncritically accept the official US propaganda line, to show that at heart they are loyal to the US more than they are to the principle of human rights. I recall during the first Gulf War, how Amnesty International publicized the stories of Iraqi forces removing the incubators in Kuwaiti hospitals, leaving the babies to die. This false story was given in testimony to members of the Congress by a 15-year old girl who claimed to be an eyewitness. It later turned out that she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador in Washington,working from a script given to her by a public relations firm hired by the Kuwaiti government.

I was generally aware of these failings of such organizations but support the organizations anyway based on my belief that no person or organization is perfect and that they were doing at least some good. But HRW has crossed a line and I will shift my donations to other groups.


  1. Allison says

    This sort of thing seems to be a common problem. I see it as an issue of the people who run the organizations falling for the failings of whatever group they are taken from. Since I’m trans, I’m particularly aware of this with LGBT organizations. For instance, most of the staff of the NCTE (National Center for Transgender Equality) resigned or was fired recently, saying that the (cisgender) director was being transphobic, and I recall that when Pennsylvania was debating an LGBT rights bill, the NCTE went along with dropping the protections for trans people in public accommodations from the bill because that was a condition that a wealthy (gay) donor made.

    One issue is that when an organization is offered a lot of money in return for giving in on a “small” part of its mission, the people in charge tend to see it as a trade-off — okay, we give in on a little thing, but we can do so much more good work with all that money. It’s especially easy if the “little thing” isn’t something that they or their friends are affected by.

  2. Porivil Sorrens says

    Fruit of the poisoned tree writ large. No matter how ostensibly well intentioned, an organization founded out of a racist, imperialist settler state is going to bear the marks of the cultural context it sprung out of. Hence, for example the OAS constantly ratfucking leftist governments with little actual evidence, or HRW villainizing foreign countries that do the same things that we do (but with much less harm than we cause),

  3. Zahy Nidal LGBT says

    Much attention was directed at HRW instead of the person of Mohamad Bin Issa Al Jaber who via his foundation The MBI Foundation ( a registered charity in the UK) made the donation to HRW .

    This person has through this conditional donation insisted on excluding and discriminating against the LGBT community , a matter which put into question whether he has the right qualities and is suitable to be the patron and trustee of a UK charity “ The MBI Foundation” which has among its trustees a US gay lawyer .
    From this platform I call upon the LGBT community through its representative organizations to campaign in the UK , Europe and the US to :

    Close down the MBI Foundation Charity
    Remove his name from Central Of Central London Grand Hall
    Strip him from his Honorary Doctorate awarded to him by University College London and SOAS college
    Remove him as a UNISCO Ambassador
    Boycott all his hotels in Vienna “ The Grand Hotel “ , Paris and Portugal.and black list all such establishments with Booking .com and other booking agencies
    Name and shame him as a hater of the LGBT community .

    It must be remembered this is a person who enslaves his employees and was recently tried but acquitted for bribery in Paris
    There is also a warrant for his arrest in Egypt for financial crimes .

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