The dark knights of human rights (Itai Reuveni)
Just over two weeks ago, there was a report about a Jewish woman in Iran who, for years, had been harassed by her Muslim neighbors who demanded that she evacuate her home to make room for a mosque. The woman was ultimately stabbed to death, and her body dismembered.
About a month ago, an Iranian human rights activist of Arab descent was tortured to death at a notorious Iranian prison. Add to that the testimony of a senior Revolutionary Guards officer who defected to the U.S., indicating that every woman who is sentenced to death in Iran is first raped so that she won’t enter heaven a virgin.
These are just a handful of examples out of thousands of human rights violations in Iran. This raises a disturbing question: Where are the human rights organizations? Where are the condemnation campaigns and calls for boycotts? Where are the threats to take senior Iranian officials to the International Court of Justice? Where are the enormous budgets? Shouldn’t there be lobbies crowding the halls of the U.N. and EU institutions?
The concept of “human rights” — founded on universal principles — has lost its moral significance and has now become merely a tool utilized by nongovernmental organizations as a means of obtaining political objectives. This exploitation, compounded by the blatant disregard for any facts that do not fall into line with the activists’ views, encourages nations like Iran to keep doing what they are doing. Human rights organizations have been commandeered by a handful of extremists who seek to advance a political ideology rather than protecting the world’s citizens, whether they are Iranian or Syrian, Palestinian or Israeli.
Iran is usually mentioned in the context of a security threat. The various organizations are only reminded of Iran in the context of Israel. There are nearly no campaigns for human rights in Iran — you can count the ones that do exist on the fingers of one hand. And so Iran, where, according to its president, there are no homosexuals or lesbians (and if there are, they are hanged in the city square), and where acid is squirted on protesters, and where men and women are raped in prison, and where the national sports are soccer and stoning people, keeps on abusing human rights. For their part, the human rights organizations argue that they don’t have the resources to take action within a closed society. Why take a risk when you can protest in Bil’in in the morning and have a beer in Tel Aviv that same afternoon?
These organizations fail to realize that human rights are inextricably linked to the strength of a society, even when said society exists under a sadistic tyrannical regime. Many people may find this surprising, but there is a strong, flourishing civil society in Iran, with a long, rich history of organizing: from the 1890 Tobacco Protest to the struggles over the constitution and the country’s oil, through to the 1979 Islamic Revolution all the way to the 2009 Iranian Election Protests and the creation of the Iranian Green Movement. This is a country with a rich social history and with a fascinating language and culture. But its freedom-seeking citizens have been abandoned by the knights of human rights, the knights who populate those organizations with the enormous budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars and with worldwide infrastructure and with ideologically motivated activists. These organizations allocate a large portion of their resources to the one-sided cheerleading squad for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in complete disproportion to all the other human rights violations around the world.
For example: Robert Bernstein, the founder of Human Rights Watch, harshly criticized the very organization he founded in a New York Times op-ed several years ago. Bernstein criticized the organization for ignoring human rights violations in closed societies, for its anti-Israeli bias and for “issuing reports on the Israeli-Arab conflict that are helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.” He wrote this op-ed after a 2009 fundraising event in Saudi Arabia, organized by Human Rights Watch, in which anti-Israel rhetoric was used to raise money. That same year, a senior organization official visited Libya and praised Moammar Gadhafi’s son, calling him a reformer and leader of the Libyan Spring.
Today, international Human Rights Day, the human rights organizations need to do some soul searching and really check whether the allocation of their resources truly reflects the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted by the U.N. on Dec. 10, 1948). They need to ask themselves whether the concentration of efforts to bash Israel and the disregard for violations in other countries truly contributes to the human rights of any group, or rather serves to alienate the public, to belittle the concept of human rights and to encourage rights violations in places like Iran.
If we honestly care about human rights, we must liberate the concept from the hands of those who have tried to commandeer it.
NGO Monitor has called on Sarah Leah Whitson, the head of ‘Human Rights Watch’s Mideast and North Africa division, to resign, on the grounds that she misled the public regarding the nature of the Gadhafi regime in Libya and the intentions of Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam.
Following Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) neglect of brutal human rights violations in Libya and false claims and cover-ups about prospects for reforms there, NGO Monitor today called for the immediate resignation of Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s director of its Middle East and North Africa (MENA) division. HRW’s MENA division failed to devote the necessary resources to speaking out against human rights violations by oppressive Middle East regimes, including Saudi Arabia, Hamas, Lebanon, and most notably, Libya. Recent statements by Whitson regarding Seif Islam, a son of Moammar Qaddafi, demonstrate that she consistently whitewashed the reality in Libya and further embarrassed her organization.
“Human Rights Watch, and specifically MENA director Sarah Leah Whitson, has soft-peddled Qaddafi’s oppressive acts and offered no help to the Libyan people,” says Anne Herzberg, legal advisor for NGO Monitor, a research institution that tracks NGOs. “Whitson was well aware of the atrocities committed by the Qaddafi regime, but she chose to present the façade that Qaddafi’s son was prepared to implement ‘reforms.’ The events in Libya over the past weeks reveal Whitson’s gross incompetence. She has failed to retract her previously misleading statements. She cannot continue to head the MENA division, and we call for her immediate resignation.”
NGO Monitor notes that Whitson held a press conference last year in Libya that was abruptly halted and ended in “pandemonium.” Yet, Whitson spun her trip and the event in a positive light in her 2010 “Postcard from Tripoli,” in which she said that Libya had a “moment of opportunity.” Even more egregious is Whitson’s enthusiastic marketing of the Qaddafi regime from 2009’s Tripoli Spring (published in Foreign Policy):
For the first time in memory, change is in the air in Libya. The brittle atmosphere of repression has started to fracture, giving way to expanded space for discussion and debate, proposals for legislative reform, and even financial compensation for families of the hundreds of men killed in a prison riot a decade ago.
Many Libyans say the changes were unavoidable in the face of the open satellite and Internet access of the past decade.
These assessments differ sharply from the Libya Whitson now admits she saw, as part of her attempts to rewrite the record. In contrast to the earlier fiction, she recently wrote “most Libyans we spoke with never had much faith that Moammar Qaddafi would learn new tricks, or that the announced reforms were anything more than an endless loop of promises made and broken.”
“What Sarah Leah Whitson admits she knew about the Qaddafi family’s fraudulent reform agenda completely contradicts statements during her Tripoli trip,” says Prof. Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor. “Reform was never on the horizon and Seif Islam was simply seeking to validate the eventual transfer of power to his hands, using allies like Whitson. Her attempts to give a facelift to MENA’s treatment of Libya is indicative of the division’s approach to many of the repressive regimes in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, Hamas, and others.”
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