OpinionU.S. News

Behind the Human Rights Watch curtain: Hate and corruption

Dedicated to the memory of HRW founder Robert Bernstein.

Omar Shakir of Human Rights Watch speaks during a press conference at a Jerusalem hotel ahead of his expulsion from Israel, Nov. 24, 2019. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Omar Shakir of Human Rights Watch speaks during a press conference at a Jerusalem hotel ahead of his expulsion from Israel, Nov. 24, 2019. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Gerald M. Steinberg
Gerald M. Steinberg is president of NGO Monitor and a professor of politics at Bar-Ilan University.

On Oct. 7, the Hamas terror group slaughtered 1,200 Israelis and foreign visitors in a carefully planned massacre that included the brutal torture and disfigurement of victims. Hamas abducted more than 240 other people, including more than 30 children, and took them to the Gaza Strip, holding them as hostages.

Human Rights Watch, ostensibly one of the world’s most respected moral organizations, waited more than two days to issue a statement. When it did, the text was not a clear and direct condemnation of this monstrous war crime. Instead, Omar Shakir (HRW’s Israel and Palestine director) framed the unfathomably evil terror attack as a justified reaction to Israeli policies, which, in HRW’s list of slogans, include war crimes, unprecedented repression, unlawful closure of Gaza, inhumane acts, “domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians” and “crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”

After Israel’s military entered Gaza to destroy the massive terror infrastructure there, Shakir and Program Director Sari Bashi repeated the slogans and added other accusations, such as “deliberate, indiscriminate, or disproportionate attacks” in numerous media appearances and social media posts. The Israeli victims were mostly erased.

For those who have closely followed HRW’s role as one of the leaders in the campaign to single out and demonize the Jewish state as the world’s worst violator of human rights and international humanitarian law, this is not surprising. In 2009, HRW founder Robert Bernstein, writing in the New York Timescondemned his own organization for “turning Israel into a pariah state.”

Credit for exploiting moral principles adopted after the Holocaust, and weaponizing them to target Israel, goes to HRW Executive Director Ken Roth (1993-2022), who launched this strategy more than 20 years ago. Roth and his acolytes created an aura of moral authority that, with the assistance of a massive budget (over $100 million in 2022), was instantly echoed and adopted by many journalists, U.N. officials and academics.

Until now. Two major revelations have ripped away the curtain from HRW’s moral facade, revealing a thoroughly corrupt organization. The first was in the form of an email sent to all 600 staff members by senior editor turned whistleblower Danielle Haas on her last day on the job (Nov. 14), which condemned the deep hostility to Israel that permeates every aspect of HRW. The second revelation was the publication by the authoritative Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) of a secret January 2018 letter allegedly authorizing the transfer of 3 million euros (about $3.75 million at the time) from Qatar to HRW.

Haas’s email provided confirmation and examples of the “years of politicization” that stained all of HRW’s activities related to Israel, violating “basic editorial standards related to rigor, balance, and collegiality.” She noted that HRW’s response to the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre invoked “the ‘context’ of ‘apartheid’ and ‘occupation’ before blood was even dry on bedroom walls” and “could easily be construed as blaming the victim.” Blaming Israel and its Jewish supporters for terrorism and antisemitism has been one of HRW’s frequent themes. Although Haas did not mention Roth’s name, his 29-year obsession with Israel was apparent in her depiction of the “shattered professionalism, abandoned principles of accuracy and fairness,” and the ways that HRW “surrendered its duty to stand for the human rights of all.”

HRW’s moral decay is also reflected in the malicious campaign to label Israel as the world’s only “apartheid state”—that, as in the case of South Africa, has no right to exist. In launching a 2021 campaign on this theme, HRW sent advanced copies of a 217-page pseudo-research report filled with legal-sounding jargon and propaganda to allied journalists as part of its standard media manipulation strategy. Haas notes that HRW’s leaders (i.e. Roth and acolytes) knew the text “would rarely be read in full. And there is little doubt it has not been by those—including Hamas supporters—who now bandy about the term with appalling ease.” For those who worked hard to avoid seeing the extensive rot at the core of HRW, the evidence is now inescapable.

A week later, a second earthquake ripped through HRW’s carefully manicured curtain of secrecy. On Nov. 22, 2023, MEMRI posted a letter in Arabic apparently showing that Qatar—the petroleum-rich Gulf kingdom that supports Hamas, runs Al Jazeera‘s propaganda and buys influence through multi-million dollar donations to universities, the prestigious Brookings Institution and elsewhere—secretly funds HRW. The letter, dated Jan. 15, 2018, refers to a payment in the amount of 3 million euros made to the HRW organization, signed by Abdullah Bin Khalaf Hattab al-Ka’bi, director of Qatar’s Office of the Prime Minister and addressed to Finance Minister Ali Sharif al-Emadi.

The Qatari funding (the 2018 letter refers to an “additional” donation) to HRW is entirely consistent with the organization’s promotion of Palestinian and Hamas propaganda, and demonization of Israel under the façades of human rights and international law. In 2009, Roth and HRW started hiding the organization’s full list of donors—an early red flag for an NGO claiming a moral agenda. In parallel, Roth sent Sarah Leah Whitson, head of the Middle East division and a career Israel-hater, to raise money from Arab regimes (another red flag), including Gaddafi’s Libya.

Most details of this effort remain hidden, but in 2020, an internal leak was published revealing a $470,000 “donation” from a corrupt Saudi billionaire. Whitson, who suddenly left HRW at the time that this was leaked and is now at a propaganda NGO with mostly secret donors called DAWN, has other links to Qatar-funded platforms, so that the funding for HRW fits the pattern.

The combination of the whistleblower email and the funding scandals means that HRW’s future is very precarious. According to Haas, there are others among the staff who agree with her “but are fearful to speak out.” However, the financial and moral corruption combined with the culture of hate and fear could lead others to follow.

Roth retired in 2022 (and bullied his way into a brief Harvard fellowship), but retains control through his hand-picked senior staff and board members who rubber-stamped this corruption. They should be pressured into resigning immediately. In addition, an independent investigation of all financial activities covering the past 25 years is required, accompanied by the examination of possible violations by Roth, Whitson and others of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

The damage done to the moral core of human rights and to Israeli victims of Hamas terrorism is incalculable and irreversible. But an internship or work experience at HRW is no longer an asset, and being listed as a donor in HRW’s glossy PR publications is worse than embarrassing. After 30 years of impunity, Human Rights Watch will need a total rebuilding with an entirely new leadership if it is to survive and return to the agenda for which it was created.

Originally published by The Gatestone Institute.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war. JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you. The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support? Every contribution, big or small, helps JNS.org remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates