Don't Celebrate Human Rights Hijacking

Recent decades have seen widespread recognition of the importance of human rights and the proliferation of international institutions devoted to defending them.  But human rights remain more feted than respected.  A primary reason is the hijacking of human rights institutions by ideologues who promote personal political agendas while whitewashing the abusers.

Politically minded hijacking of human rights institutions is not just hypocritical; it neutralizes the very groups that ought to be protecting human rights.  The ability to describe abuses is eliminated when the abusers are described as human rights champions and the innocent are described as monsters.

Any serious program promoting human rights has to fight these human rights hijackers alongside the human rights abusers themselves.

Sadly, the University of California-Davis helped perpetuate human rights hijacking earlier this month, inviting Sarah Leah Whitson -- a prominent distorter of human rights values -- to headline a five-day celebration of human rights and the humanities.

As director of the Middle East and North African division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Whitson has dedicated the department to relentlessly attacking Israel while ignoring actual human rights abuses in the region.

NGO Monitor, which contacted UC-Davis to protest Whitson's invitation to the school, has catalogued the most egregious instances of her selective advocacy.

Whitson's actions in Libya are particularly revealing.  Only a year and a half before the International Criminal Court indicted Saif al Islam Gaddafi for crimes against humanity for his role in the torture and massacre of Libyan civilians, Whitson hailed him for helping to create a supposed "Tripoli Spring."  Though Saif al Islam is the son of Moammar Gaddafi and was one of the tyrannical regime's top officials, Whitson focused on his leadership of a quasi-governmental charity foundation and his establishment of two semi-private newspapers.  Committed to marketing "a shift in the Libyan winds," Whitson did not mention that the Libyan regime had already closed the papers and was censoring the internet.  Eight months later, Whitson called Saif al Islam one of Libya's "forces of reform" and praised a "hard-hitting" human rights report released by his foundation.

While lauding tyrants, Whitson was measured in her advocacy on behalf of Fathi al-Jahmi, Libya's foremost dissident.  Al-Jahmi died in 2009 after years of torture and solitary confinement.  His family continued to suffer persecution from the Libyan regime following his death, with his brother singling out Whitson, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International as illustrations of the corrupted human rights complex in Libya.

Whitson's statement in 2010 that HRW "appreciate[s] the Lebanese sophistication for human rights," even as the Hezb'allah terrorist group continued its marching takeover of the state, reaffirmed her determination to whitewash human rights abuses that lie outside her political prejudices.

No wonder, then, that Whitson focuses her criticism obsessively on Israel, the Middle East's only Western-style democracy and a country with an excellent record on human rights.

Whitson achieved special notoriety in 2009 while fundraising among leaders of one of the world's most oppressive countries.  Speaking to a group of potential donors in Saudi Arabia, including a member of the advisory body to the repressive Saudi monarchy, Whitson underscored HRW's clashes with "pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union, and the United Nations."  She also solicited funding to help promote the Goldstone Report -- a now-discredited document that falsely accused Israel of misconduct in military operations in Gaza in 2009, while downplaying or ignoring abuses by the Hamas terrorist organization.

I had my own unfortunate run-in with Whitson when I criticized HRW for falsely accusing Israel of committing a massacre in the Lebanese village of Srifa in 2006.  Rather than acknowledge error, Whitson called my analysis "distorted" and "deceptive" and insisted that her organization's "field investigators" conducted an "in depth" examination that rebutted my "armchair obfuscations." Six months later, buried in the middle of a 247-page report, HRW acknowledged that contrary to its initial allegations, Srifa had not been an Israeli strike on Lebanese civilians, and most of the casualties were Lebanese combatants whose presence HRW had denied.

Everyone makes mistakes.  But the mistakes by HRW's MENA division under Whitson's inept command are the rule rather than the exception.  Whitson's division has consistently ignored human rights abuses, lent credibility to their perpetrators, and hijacked the rhetoric of rights to prosecute a political agenda against a democracy.

The inaugural UC Davis Provost's Lecture in Human Rights should have been an occasion for promoting human rights.  By giving the platform to Whitson, UC-Davis made it an occasion for undermining them.

Abraham Bell is a professor at the University of San Diego Law School.

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