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Goldberg on HRW

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Matt Duss has a nice post on Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent silliness regarding Human Rights Watch. Yesterday Goldberg, following up on a WSJ editorial, gave the impression that by talking about their work regarding Israeli human rights abuses while in the anti-Semitic world of Saudi Arabia, they were guilty of some grave but unspecified wrong. This prompts a reader to ask “Are you suggesting in your criticism of Human Rights Watch that its officials shouldn’t talk to Arab audiences about Israel?”, which as Matt notes would seem to be a plausible inference. Goldberg’s response is that he didn’t mean HRW shouldn’t talk about Israel in Arab countries, but rather than they shouldn’t fund-raise in them (at least not while mentioning Israel). Perhaps to fend off further objections, he gestures towards universalizing his new ad-hoc principle of ethical fundraising by suggesting that “Human Rights Watch shouldn’t raise funds in Israel, either” because if they were talking about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia while in Tel Aviv, that might upset people in the Arab world.

Duss says most of what needs to be said, but I’ll simply add that one position he seems to be arguing is that HRW should not engage in any fund-raising activity in countries which meet the following two conditions A)human rights are not universally well-respected, and B) they have less than cordial relations with other countries with human rights abuses. If the Goldberg principle of ethical fundraising were applied, HRW would rather obviously be somewhat severely restricted, presumably to the detriment of the cause of human rights. Two further comments:

1) Organizations like HRW should be at least a little concerned about the appearance of bias, as their reputation to some extent depends on being perceived as being against and opposed to human rights abuses wherever they may occur. However, at the end of the day this is simply a lost cause in the world we live in–the reputation they seek is going to be unattainable in the eyes of a great many people, whose own views on who violates human rights, and which violations of human rights are worthy of condemnation are driven by a variety of political allegiences and commitments. If everyone thinks HRW is wonderfully even-handed and unbiased, they’re doing it wrong.

2) An additional problem here is what might be called the methodological nationalism of Goldberg’s principle. Governments that commit human rights violations are tainted in a way that their citizens are not. Cultivating connections and commitments to the human rights movement in countries with poor human rights records should be welcomed.

Update: edited to make non-sensical sentences less so.

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