Sarah Leah Whitson
|Sarah Leah Whitson|
|Alma mater|| • University of California, Berkeley (Bachelor of Arts, 1988)
• Harvard Law School (Juris Doctor, 1991)
|Employer||Human Rights Watch|
Whitson, wrote Benjamin Weinthal in the Jerusalem Post in 2011, “has long been a controversial figure within human rights circles.” A former board member of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, she has been widely criticized for praising, or soft-pedaling criticism of, Arab countries while disproportionately targeting Israel for censure. Whitson's argument that Muammar Qaddafi's son Said al-Islam represented a major force for reform in Libya was widely disparaged, as were her remarks about the “pro-Israel lobby” at a HRW fundraising dinner in Saudi Arabia.
- 1 Early life and education
- 2 Career
- 3 Activism
- 3.1 Criticism of Israel
- 3.2 Srifa Massacre
- 3.3 Criticism of Palestinians
- 3.4 Comments about other Middle Eastern and North African governments
- 3.5 Saudi Arabia fundraiser
- 3.6 Libya and Seif Islam Gadafi
- 3.7 Lebanon
- 3.8 Iraq
- 3.9 Mauritania
- 3.10 Goldstone Report
- 4 Membership
- 5 Personal life
- 6 Writings
- 7 See also
- 8 References
Early life and education
Whitson was reared by an Armenian American mother, Ashi Whitson, who was born in the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem's Old City and immigrated to the United States in 1960. Her father was from Texas. Whitson was a student at Rose and Alex Pilibos Armenian School for 12 years in Los Angeles and spent childhood summers with family in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.
In 1988, Whitson graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California, Berkeley, located in Berkeley, California, taking time to study abroad in Egypt. In 1991, she graduated with a Juris Doctor degree from the Harvard Law School, where she was a classmate of Barack Obama's.
At the same time, according to the New Republic, she “pursued activism on the side, volunteering for, among other groups, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (where she was co-organizer of a delegation in 2002 that lobbied Kofi Annan to press ahead with a United Nations investigation of Israel's Jenin operation) and MADRE (a women’s rights group, with which she traveled to Lebanon on a solidarity mission in 1996 after an Israeli bombing campaign).” She served two terms on the board of directors of the New York chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, in 2001 and 2002.
George Mason University law professor David Bernstein has noted that Whitson's official biography at HRW's website omits her active membership in the New York chapter of the American-Arab Antidiscrimination Committee, where she had served on the Steering Committee before joining the Board of Directors. Bernstein claimed that the Committee actively supports “the Arab and Palestinian cause against Israel,” with local chapters, such as New York's, often being “more active on foreign policy issues than is the national organization.” Whitson, wrote Bernstein, had helped set up a meeting with then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and was also actively engaged in “Palestinian activism.” Therefore, argued Bernstein, “when HRW hired Ms. Whitson to be its Middle East director, it was hiring someone that was in the middle of serving what amounted to a second term on the Board of Directors of an organization that was firmly and openly on the Arab side in the Arab-Israeli conflict. And she had personally engaged in pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel activism while serving in that position....it should hardly come as a surprise that one of her first acts at Human Rights Watch was to involve the organization in political action, supporting the campaign to get Caterpillar to stop selling tractors to the Israeli Army.”
Prior to working for HRW, she also served as general counsel to the Center for Economic and Social Rights, and traveled on human-rights missions to Iraq for that organization. In addition, she was a volunteer member of the Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights and the Armenian Bar Association, of which she remains a member. Moreover, Whitson was engaged in human-rights work for the Harvard Study Team and International Study Team missions examining the impact of war and sanctions on the Iraqi civilian population. She also participated in the International Human Rights Law Group's election-monitoring mission in Kurdish-controlled Northern Iraq.
Human Rights Watch
Whitson has been the director of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) division of Human Rights Watch (HRW) since 2004. She has published articles on the Middle East in international and regional publications and has led dozens of advocacy missions throughout the region and has overseen numerous research missions and reports on human rights conditions there.
“Instead of confronting human rights violators,” Anne Herzberg of NGO Monitor has charged, “the MENA division under Whitson has helped sustain their power.” Law professor Abraham Bell has argued that “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.”
Criticism of Israel
Whitson has been accused frequently during her tenure at HRW of a bias against Israel. Martin Peretz of the New Republic has called her “a mendacious lady” who has “led a jaundiced crusade against Israel with the kind of laughable indiscretion that in better days would have put her on the margins of public debate.” He has described her as having “an obsession with an evil Israel that faces no enemies but itself.”
Not long after she began working at HRW in 2004, Whitson said, “The removal of settlers and most military forces will not end Israel’s control over Gaza.” She also stated that “Under international law, the test for determining whether an occupation exists is effective control by a hostile army, not the positioning of troops....Whether the Israeli army is inside Gaza or redeployed around its periphery and restricting entrance and exit, it remains in control.”
Whitson claimed that Israel had intentionally killed civilians during the 2006 war in Lebanon.
In 2006, Whitson called on the US to cut aid to Israel in response to settlement expansion and accused Israel of attempting to exert power over Gaza through control of its borders, infrastructure, airspace, and movement of its residents: “Israel controls the airspace, Israel controls electricity, Israel controls water. In fact, just a few weeks ago, Israel decided and proclaimed that it was going to shut off the electricity supply to Gaza in order to punish the Gazans for the fact that militants in Gaza were continuing to launch Kassams directed towards Israel. Israel controls the borders and continues to decide who can come in and out of Gaza, even at the now so-called open Egypt-Gaza border. So in many ways, there are aspects of effective control that remain. And under international law, the key determinant is whether or not the other party retains effective control over the territory.”
In a 2007 report, NGO Monitor accused HRW of a “clear, identifiable political bias in both the quality and quantity” of its coverage of Israel, and Whitson replied by accusing NGO Monitor of having an inadequate “understanding of international law.” Israel, she said, “is the only country committing collective punishment by blockade because it is the only country that, directly and through its pressure on Egypt, is blocking all borders of a territory in order to squeeze its civilian population.”
At a panel discussion under the auspices of The Century Foundation in July 2009, Whitson divided “the major human rights concerns in the Middle East” into two categories: one, “the general absence of basic human rights throughout the Arab world,” and two, Israel's “occupation of territories” and its wars. She said that “Israel’s wars in Lebanon and Gaza have...been a source of very serious violations of international humanitarian law, amounting in numerous incidents, to war crimes.” David Bernstein criticized Whitson's presentation as “tendentious in the extreme,” noting that Whitson “accuses Israel of apartheid” and “consistently refers to the wars in Lebanon and Gaza as 'Israel's wars,' even though, obviously, they were fought against foes that were launching cross-border attacks against Israel's civilian population and which declare themselves to be at war with Israel.” Bernstein added that after spending several minutes on “Israel's alleged sins,” Whitson spent “all of approximately twelve seconds on Hamas and Hezbollah.”
Former HRW head David Bernstein noted in a 2009 commentary that the ADC, of which Whitson was director before joining HRW, “support[s] the Arab and Palestinian cause against Israel, and during the Second Intifada, when Whitson was active in ACD-NY, the chapter “organized a silent vigil outside St. Patrick's Cathedral to draw attention to the fact that Palestinian Christians are also suffering under Israeli occupation.” In short, “when HRW hired Ms. Whitson...it was hiring someone that was in the middle of serving what amounted to a second term on the Board of Directors of an organization that was firmly and openly on the Arab side in the Arab-Israeli conflict. And she had personally engaged in pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel activism while serving in that position.” Bernstein did not know “whether she resigned her position when she started working for Human Rights Watch; if she didn't, it was a clear conflict of interest.”
David Bernstein noted in a 2009 commentary that the ADC, of which Whitson was director before joining HRW, “support[s] the Arab and Palestinian cause against Israel, and during the Second Intifada, when Whitson was active in ACD-NY, the chapter “organized a silent vigil outside St. Patrick's Cathedral to draw attention to the fact that Palestinian Christians are also suffering under Israeli occupation.” David Bernstein did not know “whether she resigned her position when she started working for Human Rights Watch; if she didn't, it was a clear conflict of interest.”
In another 2009 article, Bernstein suggested that if HRW wished to restore its credibility, it needed to fire certain staffers, Whitson among them, and replace them with “some sincere human rights advocates without anti-Israel ideological priors.” If HRW wishes to “continue to preach to the leftist, anti-Israel choir, Bernstein wrote, “it shouldn’t expect anyone else to pay attention.”
In an interview posted on YouTube in 2009, Whitson claimed that Israel had illegally used white phosphorus against Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip. This charge was disputed by Peter Herby of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Whitson condemned Israel in a 2009 article for approving settlements in the Palestinian territories. Questioning “why such a system of racial inequality remains in place in the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” she accused the Israeli government of providing “Jewish settlements with water, electricity, housing, schools, hospitals and roads, while it severely restricts access to these necessities to Palestinian communities under its control.” She insisted that Israel's “security concerns do not warrant treating every last Palestinian man, woman and child as a threat” or “systematically separating Palestinians from Jews, with shanties and dirt roads provided for the one, and spacious villas with swimming pools and paved highways provided for the other.” And she criticized both the EU and the US for “support[ing] the system” through trade and aid.
In an April 2010 interview, Whitson said that “the most glaring violations of the laws of war continues to be Israel’s 43 year occupation of the Palestinian territories,” but also claimed that it was “very important” for HRW “not to take a position on who's right or who's wrong” in order to maintain its credibility as “non-partisan in any conflict.”
Ben Birnbaum, a journalist who profiled Whitson for the New Republic in 2010, noted that her office is decorated by “a poster for Paradise Now, a movie that attempts to humanize Palestinian suicide bombers,” and “two photos of bereaved Gazans.” On the Israeli-Palestine conflict, Birnbaum wrote, he “allegiances seem clear.” He quoted one insider as saying that Whitson “definitely has no sympathy for the Israeli side” but has “a lot of personal identification with the Palestinian cause.” She has expressed “tremendous respect and admiration” for Norman Finkelstein, and while lamenting that “his anger sometimes gets the better of him and his brilliant mind and generous spirit,” she has excused it by saying that “making Israeli abuses the focus of one’s life work is a thankless but courageous task that may well end up leaving all of us quite bitter.”
NGO Monitor repored in July 2010 that Whitson had visited Gaza in order to “reassure” Hamas that HRW was not treating it unfairly. Meeting with Hamas Minister of Justice Faraj Alghoul in May 2010, Whitson promise him “that HRW’s next report would tackle Israeli settlements and allege Israeli violations of international law.” Her “tête-à-tête with Hamas officials to emphasize HRW’s 'objectivity' and 'impartiality' as well as its future anti-Israel campaigning,” argued NGO Monitor, “is yet a further indication of HRW’s loss of 'critical perspective' as well as 'helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state,' as noted by HRW founder Robert Bernstein. Her visit also begs the question: When was the last time Whitson made a special trip to Israel to reassure its leaders about the fairness of HRW’s reporting?” Anne Herzberg of NGO Monitor wrote that “Whitson’s soft approach towards totalitarian regimes clearly is counterproductive and immoral.”
NGO Monitor accused HRW in 2012 of having exhibited an “obsessive focus on Israel” during Whitson's tenure, complaining that “despite the extensive use of genocidal threats by the Iranian regime, HRW has not found the time or resources to condemn this and other forms of hate speech.” NGO Monitor noted that in 2010, “HRW issued 19 largely minor documents on Libya, compared with 51 on 'Israel and the Occupied Territories.'”
During the November 2012 conflict in Gaza, Whitson accused Israel of “violating the law of war” by targeting journalists and TV stations. In response to IDF insistence that it had acted “in accordance with the laws of armed conflict, despite the ongoing deliberate violations and abuse of these laws by the terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip,” Whitson maintained: “Just because Israel says a journalist was a fighter or a TV station was a command center does not make it so.” Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor criticised Whitson for what he called unsubstantiated allegations. “The organization presents no proof whatsoever that the targets involved were not being used for military operations or that the ‘journalists’ were not Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters,” said Anne Herzberg of NGO Monitor, adding: “Just because HRW claims something is a war crime does not make it so.” Whitson, in a separate statement on the same matter, said that “journalists who praise Hamas and TV stations that applaud attacks on Israel may be propagandists, but that does not make them legitimate targets under the laws of war.”
Abraham Bell complained that when he “criticized HRW for falsely accusing Israel of committing a massacre in the Lebanese village of Srifa in 2006,” Whitson had “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.”
Criticism of Palestinians
In November 2012 Whitson accused Palestinian groups of committing war crimes for deliberately targeting civilians with rocket attacks. In April 2013 she criticized the Hamas government in Gaza for failing to “investigate and prosecute the men who tortured and executed suspected collaborators without due process,” saying that “the brazen murders of seven men makes a mockery of its claims that it’s upholding the rule of law in Gaza.”
Comments about other Middle Eastern and North African governments
Writing in February 2011 about the new regimes in the Arab world, Whitson said that “Western capitals have no choice but to live with the uncertainty of democratic outcomes in the region – after all, Arabs have had to live with adverse foreign policies of democratically elected leaders in the United States and Israel.”
Whitson criticized Egypt in November 2011 for having “become steadily more abusive, while finding excuse after excuse to delay handing over power to civilian authorities.” In October 2012 she complained that the United Arab Emirates is “a country where people who attempt to exercise their right to free speech and peaceful dissent are likely to find themselves in arbitrary detention, where lawyers are harassed and even deported for their efforts to defend peaceful dissidents, and where migrant workers, who make up about 95 percent of the work force, face extraordinary exploitation.” And in March 2013 she took authorities in Bahrain to task for failing to provide “accountability at the highest levels of the country’s security forces for their abusive response to the 2011 uprisings, and freedom for the country’s unjustly imprisoned opposition and human rights leaders.”
In April 2012, Whitson argued that “elements within the transitional civilian government” of Yemen had “ambitious plans to reform the country's legal and security infrastructure,” but were unable “to rein in the security forces,” which were guilty of extensive human-rights abuses and needed to be restructured and rendered accountable. She called on the U.S., EU, and Gulf states to aid in this effort.
Saudi Arabia fundraiser
Reporting in May 2009 on a dinner given in Riyadh to host Whitson and other HRW officials, the Saudi Press indicated that HRW had “presented a documentary and spoke on the report they compiled on Israel violating human rights and international law during its war on Gaza earlier this year” and quoted Whitson as telling the Saudi audience that HRW had “provided the international community with evidence of Israel using white phosphorus and launching systematic destructive attacks on civilian targets. Pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations have strongly resisted the report and tried to discredit it.”
Citing that dinner, which was an effort to raise funds, NGO Monitor accused Whitson of “exploiting the specter of 'pro-Israel pressure groups' to solicit funds from 'prominent members of Saudi society.'” David Bernstein, a law professor at George Mason University, also criticized the Saudi Arabia fundraiser, expressing concern in the Wall Street Journal that Whitson had gone to Saudi Arabia not to study that country's abuse of women, its death penalty for homosexuality, or its lack of religious freedom, but “to raise money from wealthy Saudis by highlighting HRW's demonization of Israel.” Bernstein accused HRW of seeking “to raise money from wealthy Saudis by highlighting HRW's demonization of Israel.” Noting that Whitson had “found no time to criticize Saudi Arabia's abysmal human rights record,” Bernstein argued that “there is something wrong when a human rights organization goes to one of the worst countries in the world for human rights to raise money to wage lawfare against Israel, and says not a word during the trip about the status of human rights in that country.” HRW, Bernstein stated flatly, should not “raise money in a totalitarian country” such as Saudi Arabia.
Responding to Bernstein's Wall Street Journal article, Whitson wrote “believe it or not, some Arabs believe in human rights too.” Bernstein protested in reply that “NOTHING in my piece suggested or implied that no Arabs believe in human rights, or, for that matter, that Arabs are inherently less likely to believe in human rights than anyone else.”
After attending a 2009 videotaped presentation by Whitson in New York about human rights in the Middle East, Bernstein wrote that she had spent “approximately three minutes and thirty-five seconds describing Israel's alleged violations of international law and human rights” in an extremely “tendentious” manner, accusing Israel of apartheid and war crimes and calling the wars in Lebanon and Gaza “Israel's wars,” and then spent “approximately twelve seconds on Hamas and Hezbollah.” Noting that “this was a speech to an American audience,” Bernstein commented: “God knows what she said in Saudi Arabia. And God knows what she thinks privately, as opposed to what she reveals publicly.”
Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic complained that Whitson had sought “to raise funds from Saudis, including a member of the Shura Council (which oversees, on behalf of the Saudi monarchy, the imposition in the Kingdom of the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic law) in part by highlighting her organization's investigations of Israel, and its war with Israel's 'supporters,' who are liars and deceivers.” He suggested that “Human Rights Watch, in the pursuit of dollars, has compromised its integrity.” Apropos of Whitson's reported reference at her Saudi Arabian fundraiser to the “pro-Israel lobby,” Goldberg expressed alarm that “Whitson, if the allegation against her is to be believed, trafficked in a toxic stereotype about Jews in a country that bans most Jews from even crossing its borders....The term pro-Israel lobby, of course, means something very different on the Arabian peninsula than it does here....In much of the Arab world, 'pro-Israel pressure group' suggests a global conspiracy by Jews to dominate the world politically, culturally and economically.”
NGO Monitor noted that “the major reason for holding this Saudi fundraiser” was that HRW was “facing a shortage of funds because of the global financial crisis and the work on Israel and Gaza, which depleted HRW’s budget for the region.”
HRW called these allegations false and unsubstantiated. According to HRW, the organization has never tried to raise funds from any government or government official, including any member of the Saudi Shura Council, and HRW never described a “war with Israel’s supporters” or used the words “liars and deceivers” at any point. HRW noted that staffers had made two presentations in Saudi Arabia in May 2009. Among an estimated 50 guests at a reception in Riyadh, three had governmental affiliations, "the spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior; the deputy head of the Human Rights Commission, a governmental organization; and a member of the Shura Council, a government-appointed consultative body." According to HRW, none of those individuals were solicited for funds and HRW never accepts funds from government officials in any country. HRW stated that there is no reason why Saudi citizens cannot legitimately want to support human rights.
Whitson also maintained that “Human Rights Watch in recent years has published more reports and press releases on a variety of rights problems in Saudi Arabia than any other human rights organization in the world.” She rejected the notion “that efforts to raise support among Saudis are unseemly because, well, if they live in a totalitarian country, they must be bad people too,” saying that “Human Rights Watch accepts funding from private individuals and foundations the world over, which we never allow to affect the independence of our work....Believe it or not, some Arabs believe in human rights too.” Whitson characterized David Bernstein’s criticism of her Saudi Arabia fundraiser as “fundamentally...racist,” saying that donors' “ethnic background...is irrelevant....Should people be criticising us for the fact that much of our support base is made up of Jews?” In response, David Bernstein accused Whitson of “play[ing] the racism card” and said that her racism accusation “just shows how low Whitson will go, and how desperate she has become.” He said that “her claim that the issue I raised is the 'ethnic background' of HRW's donors is egregiously dishonest.” The problem, he argued, was that “HRW went to the elites of a totalitarian nation, with some representatives of the government in the audience (!) to ask for money to help it combat the controversial policies of a liberal democracy.”
Bernstein further charged that Whitson would not “release a video or transcript of her remarks at the Saudi fundraising dinner.” He also criticized the fact that Whitson “as the representative of an allegedly non-partisan human rights group...hires Palestinian political activists with a long record of hostility to Israel as her 'neutral' researchers.” Nor, he complained, had Whitson ever “acknowledged Human Rights Watch's various errors in its reporting on Israel.”
Daniel Levy, an Israeli political analyst, argued that “To accuse Whitson of being soft on the Saudis or somehow singling out Israel for criticism is quite astonishing....these attacks on HRW demonstrate no such objectivity or credibility -- they come from a narrow and misguided right-wing Israel advocacy agenda.” While Whitson did not criticize Saudi Arabia at her fundraiser there, argued Levy, she did criticize it at an event in the U.S. a few days earlier, saying for example that when it came to women's rights, “Saudi Arabia is the absolute worst.” Levy claimed that the attacks on Whitson were being made by people who do not want to see Israel criticized.
Law professor Abraham Bell criticized Whitson in a March 2012 article for emphasizing HRW's clashes with “pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union, and the United Nations” when courting potential donors in Saudi Arabia.
Libya and Seif Islam Gadafi
Whitson led a 2009 news conference in Tripoli about human rights. It “ended in pandemonium,” according to the London Times. “Several burly men in the audience, whom the dissidents identified as government agents, stood up, denounced the speakers, accused Human Rights Watch of dividing Libyan society while ignoring US and Israeli human rights abuses and demanded that it leave.” HRW's Tom Malinowski expressed concern that these men might have been “taking pictures and observing who was here.” Yet Whitson returned to the US and wrote an article for Foreign Policy, “Tripoli Spring,” in which she claimed that she had experienced a new atmosphere of reform in Libya. She wrote that “change is in the air in Libya,” with repression “giving way to expanded space for discussion and debate.” She also described Muammar Qaddafi's son, Seif al-Islam, as an “impetus for transformation” in that country, saying that he was making possible an “expanded space for discussion and debate.”
She repeated her characterization of Libya in 2010. “Although HRW’s Libyan press conference was cut short by government agents and ended in 'pandemonium,' ominously presaging the violence of 2011,” NGO Monitor later charged, “Whitson spun her trip and the event in an entirely positive light.” Moreover, in praising the supposed tolerance for dissent in Libya, Whitson “failed to disclose that in January 2010, the regime had actually imposed censorship controls on the internet and had blocked access to YouTube.”
While Whitson was praising Seif al-Islam as a reformer, journalist Michael Totten was comparing Libya to North Korea and Turkmenistan and describing Seif al-Islam as seeking to export “his father’s prison state system...to as many countries as possible.” Totten wrote: “Gullible diplomats and journalists may sincerely believe he’s a reformer, but a close look at his own statements proves that he’s lying when he passes himself off as moderate.”
Commenting on a 2011 interview with Whitson about Libya on NPR, Hugh Fitzgerald wrote: “Even with the few instances of live video feed we see coming from protests in Libya, the crowd's shouted mantra is, 'Allahu Akbar!' I don't think self-appointed Middle-East Experts such as Ms. Whitson would notice the signs of overt religious motivation, and if they did notice it, I think they would make a conscious effort not to report it. She didn't mention the role of Islam in the protests of Bahrain or Libya ([n]or[,] one assumes, would she have in Egypt if asked).”
In a Los Angeles Times op-ed published in February 2011, weeks after the rebellion against the Libyan regime had intensified, Whitson stated that Muammar Gadafi's son Seif Islam Gadafi had been “primarily responsible for persuading officials” to let HRW hold a news conference in Libya. Whitson described the younger Gadafi as having been a “semi-sanctioned internal voice for reform” whose foundation “had pushed publicly for changing the country's laws and freeing political prisoners” and “helped establish two private newspapers that sometimes criticized government policies.” She added that she and others at HRW had “had a sense that, with Seif Islam's support, some genuine political liberalization was possible and civil society might be able to breathe more freely” in Libya. Yet now, she lamented, “Seif Islam, who might have led Libyans to a peaceful transition, has become an advocate for policies leading to their deaths.” She acknowledged that there had in fact been “no progress on any institutional or legal reforms” in Libya, and that, indeed, “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.”
In response to Whitson's Los Angeles Times oped, NGO Monitor called on Whitson to resign over her “neglect of brutal human rights violations in Libya and false claims and cover-ups about prospects for reforms there,” saying that she had “consistently whitewashed the reality in Libya.” More broadly, NGO Monitor charged that HRW's MENA division, headed by Whitson, had “failed to devote the necessary resources to speaking out against human rights violations by oppressive Middle East regimes, including Saudi Arabia, Hamas, [and] Lebanon.” Anne Herzberg, legal advisor for NGO Monitor, wrote that “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 recalled “Whitson’s enthusiastic marketing of the Qaddafi regime” in “Tripoli Spring” and noted that the assessments presented in that article “differ sharply from the Libya Whitson now admits she saw, as part of her attempts to rewrite the record.” Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor said that “What Sarah Leah Whitson admits she knew about the Qaddafi family’s fraudulent reform agenda completely contradicts statements during her Tripoli trip....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.”
Among the critics of Whitson's praise for Libyan leaders was Mohamed Eljahmi, the brother of Libyan dissident Fathi Eljahmi, described by NGO Monitor as “Libya's most prominent dissident.” At the time Whitson was praising Saif al-Islam, Mohamed Eljahmi complained that she “had refused to advocate for” his brother, who was being held and tortured by Libya and ended up dying in Libyan confinement in 2009. Challenging Whitson's praise for Said al-Islam's Gaddafi Foundation for International Charities and Development, Mohamed Eljahmi said that the organization was “actively menacing my brother's family” through interrogation, suveillance, and threats. NGO Monitor accused Whitson of “willful blindness” in Eljahmi's case. After reading Whitson's Los Angeles Times oped, Mohammed al-Jahmi said, “She doesn’t admit that Saif fooled her.”
Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic harshly criticized Whitson's Los Angeles Times op-ed, suggesting that perhaps she “should work for Vogue,” a reference to that magazine's recent publication of a flattering profile of the Syrian First Lady. He accused Whitson of having “something of a soft spot for the lunatic Libyan and his dangerous son” and quoted from what he described as an “intermittently starry-eyed portrayal of life in Libya” written by Whitson. NGO Monitor responded to the Los Angeles Times op-ed by calling for Whitson's “immediate resignation,” arguing that her statements about Seif Islam Gadafi had shown “that she consistently whitewashed the reality in Libya and further embarrassed her organization.” Anne Herzberg of NGO Monitor described Whitson as having “soft-peddled Qaddafi’s oppressive acts and offered no help to the Libyan people....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.”
“One begins to hear the whir of back-pedaling and the revving of a corporate public relations engine in Whitson’s Los Angeles Times piece,” wrote Michael Weiss in the Weekly Standard. Weiss maintained that there was no better example of NGOs “traffic[king] in realpolitik...than Human Rights Watch’s kid-gloved and self-interested approach to Libya in the past several years.” He complained that on Whitson's watch HRW was “not acting as a tribune for...voices in dire need” such as Fathi al-Jahmi, and that her “citation of al-Jahmi” in an essay “was especially cynical since her organization had refrained from drawing attention to his case before his demise.” HRW had “declined to call for an independent investigation into Fathi’s death, and his brother, Mohammed al-Jahmi, “suspected that HRW was wary of barracking Qaddafi at precisely the moment that Whitson was limning an interlude of mild but encouraging perestroika in a totalitarian country.” Weiss criticized Whitson harshly for believing that “the son and heir of Qaddafi” could have been “inextricable from the police state his father founded,” and for not mentioning in her glowing Foreign Policy article about Libya the four dictatorial “red lines” that, as Saif al-Islam openly acknowledged, he would not allow to be crossed, one of those lines being explicit criticism of his father.
In January 2012, NGO Monitor declared that Whitson had “no moral authority or credibility on Libya or the rest of the Middle East,” citing her claim in 2009 “to have discovered a 'Tripoli Spring'” and her praise for Seif al-Islam “as a leading reformer.” Whitson, NGO Monitor charged, had “dangerously advanced a fiction of impending reform, when, in reality, Libya remained a closed totalitarian regime that kept its population under tight control.” “After failing to promote human rights during the long Arab Winter,” wrote NGO Monitor, “Whitson and HRW are entirely unqualified to provide advice to those seeking to reverse the damage in what was once referred to as the Arab Spring.”
In May 2012 Whitson, having altered her assessment of Libya entirely, upbraided its interim government for “rejecting international human rights monitoring and the ICC's jurisdiction” as well as for passing “some shockingly bad laws, mimicking Qaddafi laws criminalizing political dissent and granting blanket immunity to any crimes committed in 'support' of the revolution.” Apropos of Whitson's Los Angeles Times oped, Benjamin Weinthal wrote in the Jerusalem Post that she had “backtracked...regarding her longstanding praise of al-Islam.” Noting NGO Monitor's call for Whitson's resignation, and Steinberg's statement that “What Sarah Leah Whitson admits she knew about the Qaddafi family’s fraudulent reform agenda completely contradicts statements during her Tripoli trip,” Weinthal said that “Whitson’s actions are certainly puzzling. If Libyans had expressed doubt that Qaddafi would ever make good on his promises, why had she implied that the regime was open to reforms in the past? And further, why has HRW published only six major reports on Libya since 1991? Was the organization simply apathetic about Libya? Was it unable to access enough data to issue accurate reports? Or was it deliberately misrepresenting the Qaddafi regime for some reason or another?”
Noting that “Whitson’s division consistently issues more publications on Israel than Libya,” Anne Herzberg of NGO Monitor suggested that “if Whitson had devoted more resources to Gaddafi’s brutal regime, there would not be murders occurring in the streets of Libya right now.”
Writing in Middle East Quarterly in Summer 2013, Gerald M. Steinberg noted an October 2011 statement by HRW “condemning Western governments for their 'apparent eagerness to embrace Qaddafi because of his support on counterterrorism, as well as lucrative business opportunities' that, according to HRW, 'tempered their criticism of his human rights record in recent years.'” Steinberg complained that “[w]hat this statement conspicuously failed to note is that HRW had been an active participant in this eager embrace of the Qaddafi regime.” Calling HRW “a financially flush but morally bankrupt organization,” Steinberg charged that its “behavior with regard to the Middle East demonstrates a determined effort to avert its eyes from the worst human rights abuses while focusing on post-colonial ideologues' favorite whipping boy, Israel—the only democracy in the region.”
During a November 2010 trip to Lebanon, according to NGO Monitor, Whitson praised “the Lebanese sophistication for human rights.” NGO Monitor noted that Whitson “contradict[ed] HRW’s own Lebanon Director, Nadim Houry, who condemned the lack of effectual and accountable state institutions, the absence of political will to implement change, and the problems created by the country’s political 'confessionalism.' Shortly after Whitson’s assessment, Hezbollah overthrew the Hariri government in a bloodless coup.”
In a May 2013 op-ed for the New York Times, Whitson criticized the Iraqi regime, arguing that “Maliki needs a new playbook — one with lessons on leadership and reform that will bring the country together on the basis of protecting every citizen’s freedom, not tear it further apart.”
“MENA has completely failed to promote universal human rights in the region,” Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor has charged. “In fact, Mauritania, a country with more than 600,000 slaves, is not even covered by HRW. Human Rights Watch will continue to decline as long as Sarah Leah Whitson leads the MENA division.”
Abraham Bell faulted Whitson for having “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.”
Whitson is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Whitson is married to Josh Zinner, co-director of Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project in New York City. They have two children, Lena and Toby.
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