Human Rights Watch does important work to bring to light human rights abuses around the world. A spotlight on governments that oppress their people is necessary to guarantee the fundamental rights of every individual on the planet.
But Human Rights Watch can be myopic in its campaigns against specific countries in exposing abuses. There is no clearer evidence of HRW’s selective reports on alleged human rights abuses than its campaign to end the male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia and the role of the Saudi military in Yemen.
On the surface the guardianship issue and alleged deaths of civilians as a result of Saudi-led coalition airstrikes may appear unrelated. But if HRW uses similar investigative methods in determining whether the coalition forces targeted Yemeni civilians as it does with its probe of the guardianship issue, then HRW’s allegations that the coalition forces committed war crimes in Yemen are subject to suspicion.
HRW employs teams of activists — not independent investigators with an objective eye to ascertain facts — to report on alleged abuses. HRW approaches alleged human rights abuses based on United States foreign policy. It has been accused of publishing reports that lack professional standards and research methodologies.
Many, if not most, of its investigators lack legal and military expertise to competently draw well-reasoned conclusions on conflicts. In 2014, more than 100 scholars complained that many HRW staff and advisers came from US government positions in which they crafted US foreign policy. In addition, HRW’s focus is on civil and political rights with little indepth analysis of economic and social rights.
So, how does that fit in with HRW’s attention to the guardianship system and the war in Yemen? HRW claims to have interviewed a number of Saudi women who say the guardianship system has enslaved them and made them virtual prisoners in their homes.
This information is provided by Saudi women rights activists. These women’s stories may be true and reflect their personal experiences.
Yet HRW does not have unfettered access to Saudi women living in Saudi Arabia and must rely on fixers — people who can get HRW in touch with “victimized” women — to conduct their investigation. Already that investigation is compromised because the investigator and the fixer are targeting “victimized” Saudi women without obtaining a cross-section of women who can provide a more accurate picture of the lives of women.
As I and many other Saudi women have said over the years, the experiences of women varies from family to family who interpret the Islamic guardianship rules differently. For every “victimized” woman living in Saudi Arabia I can find five who live free and full lives in their own country.
That doesn’t mean the guardianship systems should remain untouched. On the contrary, it needs an overhaul to minimize abuses. But finding Saudi women to parrot the western narrative that the entire system is corrupt is dishonest.
If HRW can’t be trusted with its investigation of the guardianship system, then should its findings on the ongoing military action against Houthis in Yemen be accepted as objective? Well, no.
HRW is now seeking an independent investigation into military airstrikes in Yemen. HRW alleges Saudi Arabia violated international human rights laws by targeting factories, including 17 air raids on 13 civilian economic locations that left 130 people dead and 171 injured. It further alleges that the Saudi military is responsible for most of the civilian deaths in Yemen.
Yet HRW investigators have a long track record of advocacy of specific issues in the Middle East and routinely write opinion pieces in the western media claiming expertise. One HRW investigator has extensive experience in local and international advocacy and possesses a law degree from a western university.
However, the investigator possesses no expertise in military affairs or battlefield operations. Indeed, the staff member has experience in documenting war crimes, but it appears the absence of military-related experience leaves a huge hole in the credibility of any report the HRW publishes.
HRW has reportedly a massive budget but there is no accountability of its investigative methodologies or an audit on how it applies international law to suspected war crimes.
And for that reason, HRW is correct in demanding an independent probe of civilian deaths in Yemen because it is incapable of drawing competent conclusions on its own.