Back in October, 2009, Robert Bernstein, the founder of Human Rights Watch (HRW), took the NGO to task for being Lost in the Mideast, saying, with respect to its activities:
Human Rights Watch has lost critical perspective on a conflict in which Israel has been repeatedly attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations that go after Israeli citizens and use their own people as human shields. These groups are supported by the government of Iran, which has openly declared its intention not just to destroy Israel but to murder Jews everywhere. This incitement to genocide is a violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.Bernstein called this "low hanging fruit" because he knew that Israel, an open society, received plenty of scrutiny from a powerful civil society within, and an independent judiciary, whereas the primary mission of HRW, successor to Helsinki Watch, was to address closed states where the worst of violations occurred in total secret, like in the gulags of the Soviet Union. Bernstein thereafter founded an NGO called Advancing Human Rights, which is composed of CyberDissidents.org and Movements.org. Anyone reading should, at minimum, regularly check out these links.
Leaders of Human Rights Watch know that Hamas and Hezbollah chose to wage war from densely populated areas, deliberately transforming neighborhoods into battlefields. They know that more and better arms are flowing into both Gaza and Lebanon and are poised to strike again. And they know that this militancy continues to deprive Palestinians of any chance for the peaceful and productive life they deserve. Yet Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch’s criticism.
Fast forward to the present.
The Centre for Secular Space (CSS) is another rather new NGO, composed of experienced human rights activists and Middle Eastern liberals and women of color who had worked in concert for years in struggles for women’s human rights and against fundamentalism. It's head is Gita Sahgal, former head of Amnesty International’s gender unit, suspended in 2010 after she publicly expressed concerns about AI’s close relationship with Cageprisoners, a defense group for prisoners in Guantanamo which some consider a pro-salafi-jihadi organization.
Using a feminist analysis CSS addresses gaps in understanding the relationship between terrorism, fundamentalism and peace and security. It believes secularism and universality are key to strengthening civil society and building democracy because gender, religious minority, and sexual rights become issues when human rights are limited by religion, culture, or political expediency. CSS exposes threats by fundamentalist groups and takes note when human rights and other organizations fail to uphold their own standards on gender and discrimination.
shows how to distinguish between organizations that stand for universal and inseparable human rights, and those that use the language of human rights for other purposes. It discusses “five wrong ideas about the Muslim Right”: that it is anti-imperialist; that “defence of Muslim lands” is comparable to national liberation struggles; that the problem is “Islamphobia”; that terrorism is justified by revolutionary necessity; and that any feminist who criticises the Muslim Right is an Orientalist ally of US imperialism.CSS, in other words, is not a bunch of right-wing Christian bigots who hate all Muslims, the catch all label thrown about when to silence people that speak out against radical Islam or multicultural relativism and violations of human rights.
So what has this to do with Human Rights Watch?
CSS has sponsored An Open Letter to Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch
Dear Kenneth Roth,Organizations:
In your Introduction to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2012, “Time to Abandon the Autocrats and Embrace Rights,” you urge support for the newly elected governments that have brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Tunisia and Egypt. In your desire to “constructively engage” with the new governments, you ask states to stop supporting autocrats. But you are not a state; you are the head of an international human rights organization whose role is to report on human rights violations, an honorable and necessary task which your essay largely neglects.
You say, “It is important to nurture the rights-respecting elements of political Islam while standing firm against repression in its name,” but you fail to call for the most basic guarantee of rights—the separation of religion from the state. Salafi mobs have caned women in Tunisian cafes and Egyptian shops; attacked churches in Egypt; taken over whole villages in Tunisia and shut down Manouba University for two months in an effort to exert social pressure on veiling. And while “moderate Islamist” leaders say they will protect the rights of women (if not gays), they have done very little to bring these mobs under control. You, however, are so unconcerned with the rights of women, gays, and religious minorities that you mention them only once, as follows: “Many Islamic parties have indeed embraced disturbing positions that would subjugate the rights of women and restrict religious, personal, and political freedoms. But so have many of the autocratic regimes that the West props up.” Are we really going to set the bar that low? This is the voice of an apologist, not a senior human rights advocate.
Nor do you point to the one of the clearest threats to rights—particularly to women and religious and sexual minorities—the threat to introduce so-called “shari’a law.” It is simply not good enough to say we do not know what kind of Islamic law, if any, will result, when it is already clear that freedom of expression and freedom of religion—not to mention the choice not to veil—are under threat. And while it is true that the Muslim Brotherhood has not been in power for very long, we can get some idea of what to expect by looking at their track record. In the UK, where they were in exile for decades, unfettered by political persecution, the exigencies of government, or the demands of popular pressure, the Muslim Brotherhood systematically promoted gender apartheid and parallel legal systems enshrining the most regressive version of “shari’a law”. Yusef al-Qaradawi, a leading scholar associated with them, publicly maintains that homosexuality should be punished by death. They supported deniers of the holocaust and the Bangladesh genocide of 1971, and shared platforms with salafi-jihadis, spreading their calls for militant jihad. But, rather than examine the record of Muslim fundamentalists in the West, you keep demanding that Western governments “engage.”
Western governments are engaged already; if support for autocrats was their Plan A, the Muslim Brotherhood has long been their Plan B. The CIA’s involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood goes back to the 1950s and was revived under the Bush administration, while support for both the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat e Islaami has been crucial to the “soft counter-terror” strategy of the British state. Have you heard the phrases “non-violent extremism” or “moderate Islamism?” This language is deployed to sanitize movements that may have substituted elections for bombs as a way of achieving power but still remain committed to systematic discrimination.
Like you, we support calls to dismantle the security state and to promote the rule of law. But we do not see that one set of autocratic structures should be replaced by another which claims divine sanction. And while the overthrow of repressive governments was a victory and free elections are, in principle, a step towards democracy, shouldn’t the leader of a prominent human rights organization be supporting popular calls to prevent backlash and safeguard fundamental rights? In other words, rather than advocating strategic support for parties who may use elections to halt the call for continuing change and attack basic rights, shouldn’t you support the voices for both liberty and equality that are arguing that the revolutions must continue?
Throughout your essay, you focus only on the traditional political aspects of the human rights agenda. You say, for instance, that “the Arab upheavals were inspired by a vision of freedom, a desire for a voice in one’s destiny, and a quest for governments that are accountable to the public rather than captured by a ruling elite.” While this is true as far as it goes, it completely leaves out the role that economic and social demands played in the uprisings. You seem able to hear only the voices of the right wing—the Islamist politicians— and not the voices of the people who initiated and sustained these revolutions: the unemployed and the poor of Tunisia, seeking ways to survive; the thousands of Egyptian women who mobilized against the security forces who tore off their clothes and subjected them to the sexual assaults known as “virginity tests.” These assaults are a form of state torture, usually a central issue to human rights organizations, yet you overlook them because they happen to women.
The way you ignore social and economic rights is of a piece with your neglect of women, sexual rights, and religious minorities. Your vision is still rooted in the period before the Vienna Conference and the great advances it made in holding non-state actors accountable and seeing women’s rights as human rights. Your essay makes it all too clear that while the researchers, campaigners, and country specialists who are the arms and legs and body of Human Rights Watch may defend the rights of women, minorities, and the poor, the head of their organization is mainly interested in relations between states.
Association Tunisiene des Femmes Démocrates
Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID)
Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW)
Centre for Secular Space (CSS), global
Ligue due Droit International des Femmes (LDIF), France
Muslim Women's Research and Action Front (MWRAF), Sri Lanka
Nijera Kori, Bangladesh
One Law for All, UK
Organisation Against Women's Discrimination in Iran, UK
Secularism Is a Women’s Issue (SIAWI), global
Southall Black Sisters, UK
Women's Initiative for Citizenship and Universal Rights (WICUR), global
Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), global
Žene U Crnom, Women in Black, Belgrade
Individuals (organizations listed for identification purposes only):
Dorothy Aken'Ova, Exercutive Director, INCRESE, Nigeria
Ahlem Belhadj, Présidente, Association tunisiene des femmes démocrates
Codou Bop, Coordinator, Research Group on Women and the Law, Senegal
Ariane Brunet, Co-Founder, Urgent Action Fund, Canada
Lalia Ducos, WICUR-Women’s Initiative for Citizenship and Universal Rights
Laura Giudetti, Marea, Italy
Asma Guenifi, President, Ni Putes Ni Soumises, France
Lilian Halls-French, Co-President, Initiative Féministe Européenne pour Une Autre Europe (IFE-EFI)
Anissa Helie, Assistant Professor, John Jay College, US
Marieme Helie Lucas, Secularism is a Women’s Issue
Alia Hogben, Canadian Council of Muslim Women
Hameeda Hossain, Bangladesh
Khushi Kabir, Nijera Kori, Bangladesh
Sultana Kamal, Executive Director, Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), Bangladesh
Frances Kissling, Visiting Scholar, University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics
Maryam Namazie, One Law for All and Equal Rights Now; Organisation against Women’s Discrimination in Iran, UK
Pragna Patel, Southall Black Sisters, UK
Gita Sahgal, Centre for Secular Space, UK
Fatou Sow, Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML)
Annie Sugier, Ligue due Droit International des Femmes (LDIF), France
Meredith Tax, Centre for Secular Space, USA
Faizun Zackariya, Cofounder, Muslim Women's Research and Action Front (MWRAF), Sri Lanka
Afiya Zia, Journalist, Pakistan
Please go and sign the petition that goes with this letter at: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/support-separation-between-religion-and-state-a/
It is the least one can do.