GT investigates: Is Human Rights Watch an impartial NGO or a US post-Cold War zombie?
Published: Mar 02, 2021 01:45 AM Updated: Mar 02, 2021 10:01 PM
A Uygur man plays a traditional instrument Photo: Xinhua

A Uygur man plays a traditional instrument Photo: Xinhua

Anti-China media outlets and certain NGOs are colluding with secessionist forces to foment a "rumor mill" against China. Within this enormous "mill," some NGOs claiming to be independent organizations often serve as "research institutes" to manufacture and spread rumors, with their so-called research findings being amplified in some Western media outlets. The Human Rights Watch (HRW), an organization that originated in the period during the Cold War, is one typical example. Recently, HRW released the World Report 2021 in which it fabricated hackneyed rumors related to China's Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. While HRW claimed to be "independent," Global Times reporters found its fund to be far from "independent" as it claims. In the past decades, though it brandishes buzzwords like "human rights," everything from its undisclosed funding sources, to its code of conduct, all have highlighted a strong ideological stance, which has turned slogans such as "just" and "independence" it perpetually uses in its advocacy work a laughing stock.

Notoriously bad record

Founded in 1978 during the Cold War, the HRW was initially named Helsinki Watch to monitor the former Soviet Union's implementation of the 1975 Helsinki Accords and to examine and criticize "crimes" committed by the former Soviet Union and its allies, which has led to the long-standing cold-war ideology carried out by the organization disguised under the work and propaganda narrative.

As it grew, the HRW became involved in other parts of the world. Currently, the organization claims to have approximately 400 staff members around the world.

Like many Western-based anti-China organizations, the HRW's main route of attacking China is the fabrication and spreading of rumors under the banner of "protecting human rights." Hyping the so-called Xinjiang issue has become one of its priorities in recent years.

On January 13, the HRW released its 2021 annual global review of human rights, devoting substantial space to regurgitating rumors about Xinjiang that have been concocted by Western media in the past, such as "mass surveillance," "forced labor" and even "genocide," which have also been repeatedly debunked as lies and refuted by Chinese authorities and media 

The Global Times found that Kenneth Roth, the organization's executive director, and Sophie Richardson, HRW's China director, are inextricably linked to the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), a notorious "East Turkistan" organization. Roth and Richardson have frequently echoed the WUC on their social media accounts. Their falsehoods were also republished on the WUC website.

At the same time, the HRW has long meddled in problems related to Hong Kong and even played a particularly disgraceful role in the Hong Kong riots in 2019.

Hong Kong citizens on Tuesday gather to support the National Security Law for Hong Kong. Photo: cnsphoto

Hong Kong citizens on gather to support the National Security Law for Hong Kong. Photo: cnsphoto

On February 24, the HRW published an article titled "Hong Kong Repression's True Cost," baselessly claiming that the increase in the HKSAR government's budget for national security following the enactment of the national security law in Hong Kong "spotlights growing abuse."

However, the Global Times found that during the riots, numerous fake journalists were wearing "Human Rights Watch" waistcoats only directing their cameras at policemen, but turned a blind eye to the rioters engaging in acts of vandalism and robbery, even acting as cover for the mobs to flee.

In January 2020, Roth was banned from entering Hong Kong by the SAR government. Roth then began an intensive social media attack campaign as well as in the news media, against China to "undermine human rights."

Prejudicially castigating other countries and organizations has led HRW to draw international objections whenever it publishes its reports.

The NGO Monitor, an Israeli NGO evaluation agency, has published a report exposing HRW's lack of rigorous research methodology, strongly questioning the veracity of its conclusions. According to the NGO Monitor, HRW often uses anonymous "eyewitness," the content of which is not verifiable, with interviews often not conducted face-to-face. Said interviews are often conducted by people who lack special training or are simply conducted online. 

Questionable funding transparency

HRW claims that it does not receive direct or indirect government funding, nor does it accept private donations that might compromise its objectivity and independence, boasting that it does not espouse any political agenda.

In fact, HRW's declarations remain mere slogans. The Global Times found that there was not an iota of information about donated funds on its official website, only the "Partners" link lists several organizations that provide "cooperation and support," including the Ford Foundation and the Oak Foundation in the US. All information about HRW's donations was disclosed by third-party organizations.

In 2009, the NGO Monitor revealed that Oxfam Novib, a Dutch charity, donated $987,818 to HRW between 2007 and 2008. The organization has further revealed that Oxfam Novib received nearly €130 million ($157.12 million) a year from the Dutch government at the time - about 70 percent of its budget. 

Oxfam Novib has received large donations from the Dutch governments on an almost yearly basis, making the Dutch government one of the main donors to HRW, the NGO Monitor concluded.

Kenneth Roth (L) and Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch Photo: AFP

Kenneth Roth (L) and Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch Photo: AFP

Because of these undisclosed and flawed revenue streams, the international community is increasingly questioning the transparency of HRW.

In 2016, Georgia-based non-profit organization Transparify evaluated 200 think tanks and lobbying groups worldwide and ranked them from "highly transparent" to "highly opaque," with HRW ranking just in the middle of the pack.

Shen Yi, a professor at Fudan University's School of International Relations and Public Affairs, told the Global Times that the Human Rights Watch and other similar organizations have three of the biggest problems. 

"First, the 'human rights' it advocated for are instrumental and it only serves the power behind the organization and US foreign policy and strategy."

"Second, its understanding of 'human rights' is flawed. They believe that other countries should unconditionally learn from the US political system with no regard for the interests of other countries' political, economic and social development." 

"Third, the organization which is reminiscent of that from the Cold War era is no longer a living fossil, but a zombie in the post-Cold War world. In other words, it is as dead as its idea of 'human rights' has bankrupted in practice."

Close to US govt

HRW claimed that its experts are from different fields, including journalists and scholars from different countries. But its members are not as diverse as it claimed. 

Some scholars have published articles pointing out that the main employees of HRW are predominantly from the US, so the organization is based on a belief in the superiority of American values. The background of the board members shows that it drew decision-makers from the upper, affluent, and middle classes, and the organization's top-ranking members are mostly US-educated with close ties to the country's foreign policy elite, as well as other interventionist and expansionist lobbies.

In May 2014, Nobel Peace Prize laureates Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and Mairead Maguire wrote a letter to HRW's executive director Kenneth Roth expressing their concerns over what they described as the "revolving door" of the organization, according to the Borgen Magazine. 

Hong Kong rioters wander on the street during the turmoil on August 11, 2019. They damaged public property and caused a great loss to the Hong Kong society. Photo: AFP

Hong Kong rioters wander on the street during the turmoil on August 11, 2019. They damaged public property and caused a great loss to the Hong Kong society. Photo: AFP

They called attention to the unnerving number of leaders at Human Rights Watch who previously served as top officials in the US government. This creates a conflict of interest between legitimate human rights work and US foreign policy, according to the magazine.

A prime example of this is Human Rights Watch's Washington advocacy director Tom Malinowski worked as President Bill Clinton's special assistant and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's speechwriter. 

In 2013, Malinowski left the Human Rights Watch when John Kerry nominated him for the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, according to the Borgen Magazine. 

Peng Qinxuan, an associate research professor at Wuhan University Institute of International Law, told the Global Times that in recent years, the main members of the HRW have shown ideological bias which may hint at the choices of its financial support. 

For example, the executive director Kenneth Roth has criticized Israel's policies for a long time on his Twitter account; other main members including Omar Shakir, Sarah Leah Whitson, Marc Garlasco have also made remarks as being full of ideological bias. The main leaders' and members' ideological bias could greatly influence an NGO's objectives and fairness. 

In September 2016, The Nation magazine published a story titled "Is Human Rights Watch Too Closely Aligned with US Foreign Policy?" The story said that HRW has repeatedly and summarily dismissed or ignored sincere, thoroughly documented criticisms of its conflicts of interest. 

It also noted that criticism toward the HRW included letters from Nobel laureates, former high-ranking UN officials, and scholars asking HRW to "bar those who have crafted or executed US foreign policy from serving as HRW staff, advisors or board members," or even to bar "those who bear direct responsibility for human rights violations" from participating on various boards of independent human rights organizations like HRW.

An interesting thing is that sometimes the HRW seemed to venture some criticism toward the US's human rights situation.

In its annual report on human rights in 2021, the HRW mentioned the BLM protests caused by the death of George Floyd in May 2020; it also noted the incompetence of the US government in dealing with the COVID-19 epidemic in the US. It concluded that "Important human rights failings of the United States were laid bare in 2020."

Shen said that US-based NGOs like the HRW would not criticize the US political system; instead, they would draw the problem from other fields. 

"For example, they would say the racial problems in the US came from racist thoughts. But when it came to China, they would say all the problems are a direct result of political systems. Are they really criticizing the systematic damage brought by the US political systems or they are making excuses to defend the US violations of human rights?" Shen asked. 

Peng said that "whether or not to criticize the US human rights record should not be the only standard to judge the objectives of an NGO. Secondly, the operation of an NGO needs financial support and if people or organs who offer the financial support ask the NGO to criticize the US human rights record, it would do so. Can this be called objective?"

"An NGO's founding and operation is based on certain value and if this basic value is ideologically biased, the NGO's deeds would not be called fair and objective," Peng said.  

Point man to short China 

Some evidence revealed that what HRW has done is not for "altruism" and one of the funders has been looming in many turbulent regions in the world. He is the "financial shark" George Soros. 

Soros has long harbored a hostile attitude toward China. In 2019, when he delivered a speech at the Davos World Economic Forum, he launched broadsided attacks against China and suggested the US hit Chinese high-tech companies. During the pandemic, he urged the US not to work closely with China. It is worth noting that in 2010, Soros announced that his Open Society Foundations would provide $100 million over 10 years in donations to Human Rights Watch. This is also the largest donation ever received by the Human Rights Watch.

The position concerning its donor for Human Rights Watch is obvious. Soros has openly criticized Israel and the US' policies toward Palestine. His views and attitudes are then echoed in the opinions of key leaders and employees of the Human Rights Watch, Peng said.

Men enjoy their time in a teahouse in Kashi, Xinjiang. Photo: IC

Men enjoy their time in a teahouse in Kashi, Xinjiang. Photo: IC

Peng said that as Soros is good at arbitrage in the unstable state of the investment market, operating hedge funds, and setting up foundations guided by strong values, the possibility cannot be ruled out that the Human Rights Watch which is closely related to Soros is used by financial capital as the point man to short the Chinese market. 

"Human rights issues are no longer purely political disputes and foreign affairs. It may also be a product carefully packaged by financial capital. After all, Western countries' discourse hegemony and financial hegemony are inseparable, and they even mutually support each other," Peng told the Global Times.

"Capital is profit-seeking. As long as there is room for arbitrage, capital will move upon hearing the command. During the pandemic, both the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank released a large number of liquid assets. The combination of these sources of liquid capital and capital that shorts the Chinese market will achieve their capital goals through various channels. In addition to operating directly in the market, it does not rule out using capital to let some seemingly 'objective and neutral' non-governmental organizations speak out, seize upon the social pressure points of China during the transition period to create momentum," she added.

Peng noted that after WWII, the global financial system and global governance system have since been dominated by the West. The powerful capital ensures that the right to discourse is always in the hands of the Western world. If the capital behind most of the world's media, non-governmental organizations, academic institutions, and think tanks comes from Western countries, it is almost impossible for the voices of these institutions to be truly objective and neutral.