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Human Rights Advocacy, Sectarianism, and Other Biases
Who holds Human Rights organization accountable? Is their unchecked power healthy for defending and promoting human rights?

Human Rights Advocacy, Sectarianism, and Other Biases

By Ruba Ali Al-Hassani new guest writer is Ruba Ali Al-Hassani, a doctoral candidate in Law, specializing in Iraqi and Socio-Legal Studies at York University. She opened her blog recently with this the following article criticizing the selectivity of human rights organizations operating in the Middle East. You can view her work on her blog

I started this blog a few days ago, and have been debating on the subject of my first blog post. With so many ideas floating in my restless mind, it took me a while to think this through. My mind strays to other topics, but ends up circling around the subject of media and academic bias when covering post-2003 Iraq. Knowing that media sources may be biased, we resort to human rights organizations for objective examination and reporting on various human rights violations around the world.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been a curious source of biased reporting. Michael Rubin recently addressed the decline in HRW’s neutrality (See here). In one documented case, dated 12 June 2014, HRW’s Executive Director Kenneth Roth tweeted that “ISIS in #Iraq reportedly tried not to alienate local population, unlike PM Maliki & his violent, sectarian repression.” While Roth has tweeted other problematic statements, this one particularly stands out. In June 2014, ISIS was already recognized internationally for its notorious tendency to rape women and sell them to sexual slavery. It was also already recognized internationally for its violence towards minorities, such as the Chaldean-Assyrian community of Mosul, as well as the Ayzidis of Sinjar, among other Iraqi minorities, and Syrian minorities before them. Before then, ISIS had notoriously massacred over 1,700 Iraqi cadets in Tikrit at around the same time, most of whom were Shi’ite young men. For the Executive Director of a world-recognized human rights organization to make such an uncalculated and baseless statement is concerning.

Whether the Maliki government in Iraq had been sectarian or repressive is one thing, but to compare it to ISIS in such a manner is clearly intended to demonize it beyond repair or reconciliation during an ISIS incursion. More importantly, the statement was unjust to ISIS victims by portraying their violators as their so-called protectors. In addition, there have been various documented examples of HRW employees citing ISIS sympathizers like Shami Witness  as a valid and creditable source (For those unaware of who Shami Witness is, see Business Insider.

Sadly, by citing such sources, HRW has been accusing those who are actually fighting ISIS in Iraq, such as the Iraqi Armed Forces and Shi’ite Paramilitaries, of crimes. It makes sense, doesn’t it, that ISIS sympathizers would accuse the most organized and successful forces against them of crime, in order to discredit their work and further sectarian rhetoric. Speaking of organized forces fighting ISIS, HRW seems to depend on the Kurdish Peshmerga as a source of information against Iraqi Shi’ite Paramilitaries fighting ISIS. Those who know the politics of the Iraq, the Kurdish Peshmerga and Shi’ite Paramilitaries are not on good terms, due to the Kurdish desire for independence. Moreover, there is an inherent discrimination within much of the Kurdish population towards Shi’ites in general.

Fayli (Shi’ite) Kurds are widely recognized in Iraq for bearing the brunt of this sectarian tension. Yet, HRW, in all its wisdom, relies on Kurdish Peshmerga as a source to report on Shi’ite Paramilitaries’ so-called crimes. With HRW’s new-found attention, the Peshmerga have accused Shi’ite Paramilitaries of looting abandoned Sunni homes; something which the Peshmerga was caught doing – with video documentation recorded by Shi’ite Paramilitaries and Assyrian displaced peoples. The Peshmerga have also been accused by Ayzidi (also known as Yezidi) women of rape. Yet, HRW chooses to believe the Peshmerga as a creditable source on so-called crimes committed by Shi’ite Paramilitaries, for reasons still unclear. Therefore, over the past few months, HRW has been overly obsessed with Iraqi Shi’ite paramilitaries, who are fighting ISIS, accusing them of crimes. In the meantime, HRW has not been reporting on ISIS’s crimes against humanity like it has been concerned with Iraqi Shi’ite Paramilitaries. People can see through this inherent sectarianism in HRW’s reporting of events in Iraq.

HRW’s sectarianism can be witnessed in the Saudi context, as well. This sectarianism sadly may apply to Amnesty International (A.I.), as well. Raif Badawi, imprisoned and lashed for “insulting Islam” and criticizing senior religious figures in Saudi Arabia, receives widespread support from both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Meanwhile, Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a Saudi Shi’ite religious figure, has been imprisoned for over 3 years (after he was shot and his family was rounded up) for criticizing the Saudi government’s sectarian oppression of Shi’ites in the same country. Since then, he has been on a hunger strike and has been handed down the death sentence (that has still not been executed). In comparison to Raif Badawi, Sheikh Nimr receives little support from HRW and A.I. – a couple of statements at the time of his sentencing, with barely much follow-up advocacy like that which Badawi receives.

Why is there a discrepancy in the coverage and support of one person over the other? Why not advocate for both cases equally? Because one happens to be an outspoken Shi’ite cleric against oppression, while the other used the term “liberal” on his blog criticizing Islam and religious clerics? Has Sheikh al-Nimr been condemned and left to rot in Saudi Arabia’s prisons and to be executed in its gallows for being a Muslim cleric? Are these human rights organizations unable to make a clear distinction between clerics who impose a repressive and sectarian theocracy on people and those who oppose it, fighting for social and political justice? Are all Muslim clerics being painted in the same brush? We are, by nature, inclined to to admire human rights organizations’ work. We assume they are objective, for what is human rights advocacy but a universal and empathic activity? However, we need to think beyond that and question their inherent and obvious biases. Sectarian narratives only perpetuate division and violence; something which Iraq does not need during its fight against terror.

We need to question the demographic makeup and financial sponsors of these organizations, and how they affect the nature of these organizations’ work. Human rights organizations are engaging in blatantly selective coverage of of human rights violations, based on their own discriminant networks. It’s time we call them out for that, and seek objective coverage that they owe us.

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