Human Rights Watch Visit to Saudi Arabia

(New York, July 17, 2009) - A number of recent media reports have suggested that Human Rights Watch has compromised its neutrality by meeting with potential donors at receptions in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East. These reports are based on misleading assumptions and wrong facts.

Human Rights Watch does not accept donations from any government. All of our US$44 million annual budget is raised from private individuals and foundations. Of that sum, almost 75 percent comes from North America and about 25 percent from Western Europe, with less than 1 percent from all other regions of the world combined. As an organization with a global mandate, we are naturally endeavoring to diversify our financial base and have begun to actively explore funding in regions as diverse as Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Accordingly, Human Rights Watch staffers made presentations on our work to two private audiences in Saudi Arabia in May 2009 (as well as to audiences in Amman and Beirut). These were receptions in private homes, hosted by people who were interested in Human Rights Watch and who invited other guests to learn more about us. Among the guests at one of those receptions were the deputy head of the Human Rights Commission of Saudi Arabia and a member of the Shura Council, a government-appointed consultative body. Neither of these individuals was solicited for funds, nor would Human Rights Watch ever accept funds from such officials, in any country. Government officials are, of course, important interlocutors for our advocacy on Saudi human rights policy.

We seek to apply our rigorous methodology in an even-handed way to serious human rights violations wherever they occur. A key source of our credibility in talking to governments is that we are not singling them out for criticism, but rather looking at similar issues in more than 80 countries.

At the receptions in Saudi Arabia, we discussed and answered questions about our work in Saudi Arabia, which includes coverage of women's rights, the juvenile death penalty, domestic workers, and discrimination against religious minorities. No other human rights group has produced a more comprehensive, detailed, and thorough body of work on Saudi Arabian human rights issues in recent years than Human Rights Watch (  

The audience also heard a presentation about the situation in Gaza, which dominated worldwide headlines earlier this year and is naturally a matter of concern to those in the region who are interested in human rights. We feel Human Rights Watch distinguished itself with accurate, sober, and impartial work on the Gaza conflict in early 2009, including coverage of Israel's use of white phosphorous, as well as Palestinian political violence during the conflict. We also discussed criticism leveled against Human Rights Watch, particularly by US-based groups and commentators, that we are biased against Israel. We sought to juxtapose that criticism with the charges we face in much of the Middle East (and from some Western critics) that our US donor base makes us "soft" on Israeli human rights violations.

We reject the idea that an individual's nationality, ethnicity, or religion can be taken as a proxy for their political or ideological beliefs, or that the backgrounds of our supporters influence our coverage.

By the same token, no assumption should ever be made that a Saudi citizen's support for human rights reflects or is captive of Saudi government policy. Human Rights Watch is eager and delighted to find supporters of the human rights ideal - financial or otherwise - in any and all countries of the world. To draw such communities into an active, international network is an important part of our mission and does not impair our political neutrality. It threatens no one but the human rights violators we seek to expose.