HRW Tries, Fails to Exculpate Polisario

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve criticized Human Rights Watch (HRW) for conducting human rights research and advocacy subjectively through the lens of politics rather than though an objective, fact and evidence-based approach. When it came to Iraq, Executive Director Kenneth Roth compared the Islamic State favorably to elected former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. And while there have been significant human rights abuses in Egypt since (and before) the July 2013 coup, a comparison of Roth’s tweets and HRW reports suggested that Roth augmented the numbers of massacre victims, perhaps for political reasons or perhaps to express his animus when he felt himself slighted personally by the new Egyptian government. He also partnered with Al-Karama, a group led by a man subsequently designated as Al-Qaeda financier and, despite this, neither retracted let alone appeared to investigate any of the information provided by that group which was incorporated into HRW reporting. Roth’s reporting with regard to the Israel-Palestinian conflict—and his willingness to bend over backwards to exculpate Hamas—has also raised questions with regard to objectivity.

Well, let’s add the Western Sahara to the list of areas where HRW apparently puts politics above its mission. Earlier this month, HRW published a report (.pdf) on the Tindouf camps. That much is welcome. The Tindouf camps are a human tragedy, hidden from sight in a far corner of Algeria. They are home to the Polisario Front, a Marxist and authoritarian movement, which imagines itself the self-styled government of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). The Sahrawi liberation movement has become a cause célèbre among some on the left who imagine that, with their support for the group, they are fighting colonialism, resisting Western interests, and speaking on behalf of the oppressed. As is often the case, what they end up doing is apologizing for repression.

After all, the Polisario is a group that, in the past, seized children from their parents and sent them to Cuba for re-education. (Perhaps some at HRW might celebrate this as “mandatory tropical vacations.”) Likewise, when a ceasefire ended the war between Morocco and Algeria in 1991, the Polisario kept more than 400 Moroccan prisoners-of-war illegally for an additional 14 years. Most were tortured, some were reportedly forced to donate blood for use by Polisario fighters, and the unlucky ones summarily executed. Then again, if the politics is right, maybe HRW could spin this as the Polisario relieving prison overcrowding.

Clearly, wherever one stands on the Western Sahara conflict, the Polisario are not good guys. It’s not like the group has had a leadership change in the past three plus decades. But, politically, they are manna to progressives who have never met a “liberation” movement they have not liked. And so it is with the latest Human Rights Watch report touching on the conflict. Now, HRW did real research for its report, but what is truly striking is how the HRW Tindouf report’s conclusions fly in the face of the evidence it presents. It appears almost as if HRW researchers gather evidence, but then the head office applies a political brush to ensure the finished product conforms to a political outlook that exculpates left-wing violations of human rights.

The report, for example, chronicles through 78 pages a number of abuses perpetrated by the Polisario in the camps, but then says there was “no evidence of any patterns of serious abuse” just “areas of concern.” Take freedom of movement, a core to liberty anywhere. HRW says they found no evidence that the Polisario/SADR interferes in travel. Hmmm. The SADR constitution does not guarantee freedom of movement, and the Polisario regulates travel with security checkpoints. There also is a nighttime curfew, and the Polisario also demands that drivers carry a SADR permit. Other regulations—such as a prohibition carrying more than 200 liters of fuel—effectively limit the ability of drivers to leave the camps, given their isolated location. Generally speaking, people don’t conceal their travel plans when they don’t fear interference, but the residents of the Tindouf camps often do, simply because the Polisario/SADR does not permit free movement.

What about freedom of speech and the press? While HRW said, “encountered no case of a person whom the Polisario Front imprisoned for his political views” and further said “From its interviews with refugees, [HRW] found no pattern of SADR authorities silencing dissent.” Funny that, given that the report also states that “The Polisario monopolizes political discourse in the camps,” “SADR legislation that regulates freedom of expression is sweeping and open to various interpretations,” and “There have been instances where authorities allegedly attempt to suppress public criticism of SADR leaders and public discussion of politically sensitive topics.” Most media are also state organs. Two SADR journalists lost their job when they dared to write an article for an independent Sahrawi website which discussed the alleged resignation of SADR minister of cooperation. And, in 2013, SADR authorities detained Salek Saloh, the founding editor of the only apparent independent news website. HRW acknowledged the case by declaring, “It is a serious human rights concern that Saloh was detained apparently over his journalistic work, and in particular by military judicial authorities who seem, in this case, to have usurped the role of civil courts.” Never mind, however, since, “in general SADR authorities do not seek to interfere with such sites.” The whole episode is akin to praising North Korea for no longer interfering with independent or opposition media as soon as its succeeds in crushing them out of existence.

HRW’s cavalier treatment of freedom of association and assembly is no better. While the report states, “HRW found no evidence that SADR authorities hindered the formation or work of civil society groups,” it also found that the SADR constitution bans political parties other than Polisario, and that the SADR constitution doesn’t guarantee the right to free association or assembly. Nor are there many civil society groups operating in the camps both because of “logistical problems” and lack of money, the latter strictly regulated by the Polisario.

Similar whitewashing occurs with regard to the use of military courts to investigate and try civilians. While HRW reported it “found no patter of torture, prolonged arbitrary detention, or denial of access to a lawyer,” it also documented several instances of civilians detained by military authorities, held in defiance of legal procedures, and ultimately tried by military courts. The most disingenuous exculpation of Polisario for its human rights abuses related to the section on torture. While the report states, “Human Rights Watch researchers encountered no claims that SADR authorities practice torture either as a matter of policy or routine,” and continues, “Researchers did not hear account of SADR security forces systematically or habitually using excessive force when responding to demonstrations, detaining and questioning criminal suspects, and in their handling of prisoners,” the details of the report show that two out of 40 refugees HRW interviews said that SADR security forces had beaten or tortured them in detention. Both men happen to be members of a group that criticizes SADR corruption, nepotism, and abuse of power. But perhaps HRW Executive Director Ken Roth believes they were arrested for jaywalking and were not political prisoners.

Tindouf is a festering sore, one that should be quickly resolved. Let us hope that UN Envoy Christopher Ross, when he presents his findings to the United Nations Security Council later today, opens a door to resolution by recognizing the federalism and autonomy thath the Western Sahara today enjoys under Moroccan sovereignty. That most Sahrawis reject radicalism and seek to escape the clutches of the Tindouf camps and an Algerian state that uses them as a proxy in an unrelated struggle. That many Marxists and left-wing radicals as well as some correspondents for British-based papers and magazines seek to make the Polisario and Sahrawi cause their own is also a fact. So too should be the notion that liberty and freedom should be fundamental human rights. But when such notions of freedom and liberty conflict with leftist conventional wisdom or dictates, it seems that Kenneth Roth and HRW will subordinate the former to the latter.

Make no mistake: HRW could be a valuable organization; it once was. But, so long as it subordinates reporting to its own political filter—as it does with this latest report regarding the Tindouf refugee camps—then it forfeits its right to be considered a serious monitor of or advocate for human rights.