A man in an Arabian traditional dress and a woman having a press conference.

Global Guardian

On the frontlines with human rights defender Sarah Leah Whitson

Nobody said Sarah Leah Whitson’s job, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), would be easy. A poignant excerpt about Syria from HRW’s latest annual report provides a window into the topics she deals with daily:

“Children were found in their pajamas, frothing at the mouth, blue, dead. In the early morning hours of August 21, 2013, hundreds of Syrian civilians were gassed in a horrific chemical weapons attack in Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus. Many children were among the dead, possibly because they had sought refuge from the intense shelling to sleep in the basements of buildings, where dense sarin vapors accumulated and suffocated them.”

The text accompanies photos of a boy and girl breathing through oxygen masks and a United Nations arms expert sifting through the rubble of a chemical weapons strike. In addition to documenting the atrocities at hand, the images epitomize the battlefront work Whitson's team conducts throughout the region.

“In a country like Syria, which is in the midst of an ongoing civil war, our researchers on the ground are taking tremendous risks to find out what happened; to document violations of international humanitarian law; to pinpoint the kind of weapons that were used in a particular attack; what kind of an attack was used to bombard a residential area, a school, a neighborhood,” Whitson says.

As executive director, Whitson feels a dual responsibility to both her team and the urgent work they do. “There is always that balance of wanting to preserve the security of our researchers while also wanting to uncover the information that won't be out at all if we don’t get it out.”

That information spans the 19 countries under Whitson's division, which monitors an array of issues ranging from Iraqi execution sites and Tunisian war crimes to surveillance software in Saudi Arabia and peaceful protestors detained in Egypt. While the Syrian Civil War has dominated much of her attention over the past few years, Whitson finds the political situation in Egypt “particularly troubling,” as well.

“More than any country, Egypt captured the hope that the Middle East would evolve into something different,” Whitson says. “The manner in which the democratically-elected government of the Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown in a military coup, without any strong opposition from the international community and with the acquiescence of so many liberals, was very disheartening. What we see in Egypt now is oppression and abuse on a scale we didn’t even see under [former President Hosni] Mubarak.”

The reality right now is that AG BU is making a difference in saving people’s lives, keeping families together, keeping them fed, and taking care of their medical needs.

Whitson sees similarly disconcerting political instability in Libya and Yemen, where her division has opened their newest offices. Because of the countries' civil unrest, Whitson says, HRW must constantly assess not only its impact, but also the feasibility of its presence.

“I was recently in Libya, and it was very disturbing to see firsthand just how volatile things are in the country: so many armed groups that remain fully weaponized and outside the control of the state,” she says. “In Yemen, the situation is similar in that there are three civil wars underway, but there is a sense that the country has made greater strides toward cohesion.”

A lawyer by training, Whitson's path to becoming an international human rights watchdog seems fitting in retrospect. Whitson's mother immigrated with her brother to the United States in the early 1960s, fleeing turmoil in the Middle East to settle in California, where she raised Whitson by herself following her husband's death. Growing up, Whitson attended Armenian school in Los Angeles and spent summers visiting family in the Middle East. With AGBU scholarship support, she attended college at the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied abroad in Egypt. After graduating in Barack Obama's class at Harvard Law School, Whitson worked at a prestigious multinational law firm (Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton) and a global investment bank (Goldman, Sachs & Co.) before joining HRW.

Looking back, Whitson sees the seeds of human rights work in her Armenian heritage and education. “I went to Armenian school for 12 years, and the genocide was a reality for us every day,” she recalls. “In other schools, the posters around the classrooms would be of the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus, but the posters in our classrooms were of the Armenian Genocide.” That sense of being a survivor, Whitson says, made her sensitive to injustice early in life and continues to motivate her struggle against oppression in the world today.

It is also an identity she is keen to pass on to her children, Lena, Tobias and Julian. 

“I took my children to Turkey this summer. We went to the city my grandfather is from, and we went to the Armenian church because I wanted them to touch the ground and know it is theirs. We also went to Van and stood over the destroyed Armenian city, because I wanted them to know this is where they came from,” Whitson recounts. “I cannot emphasize enough what a gift it is to have an identity that goes back thousands of years, because many people don’t have that and I think they’re poorer for it.”

For Whitson, engaging with today's Armenian community is as important to her identity as connecting with those ancient roots. At her job, this includes advocating for aid on behalf of the fragile minority of Syrian Armenian refugees, thousands of whom have been displaced from Aleppo, Kessab, and other towns across the war-torn country. Armenians around the world, she says, can help by staying informed about the situation through reliable news sources like (co-founded by AGBU alumna Lara Setrakian) and supporting AGBU's efforts on the ground.

“The reality right now is that AGBU is making a difference in saving people’s lives, keeping families together, keeping them fed, and taking care of their medical needs,” Whitson says. “No matter how much Armenians give, there will be gaps, so we should continue to support this direct work that AGBU is doing.” 

Banner photo by Karim Sahib

Originally published in the November 2014 ​issue of AGBU Insider. end character

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AGBU Insider profiles extraordinary AGBU program alumni across a diverse set of industries and passions. With exclusive interviews and photography, each issue reveals the Armenian impact on society, community, and industry.