April 13, 2004
By Anne Bayefsky
When it comes to anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias, Human Rights Watch still has a lot of explaining to do notwithstanding Executive Director Ken Roth's umbrage at criticism.
Roth, however, volunteers a test of his organization's reliability when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, namely Human Rights Watch's behavior at the UN's infamous "anti-racism" conference held in Durban, shortly before 9/11. If the organization's actions were assailable there, he says, it would make "it easy to reject the objectivity of Human Rights Watch reports on Israeli conduct."
It is a test that Human Rights Watch fails hands down. I know because I was there as the representative of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists (IAJLJ). Roth himself did not attend.
Just prior to the conference Roth telegraphed his convictions in an interview on US National Public Radio, August 14, 2001, when he said about the pending controversy and the effort to focus attention on Israel: "Clearly Israeli racist practices are an appropriate topic."
So in the lead-up to Durban, Human Rights Watch fanned the flames of racial intolerance notwithstanding that 's citizens are one-quarter Arab and enjoy democratic rights they have nowhere else in the Arab world, while neighboring Arab states are Judenrein.
At Durban one role of Human Rights Watch was to exclude the representative of Jewish lawyers and jurists from over 40 countries. Here's what happened:
As a representative of the IAJLJ, I was a member of the caucus of international human rights nongovernmental organizations. Human Rights Watch, along with others such as Amnesty International and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (renamed Human Rights First), was also a member of this caucus. Together we had a right to vote on the final NGO document, and hours before the last session gathered together to discuss our position.
The draft included egregious statements equating Zionism with racism, and alleging that is an "apartheid" state guilty of "genocide and ethnic cleansing designed to ensure a Jewish state."
As we arrived at our meeting the chief Durban representative of Human Rights Watch, advocacy director Reed Brody, publicly announced that as a representative of a Jewish group I was unwelcome and could not attend. The views of a Jewish organization, he explained, would not be objective and the decision on how to vote had to be taken in our absence. Not a single one of the other international NGOs objected.
THE HUMAN Rights Watch role at Durban? To inhibit Jewish lawyers and jurists from being fairly represented or defended.
Later that afternoon, my colleague Daniel Lack and I insisted on entering the meeting, but their minds were made up. In the face of the flagrant anti-Semitism all around them the group, including HRW had decided neither to approve nor disapprove of the final declaration, and not to vote.
Instead the international NGOs, including HRW planned to introduce an introductory paragraph that would cast the document as a legitimate collection of the "voices of the victims."
In the evening, as the declaration was considered, a motion was made to delete draft language that had come from the Jewish NGO caucus. The Jewish caucus had proposed including a statement that the demonization of and the targeting of Jews for destruction because of their support for was a form of anti-Semitism.
The vote to delete the Jewish caucus's proposal succeeded and all Jewish organizations from around the world walked out.
What did Human Rights Watch do? The organization said nothing. It made no move to vote. It stayed. Notwithstanding that the Jewish voices had been silenced, two days later at a press conference, HRW (along with Amnesty International, and the Lawyers Committee/Human Rights First) repeated the claim that the "voices of the victims" had legitimately prevailed at the NGO conference. HRW spokesperson Smita Narula said: "The document gives expression to all voices."
What else did Human Rights Watch do in Durban? It misrepresented the final outcome to the world press.
AFTER THE fact, Human Rights Watch got nervous about the possible reaction of its many Jewish funders. So the cover-up began.
On September 6, 2001 Human Rights Watch spokespersons Reed Brody and Joel Motley wrote in the Conference News Daily that the NGO declaration "marks a major success... and recognizes the scourge of anti-Semitism."
They neglected to mention that the declaration had redefined anti-Semitism, changing its meaning from the hatred of Jews to something which included "anti-Arab racism."
Six months later, in February 2002, Human Rights Watch published an update stating: "What really happened at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban? The conference we participated in was completely different from the one covered in American newspapers."
What else did Human Rights Watch do after Durban? It denied what happened there.
As for Roth's claim of the organization's objectivity in reporting on governments throughout the region, one need look no further than its inability despite an annual budget of $22 million to produce a specific report on human rights abuses in a country like Libya, or the relative paucity of attention over the years given to states with appalling human rights records like Saudi Arabia and Syria, as compared to Israel.
So there should be no surprise when HRW wrongly describes as violating international legal norms, for example, by labeling the killing of someone like Sheikh Ahmed Yassin or Ismail Abu Shanab an "assassination" or "liquidation."
International law does not protect all combatants from being targeted before judicial process, or grant them immunity from military operations when they use civilians as human shields.
Having the courage to speak out against the tide of hate directed at and the Jewish people is not one of the strengths of Human Rights Watch.
When will this leading international human rights NGO stop believing it has to earn its stripes by demonizing Israel, or that to stay in business it must avoid criticizing Israel's enemies?