On December 10, 2006, Ken Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), spoke at a conference sponsored by the North American branch of Rabbis for Human Rights. Roth’s presentation consisted of a defense of HRW’s credibility and agenda, particularly with respect to Israel, following criticism published by NGO Monitor and elsewhere. On March 3, 2007, Tikkun magazine printed an edited version of his comments.
The following is an analysis of Roth's claims, including numerous inconsistencies, distortions, and omissions:
1) On the criticism of HRW for failing to distinguish between aggressor (as in the case of Hezbollah in the 2006 war) and defender (Israel), Roth attempts to use international legal claims, acknowledging that "a source of frustration for some people is that the Geneva Conventions do not take sides. They are neutral about the purposes of a war, they do not identify who the defender is and who the aggressor is, they do not say who’s right and who’s wrong, they look simply at how the war is fought . . . We look at jus in bello, the way the war is fought, not jus ad bellum, whether it was right or just to go to war."
NGO Monitor’s Analysis: This portrayal of international law is selective, incomplete, and self-serving. Under international law, the only legitimate uses of force are for purposes of self-defense or pursuant to Security Council authorization under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Article 51 of the UN Charter, for instance, states: "Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security." Under Article 2(4) of the Charter, states are prohibited from engaging in illegitimate use of force: "All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations." As international law precedents make clear, militias like Hezbollah, given de facto authority by the government of Lebanon, are bound to follow the legal commitments of the state. Lebanon is a signatory of the UN Charter, and Hezbollah, whose officials are also members of the cabinet, is obligated to abide by Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. Therefore, Hezbollah’s attack on Israel was illegal under any interpretation of international law, and there is both a moral and legal basis for distinguishing between aggressor and defender under the laws of war. HRW and Roth selectively chose to ignore these aspects in promoting their political agenda.
2) Responding to the criticism of HRW’s credibility ("fact finding”), Roth stated that "after a researcher returns from an investigation and writes up a report it must go through a series of experts: legal experts, policy experts, and people who double-check the fact-finding."
NGO Monitor’s Analysis: Roth’s general response does not attempt to explain the numerous examples of HRW statements that were false or based on unverifiable sources. For example, on August 1, during the Israel-Hezbollah war, after an Israeli strike against Qana in southern Lebanon, HRW immediately issued a press release based entirely on unverifiable "eyewitness claims," labeling the bombing “indiscriminate” and a “war crime” before any such determination could be reasonably made, and declaring that “at least 54 civilians have been killed.” The number of Lebanese killed was reduced subsequently and there are conflicting reports on many of the details. HRW, while belatedly revising the casualty estimate to half, did not remove the original statement from its website and repeated the allegations of “war crimes” and the absence of Hezbollah elements (rockets, fighters, etc.), based on claims made by people possibly connected to Hezbollah. Indeed, on December 5, the Center for Special Studies in Israel (C.S.S.) issued a detailed report on "the extensive military infrastructure positioned and hidden by Hezbollah in populated areas." The report documented a significant Hezbollah presence in and around Qana: 3 rockets were fired from within civilian houses, 36 within a 200 meter radius, and 106 within a 500 meter radius of the village. The report also showed an aerial photograph of a weapons storehouse located next to a mosque in Qana. Roth ignores these facts, and enormous impact of such false reports. And as a study published by Harvard University notes, “Most reporters used the higher of the two estimates, some describing the scene as a massacre. It made for more sensational copy.”
3) Roth claims that HRW interviews witnesses and victims of human rights abuses with "an enormous dose of skepticism" because of their tendency to lie.
NGO Monitor’s Analysis: In contrast to Roth's claim, HRW's statements demonstrate that the organization routinely uses such witnesses without any evidence of "skepticism". During the Israel-Hezbollah war, for example, HRW repeatedly relied on "eyewitnesses" from south Lebanon, where Hezbollah is politically and ideologically dominant. In a July 31 op-ed published in The Guardian (UK), Peter Bouckaert, HRW’s Emergencies Director, dismissed Israel's statement that Hezbollah used human shields based on testimony from “villagers”, labeling the IDF’s assertion “a convenient excuse.” In HRW's August 3 report entitled “Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon”, Hashem Kazan, an HRW witness interviewed regarding a July 15 attack on Bint Jbeil, claimed that “there was no fighting taking place in the village—there was no one but civilians.” In contrast, the CSS report included an aerial photograph of 20 bases and 5 weapons storehouses in the village, also documenting 87 rockets fired from within village houses, 109 from within a 200 meter radius, and 136 within a 500 meter radius.
Furthermore, when credible evidence is available, HRW often ignores it if it does not support the dominant political position. On May 27, 2006 in a television interview, Hassan Nasaralah boasted ‘[Hezbollah fighters] live in their houses, in their schools, in their churches, in their fields, in their farms and in their factories…You can’t destroy them in the same way you would destroy an army.
4) Roth acknowledges HRW’s close relationships with local organizations, and that since "some are more reliable than others," they need to be treated with skepticism. NGO Monitor’s Analysis: HRW often relies on highly politicized Palestinian NGOs, and the resulting reports show no evidence of skepticism. For example, on June 9, eight Palestinians were killed on a Gaza beach in disputed circumstances. Amnesty International and several Palestinian NGOs, including Miftah, Al Mezan and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights issued condemnations of Israel in the days following. On the basis of this concerted campaign, including clearly staged video, HRW dispatched Marc Garlasco, who claims to be a former Pentagon “battle damage expert,” to investigate. In a widely publicized press conference in Gaza. Garlasco repeated the claims that “the evidence overwhelmingly supports the allegations that the civilians were killed by artillery shells fired by the IDF” accepting the Palestinian position. He simply ignored the detailed evidence to the contrary, including shrapnel removed from the victims taken to Israel for treatment. (Garlasco was also among the authors of HRW’s "Razing Rafah" report of 2004, which contained many unverifiable and disputed claims, and erased the context of terror.)
5) Roth stated that "while there were serious problems," HRW "put to rest" the international allegation of an Israeli "massacre" in Jenin.
NGO Monitor’s Analysis: The record shows that HRW was disproportionately critical of Israel in its reporting on the events in Jenin, and its statements on the massacre myth were late and incomplete. In May 2002, HRW published a statement headlined "Jenin War Crimes Investigation Needed" followed by a detailed report entitled Jenin: IDF Military Operations, which alleged that "Israeli forces committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, some amounting prima facie to war crimes" adding that "particularly in the Hawashin district, the destruction extended well beyond any conceivable purpose of gaining access to fighters." The report was based on anecdotal and unsubstantiated testimony from what HRW described as "first-hand observers", and erased the context of mass terror attacks on Israelis.  Both documents remain on the HRW website. Furthermore, HRW's major report on Palestinian terror, Erased in a Moment: Suicide Bombing attacks against Israeli Civilians -- not published until October 2002, did not, as Roth claims , reveal "who at the top was responsible for ordering these murders." Instead, HRW's report vindicated Yasser Arafat, ignoring the documentary evidence of the PLO leader's direct involvement in terror.
6) Roth continues to claim that "most civilians died [in Lebanon] because, after Israel issued warnings for civilians to flee, the IDF falsely assumed that all civilians had in fact fled," adding that "Israel was firing at virtually anyone who moved."
NGO Monitor’s Analysis: As noted, the CSS report showed that contrary to HRW's claim to have found "no cases" of human shields, Hezbollah used human shields throughout Lebanon, deliberately endangering civilians. On December 28, 2006, NGO Monitor published a detailed comparison of HRW's claims and the CSS report, revealing that in numerous instances, HRW relied on "eyewitness testimony" that was inconsistent with the available videographic and documentary evidence.
7) Roth chastises others for their "name-calling" adding that it "dishonored the Jewish Tradition".
NGO Monitor’s Analysis: In a July 31 letter published in The New York Sun, Roth used the term “an eye for an eye”, which he termed to be based on "the morality of some more primitive moment." The comment is a fundamental distortion of Jewish tradition, for which Roth has yet to apologize.
8) Omissions: Roth's defense omits reference to positions and political campaigns based on extremely bad judgment.
NGO Monitor’s Analysis: For example, in 2006, Roth condemned the US and Israel for demanding more changes to the framework for the new UN Human Rights Council, which replaced the discredited UN Commission on Human Rights. He asserted that "The proposed Council has many new elements that will be useful in our work for the promotion and protection of human rights". In fact, the Council is no better than the old Commission, and the objections were well founded.
On January 23, The Jerusalem Post
reported that RHRI (Rabbis for Human Rights Israel) had criticized the highly politicized approach of the North American branch of this organization, particularly the decision to honor the Center for Constitutional Rights, which had sued two Israeli security officials for alleged “war crimes”.
3. Id., Part 1, at 44, Part 2, at 122.
6. Id., Appendix 4, at 256.
8. On July 30, 2002, the UN issued a report on the Israeli incursion into Jenin, concluding that no massacre had taken place. In HRW's August 2 criticism of the report, Hanny Magelly, HRW's Executive Director of Middle East and North Africa Division at the time, declared that the report "exposes the risk of compiling a report without first-hand information."