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On May 20, two months after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began slaughtering protesters in his country, Human Rights Watch (HRW) hired a Jordanian journalist, Hani Hazaimeh, to translate witness and victims accounts of Assad’s atrocities. At first glance, this would appear to be an unremarkable example of an NGO doing its job. Even though Hazaimeh was from outside the organization, HRW believed he was its best option to record Syrian abuses.

However, this predicament of having no trained professionals to turn to in the field raises an important question: How is it that two months after citizen-protesters were being murdered – not to mention decades of severe repression of the worst kind – “one of the world’s leading independent organizations” did not have assets in place for proper investigations? Despite nearly 50 years of police-state repression and emergency law, HRW had to resort to a last minute, inexperienced outsider to record human rights brutalities.

And Syria is not an isolated incident. Since the Arab Spring awoke at the end of 2010, HRW has quickly expanded to cover developments and violations in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere. HRW’s lack of preparation, foresight, and capacity is obvious. Indeed, the international media have relied entirely on local activists; as a source of information, HRW is entirely irrelevant. As HRW’s Fred Abraham stated, “The west of Libya is a black hole....we have no idea what’s going on.”

In Syria, HRW’s inadequacy is not new. Last July, HRW published a report titled “A Wasted Decade,” covering ten years of research on human rights violations in Syria in just 35 pages.  The thinness of the report was matched by the weak recommendations.

The report recommended a limited response, directed exclusively to President Assad, who was urged to enact, amend, introduce, and remove a variety of laws, and to set up commissions. To alleviate restrictions on freedom of expression, HRW urged him to “stop blocking websites for their content.”  In a contemporaneous op-ed article, "Syria's decade of repression” (The Guardian, 16 July 2010), HRW researcher Nadim Houry concludes with gentle prodding of Assad: “his legacy will ultimately depend on whether he will act on the promises” of reform he made upon taking office. “Otherwise, he will merely be remembered for extending his father’s...government by repression.” 

In other words, HRW was content as a spectator throughout much of Assad’s brutal reign. Now, as Syrian citizens are murdered by his forces, HRW has no infrastructure or networks in place to aid citizens leading the “human rights” revolution.

But, if HRW did not invest in developing its capabilities in the closed and repressive society of Syria, what were HRW’s priorities?

As dictated by the  ideological agenda of the organization’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) division, the priority was Israel. For example, while HRW released 51 documents in 2010 on “Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” it released 12 for Syria. Israel also had three “single country reports,” compared to the very short one for Syria.

2009 was even worse. By May, HRW had spent the entire Middle East budget mainly making more false allegations of Israeli “war crimes and promoting the Goldstone façade. In a fundraising trip to that bastion of civil liberties and human rights – Saudi Arabia – MENA director Sarah Leah Whitson highlighted HRW’s attacks on Israel in her pitch for funds. 

MENA’s warped agenda also manifested itself vis-à-vis Libya.  In 2009, Whitson befriended the regime in a visit to Libya,  claiming to have discovered a “Tripoli spring.” She praised Muammar Qaddafi’s son Seif Islam as a leading reformer and for creating an “expanded space for discussion and debate.” This friendship was reflected in HRW’s scarce reporting on Libya in 2010, in which HRW produced 19 documents on the totalitarian regime. Now, as Moammar Gaddafi refuses to cede power and continues to murder Libyan citizens, HRW has no mechanisms in place to seriously support those fighting for freedom.

These double standards were emphasized by HRW founder Robert Bernstein, who stated that the plight of the citizens of repressive Arab regimes “who would most benefit from the kind of attention a large and well-financed international human rights organization can provide is being ignored as Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division prepares report after report on Israel.” 

The ideological component compounds other factors. As an HRW board member admitted in a magazine interview, “they go after Israel because it is like ‘low-hanging fruit.’” Israel’s open society gives free, and safe, access, allowing HRW to generate reports on the conflict. 

Additionally, until the revolutions and violence of the Arab Spring, the Arab-Israeli conflict was the number one regional issue in terms of media attention. HRW, seeking publicity, tailored its output to increase its media presence, instead of following an independent human rights agenda or thinking strategically about where its resources would do the most good.

Just like Assad’s regime, HRW “wasted a decade” in Syria, as well as in other closed societies. The question is whether HRW will also undergo a necessary revolution, and restructure its Middle East division to ensure that decades of brutalities are never again ignored.

Gerald Steinberg is president of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institution dedicated to promoting universal human rights and to encouraging civil discussion on the reports and activities of nongovernmental organizations, particularly in the Middle East.

Naftali Balanson is managing editor of NGO Monitor.