- Human Rights Watch publications on “Israel and the OPT” comprised 28 percent of its total Mideast output in 2009. Israel received more attention than Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria, and other chronic human rights abusers.1
- HRW allocated a disproportionate amount of resources to promoting the UN “fact-finding” mission of former board member Richard Goldstone, including statements in support of UN resolutions that condemned Israel. The 34 pro-Goldstone publications out-numbered documents on all the countries in the Middle East, except Israel and Iran.
- Scandals included a fundraising trip to Saudi Arabia, which used HRW’s anti-Israel bias and the specter of the pro-Israel lobby to solicit funds from “prominent members of Saudi society.”
- The revelation that Marc Garlasco, “senior military analyst,” is an avid collector of Nazi memorabilia casts serious doubt on HRW’s credibility and demands a close reexamination of his work for the organization.
- In a New York Times op-ed, HRW founder Robert Bernstein strongly criticized the organization for its anti-Israel bias and for ignoring severe human rights violations in closed societies.
- HRW has taken no action to implement Bernstein’s call to “resurrect itself as a moral force in the Middle East,” or the call from NGO Monitor’s International Advisory Board (including Elie Wiesel and Alan Dershowitz) to “institute a full independent review and reform in the organization.”
- In every instance of scandal and criticism, HRW officials (Roth, Levine, Whitson, etc.) responded with ad hominem attacks and ignored the substance.
In July 2009, Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Human Rights Watch Middle East North Africa(MENA) division, explained HRW’s conception of the Middle East:
“In terms of the major human rights concerns in the Middle East I would break them down into two categories … . On the one hand, there’s the general absence of the most basic human rights throughout the Arab world and Iran. And on the other hand … are the ongoing Israeli occupation of the [Palestinian] territories … as well as Israel’s wars in the region… . There’s a vastly discriminatory system of laws and policies in place that create a system of apartheid under any legal definition.” (emphasis added)
Beyond the ideological distortion inherent in Whitson’s words, an analysis of HRW’s activities in 2009 reflects, as it has in the past, disproportionate attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict: close to 30 percent of HRW publications in the MENA division concerned “Israel and the Occupied Territories.”
In addition to the disproportionate focus on Israel, HRW devoted significant resources to attacking critics and minimizing controversies within the organization, including:
- its disproportionate allocation of resources on the Gaza war;
- its promotion of former HRW board member Richard Goldstone in his UN “fact-finding” mission, including an inordinate number of statements in support of the Goldstone Report and UN resolutions that condemned Israel;
- a fundraising trip to Saudi Arabia led by “senior members” of the organization, including Whitson;
- the revelation that HRW “senior military analyst” Marc Garlasco, who wrote numerous reports on Israel, is an obsessive collector of Nazi memorabilia;
- exposure of the ideological biases of Whitson and MENA Deputy Director Joe Stork;
- a New York Times op-ed by HRW founder Robert Bernstein criticizing the organization for its anti-Israel bias and for ignoring severe human rights violations in closed societies.
I. Agenda Analysis: Obsessive Focus on “Israel and the Occupied Territories”
In 2009, HRW’s Middle East coverage reflected a pronounced and disproportionate focus on Israel (see Table 1). Analysis of the number of documents published by HRW on MENA countries in 2009 reinforces founder Robert Bernstein’s conclusion that “in recent years Human Rights Watch has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region.”
The data demonstrate that, as in previous years, Israel received far more attention from HRW than did Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria, and other chronic human rights abusers in the region. Only 12 of the 99 documents on the Arab-Israeli conflict focused exclusively on Palestinian actors, and several others gave equal attention to Israeli and Palestinian actors. However, a sizable majority focused narrowly on Israel, sometimes with a token reference to Hamas or the Palestinian Authority.
HRW’s concentration on the Arab-Israeli conflict reflects the political ideology of its officials, as well as the powerful influence of the media in setting NGO agendas. According to a study by James Ron and Howard Ramos, “watchdogs respond to media demand, and the more journalists ask about a country such as Israel, the more Human Rights Watch … will respond.”2 The values and principles that HRW claims to promote are thus relegated to secondary importance, at best.
Weighted for Resource Consumption and Impact
NGO Monitor also employs a weighted methodology in analyzing the types of publications to reflect resource consumption and relative impact (see Appendix 1). This analysis found that HRW focused most on Israel (455 points), followed by Iran (188), Libya (140), Saudi Arabia (116), Morocco (86), Syria (84), and Iraq (80). (See Table 2 for an overview; Appendix 2 for full results.)
Using this analysis, HRW publications on “Israel and the OPT” comprised 28 percent of the total Mideast output in 2009. This is an increase from 18 percent in 2008 and 15 percent in 2007, and matches the 2006 distribution (28 percent) based on HRW’s campaigns related to the Lebanon conflict. Israel’s score is higher than those of Iran, Libya, and Saudi Arabia combined.
Focus on Israel
The majority of HRW documents on “Israel and the OPT” describe alleged Israeli violations, with a heavy emphasis on accusations of misconduct during the Gaza war and HRW’s promotion of the Goldstone Report.
The number of items peaked in January during the Gaza conflict. In March and August, there were increases due to the release of reports alleging Israeli abuses during the war (Rain of Fire and White Flag Deaths). In the latter part of the year, HRW almost exclusively focused on advocating for the Goldstone Mission and Report (see Table 3).
The five extensive HRW reports on Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2009 were accompanied by public-relations campaigns that included press releases and multimedia items designed to amplify the content and messages of the reports. Nearly 50 percent of the featured multimedia items on MENA countries are about Israel.3 The combined length of the three reports targeting Israel (173 pages; Rain of Fire, Precisely Wrong, White Flag Deaths) is significantly greater than the two reports describing Hamas violations (57 pages; Under Cover of War, Rockets from Gaza). This allocation of research resources also reflects the disproportionate focus.
II. HRW and the Gaza War
Israel’s military operation in Gaza, launched in response to ongoing rocket attacks on its civilians, began on December 27, 2008 and lasted for three weeks. During this period, HRW issued at least 20 statements (one per day), almost all condemning Israeli actions as “violations” of international humanitarian law.
As in previous regional conflicts, HRW’s approach was to remove the context of terror and aggression in order to sharpen the perception of Israel as acting illegally. For instance, in an op-ed in Forbes, HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth made the accusation that Israel acted with “a determination to make Gazans suffer for the presence of Hamas – a prohibited purpose for using military force.” He provided no evidence for this far-reaching allegation.
The output of HRW documents peaked during the fighting, but attention on the Gaza war did not subside throughout 2009. Between March and August 2009, HRW issued five major reports on the Gaza conflict (out of 21 total reports in the MENA division in all of 2009). These reports were inconsistent, applied questionable methodology,4 and utilized evidence selectively to fit HRW’s agenda.
Charges related to white phosphorus (Rain of Fire) and “white flag” deaths drove a variety of NGO campaigns during the Gaza war, following the model of the “massacre” claims about Jenin in 2002 and Qana in the 2006 Lebanon war.
Rain of Fire (March 25, 2009), written by Marc Garlasco and four co-authors, was accompanied by a press conference and numerous media interviews. The report relied on Garlasco’s “military expertise” and on entirely unverifiable and often inconsistent Palestinian “testimony.” To make their case, as in the past, the HRW authors distorted or ignored evidence inconsistent with their pre-formed conclusions. Another Garlasco report, Precisely Wrong (June 2009), which alleges Israeli “war crimes” through the use of drones in Gaza, was similarly flawed. In response, a number of experts unconnected with HRW immediately noted the major technical errors in Garlasco’s claims. Yet HRW refused to issue retractions or correct the record.
The single HRW report on Palestinian violations of Israeli human rights during the war, Rockets from Gaza, was not published until August 6, 2009, long after media attention had subsided.5 This report covers no new ground and largely repeats the International Crisis Group’s report of April 2009. Moreover, the content of the report equates Israel with Hamas, fails to condemn Hamas for the use of human shields, and blames Israel for Hamas rocket fire from populated areas. Rockets from Gaza also ignores weapons smuggling into Gaza, as well as the role of Iran in supplying those weapons. In contrast to the condemnations HRW directed at Israel, its report on Hamas included no implications, and appears to be merely an attempt to create an artificial show of “balance.”
This report was followed one week later by another HRW report headlined White Flag Deaths, alleging that Israel deliberately killed civilians waving white flags. White Flags relied on conflicting Palestinian claims and reflected major discrepancies in Arabic-language and international media. Inconsistencies include whether Hamas fighters were present; the specific details of how the incidents transpired; and the number of casualties.. Reflecting the absence of credible evidence in the report, HRW was widely criticized. In response, HRW issued a press release, “False Allegations about Human Rights Watch’s Latest Gaza Report” (August 14, 2009), that claimed “Israeli officials are trying to discredit the report and Human Rights Watch by making false allegations.”
The extensive HRW activity on the Gaza conflict fed directly into the Goldstone Report, which was created by the UN Human Rights Council following intense lobbying by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Arab League, HRW, and the NGO network. (Judge Richard Goldstone was an HRW board member at the time of his appointment, and resigned due to the obvious conflict of interest.)
After Goldstone issued his report on September 15, 2009, HRW sought to gain support for the publication, releasing at least 12 statements in the following month. HRW repeatedly and obsessively pressed for the adoption of the recommendations and conclusions of the Goldstone Report, comparing the Gaza War to genocide and the mass atrocities in Darfur and the Congo. In this effort, HRW aligned itself with human rights stalwarts such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Libya.
The report copied many of HRW’s allegations, followed its “methodology” of reliance on Palestinian witnesses and evidence that could not be verified, and utilized HRW’s strategy of minimal criticism of Hamas in order to claim balance. Given that the credibility of HRW’s reports hinged on the endorsement of the Goldstone Report, HRW’s lobbying amounted to self-promotion.
Table 4 provides a comparative perspective on resources HRW devoted to backing the Goldstone Report. In total, HRW produced 34 documents on the Goldstone Report, an amount that surpasses the number of publications on the majority of countries in the MENA region including Libya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and others. Twenty-three HRW publications addressed the post-election crisis in Iran.6
IV. HRW Attacks its Critics
In 2009, HRW faced many organizational scandals and unprecedented criticism. Instead of addressing the substance of the criticism, officials invested heavily in ad hominem attacks to discredit NGO Monitor, Robert Bernstein, and other critics. For instance, Sarah Leah Whitson told the Jerusalem Post (July 16, 2009), “The Gerald Steinbergs of this world, and I guess now the Sharanskys of this world, love to give blanket denials, love to give blanket dismissals.”
HRW Program Director Iain Levine attributed the criticism to “[a] conspiracy … [an] organized campaign, and … coordinated attacks” (November 13, 2009). He further complained, “We are having to spend a lot of time repudiating the lies, the falsehoods, the misinformation.” Levine could not provide any examples of inaccuracies in NGO Monitor’s reports.
HRW in Saudi Arabia
Although HRW acknowledges that Saudi Arabia is one of the worst violators of human rights, in May 2009 HRW officials visited Saudi Arabia to raise funds. The Arab News reported that “senior members” of HRW – including Whitson and Hassan Elmasry, a member of the International Board of Directors and the MENA Division’s Advisory Committee – attended a “welcoming dinner” and encouraged “prominent members of Saudi society” to finance their work. The Arab News article cited HRW’s focus on Israel as the major reason for seeking Saudi funding: “The group is facing a shortage of funds because of the global financial crisis and the work on Israel and Gaza, which depleted HRW’s budget for the region.”
Whitson’s appeal for Saudi money acknowledged and cited HRW’s anti-Israel focus: “Human Rights Watch provided the international community with evidence of Israel using white phosphorus and launching systematic destructive attacks on civilian targets.” Whitson boasted that this “evidence” was instrumental in the UN’s “fact-finding mission to investigate the allegations of serious Israeli violations during the war on Gaza.” (The mission was headed by Justice Richard Goldstone, a member of HRW’s board at the time of his appointment.)
In pitching HRW to the Saudis, Whitson also invoked the canard of “pro-Israel pressure groups,” which, she declared, “strongly resisted the report and tried to discredit it.”
The fundraising trip was initially exposed in an NGO Monitor blog post, and then publicized by George Mason University Professor (and Volokh Conspiracy blogger) David Bernstein in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.
HRW Defense of the Saudi Trip
The public exposure of the Saudi Arabia fundraiser generated widespread criticism. In addition to NGO Monitor and Bernstein, critics included Jeffrey Goldberg (Atlantic) and Noah Pollak (Commentary). In response, HRW officials evaded the central issue – that the organization sacrificed human rights principles in seeking money from the Saudis and played up its attacks on Israel to appeal to Saudi prejudices. The facts in the Arab News story were not disputed, and HRW did not produce any documents, such as a copy of Whitson’s remarks or PowerPoint at the dinner, to refute the charges. HRW did, however, attempt to divert attention from the main criticisms by leveling accusations of “racism” and denying that HRW ignores Saudi human rights violations.
In correspondence with Goldberg, Roth accused critics of “lies and obfuscation.” Only after repeated questioning did Roth acknowledge: “It wasn’t a pitch against the Israel lobby per se. Our standard spiel is to describe our work in the region. Telling the Israel story – part of that pitch – is in part telling about the lies and obfuscation that are inevitably thrown our way.” HRW’s defense also included an irrelevant and non-substantive attack on NGO Monitor: “NGO Monitor … conducts no field investigations and condemns anyone who criticizes Israel.” (NGO Monitor focuses its research on accountability and bias in the activities of human rights organizations.)
HRW’s defensive responses also resulted in inconsistent statements from senior officials on its Middle East coverage. Whitson claimed that HRW maintains a fair balance of reports: “We treat Israel no differently from the 80-plus countries we cover.” But Roth admitted that a significant portion of HRW’s “finite resources” are devoted to Israel:
“We look at the worst abuse on both sides. It’s not that we’re exclusively focusing on Israel. But if the question is, ‘Why are we more concerned about the [Gaza] war rather than on other rights abuses [in Israel]?’ Well, we’ve got to pick and choose – we’ve got finite resources.”
“Senior Military Analyst” Marc Garlasco
Marc Garlasco, HRW’s “senior military analyst” since 2003, was revealed to be an avid collector of Nazi memorabilia. Omri Ceren (Mere Rhetoric, September 8, 2009) exposed Garlasco’s obsessive postings on Nazi memorabilia websites and publication of a 430-page book on Nazi-era war medals. This activity was not limited to earlier periods in his life but continued in parallel to his work for HRW, much of which focused on allegations of “Israeli war crimes.” In the period between 2004 and 2009, Garlasco was centrally involved in writing and publicizing numerous HRW reports condemning Israeli responses to attack. The nature and extent of his “military expertise” is also unclear.
Garlasco’s HRW publications and activities include:
- the 2004 Razing Rafah report, which he co-authored, used by HRW to justify its participation in the Caterpillar boycott campaign;
- the high profile “investigation” into the Gaza Beach incident in 2006, which falsely condemned Israel and included numerous fundamental contradictions;
- the report on white phosphorous use in the Gaza war, which he co-authored and which made several false claims, revealing Garlasco’s lack of expertise in this area;
- a detailed “research report” alleging Israeli use of drones to deliver precision-guided warheads; this report (June 30, 2009) contained numerous errors, such as relying on inaccurate technical claims.
HRW Defense of Garlasco
HRW’s initial reaction was to defend Garlasco’s behavior and discredit critics, by minimizing his offensive (and in some countries, illegal) activities:
“Many military historians, and others with an academic interest in the Second World War … collect memorabilia from that era … . To imply that Garlasco’s collection is evidence of Nazi sympathies is not only absurd but an attempt to deflect attention from his deeply felt efforts to uphold the laws of war and minimize civilian suffering in wartime.”
The HRW Press Office also posted responses on blogs that featured the story, and sent out a wave of false-identity “sockpuppet” Internet messages and blog entries, using identical postings from HRW.org’s IP address. Garlasco himself responded to the controversy in a Huffington Post op-ed: “I’m a military geek, with an abiding interest not only in the medals I collect but in the weapons that I study and the shrapnel I analyze.” Iain Levine accused the Israeli government of “trying to eliminate the space for legitimate criticism of the conduct of the IDF, and this is the latest salvo in that campaign.”
As the criticism mounted, on September 14, 2009 HRW decided to suspend Garlasco with pay “pending an investigation.” As of January 4, 2010, HRW had yet to release any news or updates on this investigation. The controversy casts serious doubt on Garlasco’s credibility as a “military analyst” or human rights reporter, and demands a close reexamination of his condemnations of Israel for human rights violations and “war crimes.”
Robert Bernstein: “Rights Watchdog, Lost in the Mideast”
The HRW scandals and controversies of 2009 culminated in founder Robert Bernstein’s highly critical op-ed in the New York Times (Rights Watchdog, Lost in the Mideast, October 19, 2009).
HRW officials and supporters responded to this devastating op-ed with a defensive campaign. Many of the press releases, opinion pieces, letters to the editor, and media interviews (more than 14) used identical language and format, repeating claims of balance, credible methodology, and “open” and “closed” societies made by Roth in Ha’aretz. These responses were misleading and did not address Bernstein’s most serious claims, including HRW’s role in “turn[ing] Israel into a pariah state” and its loss of “critical perspective” on Iran’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah. (See also Bernstein’s rebuttal to HRW’s response.)
In September 2009, NGO Monitor published an in-depth study of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East activity since 2001, Experts or Ideologues. The report included an examination of the ideological biases of key staff members, detailed case studies of HRW campaigns against Israel, and presented a quantitative analysis demonstrating the disproportionate focus on Israel within HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division.
Throughout 2009, HRW continued this disproportionate focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict and on advancing allegations of Israeli violations. As the organization’s founder, Robert Bernstein, stated, “Only by returning to its founding mission and the spirit of humility that animated it can Human Rights Watch resurrect itself as a moral force in the Middle East and throughout the world.”
In order to restore its moral foundations and credibility, HRW must review its disproportionate agenda and allocation of resources, its research methodology, and the ideological bias of its staff. Without such a major overhaul, HRW’s integrity and credibility will continue to erode.
- Previous NGO Monitor annual reports on HRW.
- Ron is a member of Human Rights Watch’s Canada Council.
- The work of the reports contradicted many provisions of the London-Lund Guidelines: International Bar Association, Human Rights Institute. “Guidelines on International Human Rights Fact-Finding Visits and Reports (Lund-London Guidelines),” June 1, 2009; http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/4a39f2fa2.html.
- Under Cover of War (April 20, 2009) describes Hamas political violence in Gaza.
- In this chart, the number for “Israel and the PA” includes the documents on the “Goldstone Report”; the number for “Iran” includes the documents on the “Iran Post Election Conflict.”
Points were allocated based on the level of resources required for HRW to publish that type of document, and the expected impact of that item.
|10||Single Country Report|
|4||Letter/Press Release/Written Statement/Memorandum|
|2||Multimedia Item/Oral Statement|
NGO Monitor followed the country-categorization on the Human Rights Watch website.
Full Results (Excel file)