Transnational human rights networks span the globe, and have become more numerous and influential since the 1970s. Yet we still know relatively little about the strategic interaction between transnational advocates and their targeted state actors. Focusing on such a strategic interaction, we argue that transnational advocacy is less a diffusion of authority away from state actors than a change in the ways in which the politics of accountability is conducted between sophisticated state and non-state actors. In particular, we show that targeted actors (e.g. impugned states) can develop their own discursive capacities to challenge the facts and interpretations offered by transnational advocates and ‘turn the tables’ on them, expanding the scope of accountability to include the conduct of NGOs themselves. Empirically, we examine the efforts made by Human Rights Watch (HRW) to make the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) accountable during the Second Lebanon War of 2006 and the Gaza war of 2008–9.