The principle that basic human rights must be safeguarded internationally, and that traditional rules of national sovereignty should not be allowed to interfere, is a direct consequence of the Holocaust. A United Nations commission and powerful nongovernmental organizations were created to promote this code, and they did it successfully. This framework played a key part in gaining the freedom of political prisoners in the Soviet Union, exposing torture by the military dictatorships of Latin America and other accomplishments. Jews were very instrumental in this process, particularly through the work of Helsinki Watch, which became Human Rights Watch.

But in the past decade, the norms of universal human rights have been replaced by a narrow and particularistic political agenda. The UN Human Rights Commission, which is meeting again this month in Geneva, became a leader in the campaign to demonize Israel as an “apartheid state.” It has been aided and abetted by the NGO community, including HRW. The NGO forum of the UN Human Rights Commission’s 2001 Durban conference on “racism and xenophobia” was a focus for vicious Israel bashing while suicide bombings were killing hundreds.

New York-based HRW, led by a former prosecutor named Ken Roth, has focused an inordinate portion of its energies and resources against Israel. Roth brought in Joe Stork, a major figure in the radical political group that publishes MERIP, which took a consistent pro-PLO and anti-Israel position. Additional funding was used to employ Sarah Leah Whitson and, more recently, Lucy Mair. Whitson had been associated with an extremist group known as MADRE, and Mair’s credentials include writing for the Electronic Intifada, an explicitly pro-Palestinian political and ideological Web site. Mair’s publications are studded with stereotypes of innocent Palestinian victims and brutal Israeli soldiers, with no mention of terrorism.

These Durban-style political biases are reflected in HRW’s consistent stream of reports, press conferences, letters, e-mails and other activities that condemn Israeli policies. These reports, more than 100 in the past four years, far exceed HRW’s declarations on the mass killings in Sudan and other areas where human rights are being systematically violated. This has created two standards of conduct — one for Israel, and one for everyone else.

HRW reports on Israel mix a clear political position against the “occupation” with the bald assertion that Israeli anti-terror policies are illegal. Its report on the 2002 Israeli army operation in Jenin, while noting that there was no massacre, unjustly accused Israeli soldiers of “war crimes.” Similarly, a 135-page report titled “Razing Rafah,” accompanied by a public relations campaign led by Roth, is filled with unverified Palestinian “eyewitness” reports alleging Israeli violations of international law.

Using this indictment, HRW’s current campaign focuses on firms selling protected machines used by the Israel Defense Forces to destroy buildings in which terrorists are hiding, or where weapons and explosives are prepared. (The alternative would be to use aircraft to bomb these targets, or simply allow Palestinian terrorists to kill Israeli civilians.)

In this way, HRW is abetting the “boycott Israel” campaign that recently received the endorsement of the Presbyterians and the World Council of Churches and is the core of the Durban strategy of delegitimizing Israel as a “racist apartheid state.”

HRW’s obsession, which is common to many NGOs that reflect an anti-American, anti-Israel and post-colonial ideology, has totally distorted the human rights agenda. The objectives of the authors of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights are entirely inconsistent with demonizing the efforts of Israeli Jews to protect themselves against war and terror. And when the Israeli government and military do make mistakes in judgment, the coinage of human rights rhetoric has been so debased and politicized as to strip it of any impact.

In order to rectify this situation and restore the universality of human rights principles, HRW and other NGOs with multimillion-dollar budgets need a system of independent checks and balances on their power. The NGO superpowers that preach political ethics to others are among the most secretive and closed organizations. Transparency should be the norm in their decision-making processes, including budgets and priorities for public relations and political campaigns, as well as critical employment procedures. And it is time to remove the “halo effect,” which has allowed Roth and other individuals in the NGO network to act without consultation and approval, even from board members and donors.

In a democratic society, all government organizations are subject to such controls, and the same is true for other sources of power. The major news organizations recognize the need for an ombudsman or “public editor” to challenge and often criticize the prejudices and lack of professional conduct of senior journalists and editors. Even the prickly BBC has created a review process to consider complaints about its biased coverage of the Middle East in order to try and restore its shattered credibility.

Political NGO superpowers such as HRW must now be brought into a similar framework, including transparency and the creation of independent and active review mechanism. This would require an allocation of at least 5 percent of available funds, and the appointment of a professional staff whose power, salaries and advancement are not subject to the control of Roth or his inner group. To restore the principles of truly universal human rights, protected from private ideologies and obsessions, it is necessary to “watch the watchers.”