For many journalists, diplomats, and political activists, Amnesty International is considered to be a highly reliable and objective source of information and analysis on human rights around the world.
But the halo that surrounds its reports and campaigns is beginning to fray, as the evidence of political bias and inaccuracy mounts.
Recently, the Economist, published in Britain, noted that "an organisation which devotes more pages in its annual report to human-rights abuses in Britain and America than those in Belarus and Saudi Arabia cannot expect to escape doubters’ scrutiny." Other critics, including law professor at Harvard, Alan Dershowitz, and the U.S.-based Capital Research Center, have been more pointed, providing evidence of Amnesty’s systematic bias and reports based largely on claims by carefully selected "eyewitnesses" in Colombia, Gaza, and Lebanon.
As Amnesty releases its annual report on human rights for 2006, amid highly choreographed public relations events, and repeating the familiar condemnations of Israel and America, NGO Monitor has also published a report on Amnesty’s activities in the Middle East. The result is not a pretty picture for those clinging to the "halo effect."
Using a detailed and sophisticated qualitative model for comparing relative resources devoted to the different countries, this report clearly shows that in 2006, Amnesty singled out Israel for condemnation of human rights to a far greater extent than Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria, Egypt, and other chronic abusers of human rights.
During the year, Amnesty issued 48 publications critical of Israel, compared to 35 for Iran, 2 for Saudi Arabia, and only 7 for Syria.
Many of the attacks directed at Israel took place during the war with Hezbollah, but this terror group and state-within-a-state also got relatively little attention from Amnesty.
Furthermore, as Amnesty has almost no professional researchers, many of the "factual" claims in these reports were provided by "eyewitnesses," whose political affiliations and credibility can be only guessed. And the language used in these reports also reflects an obsessive and unjustified singling out of Israel, with frequent use of terms such "disproportionate attacks," "war crimes," and "violations of international humanitarian law."
And while Amnesty International was founded to fight for the freedom of political prisoners, the officials in charge of this organization failed to issue a single statement calling for the release of the Israeli soldiers that were kidnapped by Hezbollah and Hamas, and who have not been heard from since their illegal capture.
These and many other details published in NGO Monitor’s report on Amnesty provide further evidence that this powerful NGO has lost its way, and is no longer a "respectable" or credible human rights organization.
These fundamental defects extend beyond the Middle East. Researchers from a Bogota-based conflict think tank, the University of London and the Conflict Analysis Resource Center, reached similar conclusions about reports on the conflict in Colombia.
In their report, "The Work of Amnesty International and Human Rights
Watch: Evidence from Colombia," the authors state that both groups follow a "non-systematic approach that includes opaque sourcing and frequent changes in the objects they measure." In other words, these reports are biased and lack credibility.
Moreover, they note the "failure to specify sources, unclear definitions, an erratic reporting template and a distorted portrayal of conflict dynamics" among the methodological problems with Amnesty International’s publications, adding to evidence of "bias against the government relative to the guerrillas."
These problems are compounded by the absence of transparency and any system of checks and balances among these powerful political actors.
In contrast to the democratic governments that Amnesty officials frequently denounce and condemn, including Israel, NGOs are not subject to independent accountability.
No one outside the inner circle knows how or why they choose their particular "targets," or how they assess the "evidence," or write their reports. And officials such as Amnesty’s Irene Khan are often in power and in control of massive budgets for many years, without significant challenges or competition.
Given this situation, the time is long past due for ending the "halo effect" that surrounds powerful groups such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. Their reports should not be given automatic credibility by journalists, diplomats, academics, and individuals genuinely committed to the universality of human rights principles.
Rather than publicizing their reports and endorsing their campaigns, the publications of Amnesty and similar groups need to be subjected to the same type of independent questioning as is done for reports issued by governments and other political organizations.
Mr. Steinberg is the executive director of NGO Monitor and professor of political studies at Bar Ilan University.