Revised date: December 23, 2007
Amnesty International’s new website headlines the statement "Stop the human rights Meltdown. Make human rights real." However, detailed and systematic research published by NGO Monitor and others, and cited by the Economist and the Wall Street Journal, have demonstrated that this “meltdown” has resulted from the failures of NGO superpowers. Amnesty’s only researcher for Israel and the Palestinian territories, Donatella Rovera shares the responsibility for this situation. Her claims in the interviews in Haaretz (‘Things are far worse in Algeria,’ Aryeh Dayan, December 12, 2007) and the Jerusalem Post (‘HR Issues were ignored at Annapolis’, Dan Izenberg, December 17, 2007) not withstanding, Rovera’s work reflects a lack the professionalism, credibility and scrupulous commitment to human rights, and she has consistently contributed to the politicization (and hence, the destruction) of universal human rights norms.
Lack of Credibility and Professionalism
Rovera’s "research," which Dayan reports "she herself gathers" during her 2 or 3 week visits to the region, 3 or 4 times a year, has repeatedly been proved incomplete, incorrect, or terribly biased. Rovera dismisses critics by blithely claiming that "they base their anti-Amnesty attitude on short reports in newspapers or on TV that describe in a sentence or two the content of reports that are over 80-100 pages." In reality, these analyses, including from NGO Monitor and other research groups, academics, and government officials, are sophisticated and detailed reports, which Rovera prefers to ignore.
In 2005, when faced with the evidence in the case of a particularly unprofessional Amnesty report on violence against Palestinian women, Rovera admitted that "the report was based on anecdotal information, primarily from Palestinian NGOs. "We talk to anyone who would talk to us," she said. When asked to provide a list of the NGO sources, in order to verify their claims, she said "there are things we can simply not provide to outsiders."
During and after the 2006 Lebanon conflict, Amnesty published major reports condemning Israeli responses to Hezbollah attacks. Numerous discrepancies were found between what Amnesty had reported as fact from "eye witness" testimony, and extensive documentation and photographic evidence that became available after the war. The example of human shields in Tyre is one of many – Amnesty claimed that "residents told Amnesty International that Hezbollah was not active in the area and the organization found no indication that the building had been used for military purposes.” In contrast, photographic evidence clearly showed Hezbollah’s bases and headquarters in Tyre, identifying it as "the center of operations for Hezbollah’s unit in charge of Fajr and 220mm rockets."
In June 2007, following the publication of Amnesty’s "Enduring Occupation: Palestinians under siege in the West Bank," a detailed response from the Israeli Ministry of Justice (MOJ) pointed out numerous inaccuracies, in addition to the clear bias that only presented the Palestinian narrative. For example, Amnesty (apparently repeating “eyewitness claims” without verification), claimed that "approximately 60,500 Palestinians will find themselves in the Seam Zone" (resulting from the separation barrier) and that "the Civil Administration rejects the majority of requests for entry permits" for this area. The MOJ put the maximum at 8,000, and demonstrated that 75% of permit requests were granted in 2006. Amnesty also cited the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) in alleging that Palestinians have only "restrict[ed]" use of Route 60 in the West Bank. The MOJ report noted that ACRI do not even make this claim, and that the Amnesty’s report was false. As in other cases, Rovera and Amnesty ignored the detailed MOJ refutation of their claims and failed to make any corrections to its report.
Dr. Michael Ehrlich, who served as head of the Israeli chapter of Amnesty through 1999, wrote in published articles, including a 2005 column in the Jerusalem Post ("Amnesty International Do Your Homework"), strong criticism of the weakness of Amnesty’s research structure.
Amnesty International’s false and distorted pattern of reporting is not restricted to the Middle East, and suggests a systematic failure in this powerful organization. In February 2007 researchers from the University of London found evidence of Amnesty’s research failures in reports on the conflict in Columbia! Using a systematic quantitative research methodology, they found that Amnesty follows a “non-systematic approach that includes opaque sourcing and frequent changes in the objects they measure.” Moreover, they list “failure to specify sources, unclear definitions, an erratic reporting template and a distorted portrayal of conflict dynamics” among the methodological problems.
Compounding Amnesty’s record of "creative" research, its clear political bias and double standards have done immense damage to human rights. The 2007 study on the Colombian conflict found that the NGO exhibited “bias against the government relative to the guerrillas," and NGO Monitor’s quantitative analysis of Amnesty’s Middle East reporting in 2006 also found a hugely disproportionate emphasis on criticizing Israel, while largely ignoring the real human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere. Even the mass killings in Darfur and Sudan were given less attention that allegations against Israel.
A 2006 study on Amnesty’s reporting conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Capital Research Center came to similar conclusions. In the study, CRC counted the number of news releases, reports, and urgent actions published by Amnesty International for selected countries and calculated the "reports per million citizens" for these countries. The results show that Amnesty focused on the United States at twice the average global rate, and on par with Saudi Arabia. Israel is the subject of the greatest number of Amnesty publications per million people with fifty-six times more reports per million than North Korea and twenty-five times more than Egypt. The CRC study also found that Amnesty, under the leadership of Irene Khan, has adopted “double standards on human rights” and “an unrealistic view on armed conflict, and propaganda against America and Israel.”
Rovera’s claims in the Haaretz and Jerusalem Post interviews illustrate this entrenched bias, and either ignorance, or a contempt for the basic norms of universal human rights. She "asserts most definitively that most of these [human rights] violations originate on the Israeli side" and justifies this by comparing the numbers of Palestinian and Israeli deaths. Even a basic understanding of International Humanitarian Law informs that the process, and the not the result of the action determines its legality; simple minded body counts do not reflect moral or legal responsibility for human rights abuses.
The interviews also repeat the way in which Rovera and Amnesty systematically erase the context of terror and the obligation to provide security, from the human rights framework. She states that "… there are many violations of human rights from the Israeli side, which have no Palestinian equivalent. I have not heard of any Israeli who… has had to pass through three or four Palestinian roadblocks. Nor have I ever heard of a Palestinian bulldozer that has demolished houses in Eilat." She omits the absence of Israeli suicide bombers and other core differences that do fit the standard paradigm of Palestinian victim and Israeli aggressor.
Rovera’s approach serves as a harsh reminder of the double standards that are responsible for eroding the moral standing of universal human rights. Critics including the editorial writers in the Economist and the Wall Street Journal have also condemned Amnesty’s highly politicized approach, while others have highlighted the NGO’s neglect of certain crises in favor of headline grabbers. Rovera admits that grave human rights violations in Algeria are marginalized because "Israeli violations … get more extensive coverage than similar violations in other places", but does nothing to change this distortion. This makes a mockery of Amnesty’s commitment to "deal with every violation of human rights, everywhere and in all circumstances."
Given this record, it is time for journalists, academics and diplomats to look beyond the “halo effect” that Amnesty officials such as Rovera cultivate. Amnesty is a prominent example of an NGO that has failed to meet its "commit[ment] to meeting best practice standards in operational excellence, confidentiality, public reporting and transparency."
Sarah Mandel is Associate Editor at NGO Monitor.