Human Rights Watch founder Robert Bernstein’s highly critical op-ed in the New York Times (Rights Watchdog, Lost in the Mideast, October 19, 2009; see also Robert Bernstein’s rebuttal to HRW’s response) led to a defensive campaign by Human Rights Watch (HRW) officials and supporters. Many of the press releases, opinion pieces, letters to the editor, and media interviews (14 to date, as listed in Appendix 1) use identical language and format, repeating claims made by executive director Ken Roth in Ha’aretz.
As shown below, the three main themes repeated by HRW’s defenders are: balance, methodology, and “open” and “closed” societies. These responses are misleading and do 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.
1) “They say we disproportionately focus on Israel, and neglect other countries in the Middle East… Israel is a small fraction of what we do.” 1
This response from HRW greatly distorts Bernstein’s statement 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.” Bernstein specifically discusses Israel within the context of the Middle East, where even HRW’s misleading response admits a disproportionate focus.
HRW claims that “Israel accounts for about 15 percent of our published output on the region.” 2
Assuming this were correct, it would mean that HRW’s Middle East division, which covers 17 countries, focuses significantly more than the proportionate level of resources (6 percent) on Israel.
But the data show that this claim of 15 percent is highly misleading. In 2009 (through November 2), HRW has published 284 documents on the Middle East and North Africa. 88 (31 percent) of these documents have dealt with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Gaza. In comparison, only 39 documents focus on Iran. Of the 88 documents on Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Gaza, 5 are full-length reports, versus only 3 on Saudi Arabia, 2 on the United Arab Emirates, and 1 each for seven other countries. (HRW had completed and planned to publish yet another report, on “wanton destruction” by Israel in Gaza, in parallel to the Goldstone report. But the publication was shelved following the growing criticism. This is a tacit admission that the level of resources targeting Israel is excessive and unjustified.)
In addition, the more accurate weighted statistical methods used in NGO Monitor’s analysis demonstrates that in the past years (see 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008) HRW has issued many more reports and high-impact publications on Israel, accompanied by intensive media campaigns and calls for investigations and sanctions. The evidence of HRW’s disproportionate focus on Israel is clear.
James Ron (a member of HRW’s Canada Council) and Howard Ramos acknowledge and attempt to justify HRW’s disproportionate focus: “authoritarian countries are too small, poor, or un-newsworthy to inspire much Western media interest. As a result, Human Rights Watch…faces few incentives to engage.” In other words, media interest is more important to HRW than universal moral principles.
Ken Roth has also admitted that HRW’s limited resources are directed toward attacking Israel: “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.”
HRW’s allegation that “[o]ur critics…rarely find errors” is false. NGO Monitor and others have highlighted systematic factual and legal errors in HRW’s reports on the Gaza Beach Incident (2006), the Second Lebanon War (2006), “Drone attacks” (2009), and white phosphorous (2009). See NGO Monitor’s Experts or Ideologues: Systematic Analysis of Human Rights Watch for more details.
HRW’s entirely non-transparent “investigations” appear to consist of recording Palestinian statements in an interview process that is readily subject to manipulation, and publishing this “testimony” which is impossible to verify or evaluate. Often, as was the case in the Gaza War, HRW does not have access to battle-sites and witnesses until long after the conflict. Yet, HRW misleadingly refers to “on-the-ground investigations” that cannot be conclusive.
Many of HRW’s reports alleging “war crimes” by Israel were authored by “senior military analyst” Marc Garlasco (currently suspended), whose claims to expertise lack credibility.
“Our findings on Israeli abuses in Gaza have been widely upheld, including by Judge Richard Goldstone’s UN fact-finding mission.” 5
Goldstone was a member of HRW’s board and has a close relationship with Roth, which is reflected in Goldstone’s extensive reliance on HRW material in his U.N. report (at least 36 references). This self-referential process is hardly an endorsement of HRW’s methodology.
HRW has led the campaign to promote the Goldstone process and report, including over 30 statements between April 14 and November 3, 2009.
Echoing HRW, Goldstone has made the false claim that “there has been no attempt by any of its critics to come to grips with the [Report of the Fact Finding Mission’s] substance.”
“We also visited attack sites, analyzed ballistics evidence, and examined autopsy and other medical reports.” 6
Many HRW reports are filled with details– including descriptions of “attack sites,” “ballistic evidence,” technological and military information, statements by forensic pathologists, and “medical records” – that create the illusion of credible research.
However, this information is generally irrelevant to the allegations of “war crimes” and “human rights violations.” (See Pathological politics: HRW’s “white flags” report, NGO Monitor, August 18, 2009.)
3) “They argue that we should focus on ‘closed’ countries such as China rather than ‘open’ societies like Israel.” 7 “Human Rights Watch does not believe that the human rights records of ‘closed’ societies are the only ones deserving investigation.” 8
Instead of engaging in a serious debate on the allocation of resources in setting HRW’s agenda, Roth and other defenders have distorted Bernstein’s argument. While emphasizing the critical distinction between “closed” and “open” societies in assessing overall human rights records, Bernstein never calls for exempting the latter from scrutiny.
None of HRW’s defenders has rejected Bernstein’s distinction between Israel, which has “at least 80 human rights organizations, a vibrant free press, a democratically elected government, a judiciary that frequently rules against the government, a politically active academia, multiple political parties,” and the other countries in the region.
And in attacking Bernstein, HRW has also ignored his central allegation of failing to provide resources to help citizens from “brutal, closed and autocratic” regimes in Arab states and Iran, who “would most benefit from the kind of attention a large and well-financed international human rights organization can provide.”
- Ken Roth (HRW’s executive director) in Ha’aretz. Also in HRW press release, Bogert (associate director) in the New York Times, Bogart in BBC, MacLeod in LA Times, Neier (former executive director) in the Huffington Post, Porteous (London director) in the Jewish Chronicle, Porteous in the Guardian, Levine (program director) in The Forward, Ron (HRW’s Canada Council) and Ramos in the Ottawa Citizen, HRW in Times Online.
- Ken Roth in Ha’aretz. Also in Neier in the Huffington Post, Porteous in the Jewish Chronicle, Levine in The Forward, Ron and Ramos in the Ottawa Citizen, MacLeod in LA Times.
- Ken Roth in Ha’aretz. Also in Porteous in the Jewish Chronicle, Porteous in the Guardian.
- Tom Porteous in the Jewish Chronicle. Also in Roth in Ha’aretz.
- Tom Porteous in the Guardian.
- Carroll Bogert in the New York Times.
- Ken Roth in Ha’aretz. Also in Porteous in the Guardian, Porteous in the Jewish Chronicle, Levine in The Forward, HRW press release, Bogert in the New York Times, Olson and Fanton (HRW’s board chairs) in the New York Times, HRW in Times Online, MacLeod in LA Times, Neier in Huffington Post.
- HRW press release. See note 7.
HRW’s Defensive Responses to Bernstein
1. Human Rights Watch Should Not Be Criticized for Doing Its Job, Aryeh Neier, Huffington Post, November 2, 2009
2. Statistics tell the real story of rights watchdogs and Israel, James Ron and Howard Ramos, Ottawa Citizen, October 31, 2009
3. Bashing Human Rights Watch, Scott MacLeod, LA Times, October 30, 2009
4. Letter to editor from HRW, Tom Porteous, Jewish Chronicle UK, October 30, 2009
5. Credible approach on human rights, Tom Porteous, Guardian, October 30, 3009
6. Human Rights Watch Debates Its Mission With a Founding Critic, Gal Beckerman, The Forward, October 28, 2009
7. Human Rights Watch: We apply same standards to Israel, Hamas, Ken Roth, Haaretz, October 27, 2009
8. The value of the human rights frame, Helena Cobban, Just World News, October 22, 2009
9. Rights group denies Israel bias, BBC, October 22, 2009
10. Human Rights Watch and Israel, Letters to the Editor, Carroll Bogert, New York Times, October 22, 2009
11. Crossfire: A Rights Group and Israel, Letters to the Editor, Jane Olson and Jonathan Fanton New York Times, October 21, 2009
12. HRW dismisses allegations of bias against Israel, Amelia Mathias, The Jurist, October 21, 2009
13. Robert Bernstein, founder of Human Rights Watch, accuses it of anti-Israel bias, James Bone, Times Online, October 21, 2009
14. Why We Report on ‘Open’ Societies, Responding to Robert Bernstein’s NYT op-ed, HRW News Release, October 20, 2009