The references for this article are available here.


Human Rights Watch (HRW) was founded in 1978 in New York by Random House publisher Robert Bernstein, lawyer Orville Schell,1  and American Civil Liberties Union national director, Aryeh Neier. Initially supported by the Ford Foundation, and called Helsinki Watch, the organization monitored compliance with the 1975 Helsinki Accords by the signatory countries: the U.S., Soviet Union, Canada and Europe.  These accords, the culmination of the 1973 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), aimed to reduce tension by consolidating the status quo in Europe, and included commitments to respect human rights and basic freedoms, and to abide by international law.

Americas Watch followed in 1981, chaired by Orville Schell, with a focus on Central American human rights issues and conflicts, including U.S. involvement. Under Bernstein and Neier’s leadership, and with funding from the McArthur Foundation, Asia Watch was formed in 1985, Africa Watch in 1988, and Middle East Watch in 1989.  These “Watch Committees” formally coalesced in 1988 to form Human Rights Watch, a response from those “uncomfortable with the slowness and conservatism of AI [Amnesty International] in responding to changing patterns of [human rights] violations” (Welch 2001). Yet as Robert Charles Blitt (2004) argues, despite its founders’ intentions, HRW’s massive expansion in the 1980s resulted in reduced oversight and review, leaving it less reliable than Amnesty.

The end of the Cold War had two primary effects on HRW: first, the diminished world attention given to East-West tension brought increased focus on other regions; second, the reduced threat of nuclear annihilation created opportunities for more emphasis on the human rights principles that had been established following the Second World War through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  On this basis, the human rights community, including HRW, became deeply involved in the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. After the success of this effort, the movement expanded activities in other parts of the world, particularly in the context of protracted ethno-national conflicts, including the Middle East.

Throughout this period of expanding influence and resources, HRW remained a U.S.-centered NGO.  Robert Bernstein was the founding chair of a 33-member (now 35) board of directors, which meets in New York and consists largely of Americans.2   Kenneth Roth , who had been deputy director since 1987, replaced Aryeh Neier as executive director in 1993. Neier left to head George Soros’ Open Society Institute, a major HRW funder. Unlike Amnesty International, which stresses its wide membership base and multiple national branches, HRW is highly centralized – with offices in Washington and New York, and fundraising branches in Chicago, London, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Toronto.3


In 2008, HRW assets totaled over $122m, and its annual spending exceeded $42m, of which $31.8m went to “program services,” $1.9m to “management and general,” and $10.6m – one quarter of its total budget – to fundraising.4   Much of this income has come from established philanthropies, including the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the MacArthur Foundation, and George Soros’ Open Society Institute (Welch 2001). HRW publishes the names and amounts provided by some of its donors, but others remain hidden.
Although HRW claims to refuse funding from government organizations, Oxfam NOVIB, funded largely by the Dutch government, provided approximately $1 million in 2008 (HRW 990 Form 2009 and HRW Annual Report 2008, p. 50).  Since some HRW donors and their contributions are not listed, it is possible that other direct or indirect government funders are among them. A highly controversial HRW dinner held in May 2009 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia that included members of the government Shura Council, has been described as a fundraising event (Salti 2009).

Other donors acknowledged in HRW financial reports include Hassan Elmasry (a member of the Middle East Advisory Board involved in HRW’s May 2009 Saudi Arabian fundraiser6 ), Rasha Mansouri, the Lisbet Rausing Charitable Fund, the Sigrid Rausing Trust, the Moriah Fund, the Oak Foundation, the Streisand Foundation, the Silverleaf Foundation, the Banky-LaRocque Foundation, the Schooner Foundation, the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation, the Chicago Foundation for Women, and the Gruber Family Foundation.

Human Rights Watch – an NGO Superpower

With its global reach, plentiful funds, wide access to media and the contacts to influence policy makers in the United States, HRW has become an NGO superpower.  As NGOs marketed themselves as human rights researchers, fact-finders, and investigators, the growth in post-Cold War NGO power has prompted questions about the sources and scope of NGO influence, and the problem of accountability.

Human rights NGOs exert influence primarily through political advocacy – “mobiliz[ing] shame” (Blitt 2004) – to pressure governments and demand policy changes.  NGOs often set global political agendas on complex environmental issues, international law, and questions of war and peace. Powerful NGOs, including HRW, were among the main movers behind the creation of the International Criminal Court and the Land Mine Convention, established in the Ottawa Treaty of 1997 (Davenport 2005).

NGOs’ perceived moral authority, known as the “halo effect,” amplifies their power significantly. Sikkink (2002) identifies four prerequisites for making this power legitimate: impartiality, reliability, representativeness (i.e., people subscribing to the beliefs and world view of the NGO), and transparency.  However, NGO authority and power is most often assured by the appearance of these factors rather than any objective moral standing, a situation gravely compounded by the lack of adequate oversight.  This monograph argues that while HRW appears to fulfill Sikkink’s criteria of “transparency” and “representativeness,” the “impartiality” and “reliability” are largely absent, particularly in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Blitt (2004) illuminates the NGO network’s substantial role and influence in the international system, noting that the “human rights NGO community at large boasts an imperfect track record regarding objectivity and accurate reporting, particularly when operating in conflict situations.” He highlights the “inconsistent fact finding standards” in NGO investigations, which are inconsistent with their “quasi-adjudicative aura,” noting that NGO fact-finding missions remain ad hoc affairs that tend to operate fast and loose as far as procedural standards are concerned.” The importance of these dimensions is addressed in detail by the authors of the Guidelines on International Human Rights Fact-Finding Visits and Reports, known as the “Lund-London Guidelines” (2009).

Blitt (2004) also examines the role that internal dynamics and pressures play in NGO reporting.  In order to remain influential and attract donors, NGOs must maintain a high public profile, which means the number and frequency of reports can be a more pressing concern than their professional quality and accuracy. As will be demonstrated below, all of these problems are clearly exhibited in HRW’s efforts in the Middle East between 2000 and 2009.

Political Agendas or Universal Human Rights?

Human rights discussions and advocacy since the 1960s and the Vietnam War have been closely linked to political agendas and ideological debates.7  Like much of the NGO network in this period, the human rights movement was anti-establishment, suspicious of state power, and influenced by post-colonial ideology (Steinberg 2009).

In some cases, this agenda can indeed have positive effects on some human rights situations. However, such an a priori ideological commitment, broadly applied, compromises the credibility and neutrality of an organization. Blitt (2004) highlights the danger of politicization, noting that in this environment, NGOs risk “being manipulated as political pawns” or “co-opting the language and moral value of human rights as a veil for partisan objectives.”A 1986 report on human rights missions written by Hans Thoolen and Berth Verstappen and published by the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights, found that “in quite a few instances the sending of a mission is determined not so much by the objectively assessed need of the human rights situation elsewhere as by home-generated considerations.” Similar critiques based on anecdotal evidence have been published on HRW’s reports on Venezuela (Emersberger 2008) and Sri Lanka (AFP 2009). The London-Lund guidelines for NGO fact finding missions make the same points.

HRW’s approach to terrorism similarly reflects strong ideological and political agendas.  Following the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, HRW immediately issued a statement (HRW News Release, Sept. 12, 2001) rejecting President Bush’s commitment to “make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbored them.” Soon after, HRW further stated that, “Like the office workers in the World Trade Center, the ordinary women and men of Afghanistan do not deserve to die” (HRW News Release, Oct. 20, 2001), thus effectively condemning U.S. counter-terror military operations before they had begun.

HRW’s ideological and political agendas, particularly in combination with the resources and power they possess to gain media and diplomatic influence, are central issues for analysis. Kenneth Roth regularly appears on platforms with diplomats and government leaders in political contexts that include the United Nations, the Munich Security Conference8  and the World Economic Forum (Economic Forum 2008), making pronouncements on the major political conflicts and issues of the day.  HRW press releases and campaigns are widely publicized in the media, which habitually quote HRW staff on international law and human rights.

This monograph presents evidence of HRW’s systematic bias in their Middle East activities between 2004 and 2008. Using both qualitative and quantitative measures of HRW’s own statements and published material, this detailed research shows that HRW’s broader ideological agenda results in severe distortions in this region, and against Israel, in particular.

We carefully investigate three dimensions to illustrate this bias: 1) HRW’s staff and the clear evidence of hiring practices that favor anti-Israel activists, particularly in the Middle East Division; 2) HRW actions and claims from five case studies, revealing consistent lack of professional methodology, inadequate evidence, and biased conclusions; and 3) HRW’s agenda, uncovering the ways that HRW disseminates its anti-Israel ideology hidden beneath a façade of objective research. This study of the Middle East region is envisioned as a first step towards a broader analysis of HRW’s worldwide activities and impact.