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Terrorism / Asymmetric Warfare
HRW’s approach to terrorism erases the broader context of universal human rights, to create a one-sided focus almost exclusively on the rights of perpetrators.  In this section we trace the evolution of HRW from its defense of political prisoners in the early years of Helsinki Watch, to a near-myopic categorization of terrorists as the new victims.

A search of HRW’s website for articles on “terrorism” returns 74 pages of results.  The first page comprises 19 written items,113  18 of which condemn states for their counterterrorism measures.  Although HRW lists “terrorism” as a topic at the bottom of its website’s pages, only “counterterrorism” appears as a topic filter on searches.  On the topic pages, there are eight pages of reports on counterterrorism, and one page on terrorism.

Following the Mumbai terror attacks in December 2008, in which at least 10 coordinated shootings and bombings killed more than 175 people, HRW’s first statement was titled India: Respect Rights in Hunt for Mumbai Conspirators (HRW News Release Dec. 3, 2008; see also Herzberg 2008).   HRW’s “condemnation” of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center was all of three sentences long, followed by a caution to governments that “…in the struggle against terrorism, ends [don’t] always justify means” (HRW News Release Sept. 12, 2001).

This strong institutional bias that emphasizes criticism of counter-terror measures ahead of terrorist groups themselves is implicit in these activities. HRW proclaims a mandate to “bring greater justice and security to people around the world.” Given this aim and the growing phenomena of global acts of terrorism, often state-sponsored, one would expect to find a significant portion of HRW’s resources used for anti-terror advocacy.  Yet the evidence clearly points to a bias in favor of perpetrators.

This bias is particularly acute in the Middle East Division, where HRW frequently fails to condemn Palestinian terror attacks on Israeli civilians.  For example, on March 6, 2008, HRW remained silent following the Mercaz Harav Seminary attack in Jerusalem where a Palestinian opened fire in a school library, killing eight youths and wounding 11 others (Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs Mar. 6, 2008).  Sarah Leah Whitson’s only mention of the crime was in passing, in a document condemning Israel’s proposed response of demolishing the terrorist’s home. Whitson states, “The assault on Mercaz Harav Seminary… [was] appalling, but Israel shouldn’t respond by trampling on basic rights…the house demolition measures would violate international law because they punish people who are not even accused, let alone convicted of a crime” (HRW News Release Aug. 9, 2008).

HRW also regularly declines to condemn Palestinian rocket attacks as “war crimes” despite their clearly indiscriminate nature, which are intended specifically to terrorize the thousands of Israeli civilians living near Gaza.  On the one occasion in 2008 when HRW actually did label rocket attacks as “war crimes” this was done only when rocket attacks were paired with suicide bomb attacks (HRW News Release Feb. 6, 2008). HRW also consistently condemns Israel for any steps it takes to prevent attacks on its civilians (the security barrier), to stop supplies reaching terrorist organizations (Israel’s blockade of Gaza) or discourage terrorism (demolishing the homes of terrorists).

In contrast to thousands of pages of reports on Israeli “oppression” of the Palestinians, HRW published just one report on Palestinian suicide bombings in 2002 (HRW Report Oct. 15, 2002).  To its credit, this report did condemn suicide attacks and their supporters.  However, despite reporting the close links between Fatah and the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades,114  the PA’s payments to terrorists and their families, the suicide attacks perpetrated by salaried members of the PA, the laudatory comments made by PA officials regarding such attacks and the failure of the PA to bring any terrorists to account, HRW then claimed that “there is no publicly available evidence that Arafat or other senior PA officials ordered, planned, or carried out such attacks.”  This report was criticized by one observer as “too little, too late” (Richter 2004).  The author noted the significant rise in terror attacks beginning in 1995, and condemned HRW for its seven-year lag in researching this growing phenomenon, during which time more than 300 Israelis were killed.

HRW has also demonstrated an inconsistent approach to investigating state support for the “low-technology adversary” in asymmetric conflict. In its Erased in a Moment report of 2002, HRW reported on the funding of terror activities and/or payments to terrorists’ families from Iran, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.  Yet in its reporting of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, HRW blatantly ignored Iran and Syria’s significant support for Hezbollah. Ken Roth brushed off criticism of his NGO’s reports, stating that “Iranian, Syrian, and Lebanese governments are not currently fighting in Lebanon” (Roth 2006). HRW similarly declined to address the role of Syria, Iran and China in the Gaza conflict in 2009.

In this way, HRW’s serious failure to systematically investigate, monitor and advocate against the use of terror by Palestinian militants, fits with its broader organizational bias.  HRW claims expertise in the human rights implications of asymmetric warfare, yet focuses its energies on critique of national self defense, this in the face of a global rise in terrorism.