Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been very active in issuing statements and what are presented as research reports on the Syrian uprising against the Assad regime. However, a close examination of these activities demonstrates that HRW has very little reliable information that is not already available from blogs and other sources in Syria. Furthermore, this organization repeated and highlighted at least once major and demonstrably false “eyewitness testimony” from a fictitious victim of attacks by the Assad regime. In addition to these factual flaws, HRW’s track record demonstrates that for most of the repressive regime’s existence, they devoted minimal attention to Syria, and only became active in protesting human rights violations after the uprising began. In recent reports, the recommendations for policy responses are weak and without significant penalties, in sharp contrast to HRW’s numerous campaigns targeting Israeli responses to terror attacks.
On June 1 2011, HRW’s MENA (Middle East and North Africa) division published and promoted a 54-page report on the Syrian Security Forces attack on the Daraa governorate, headlined “We’ve Never Seen Such Horror.” This publication purports to recount numerous reports of torture, extrajudicial killing, and forced disappearances at the hands of the Syrian security forces. The report lists events following the mass protests in Syria in mid-March, and contains scattered references to the background situation (“a repressive police state ruled under an emergency law since 1963”) that inspired the protests.
Like many other HRW publications dealing with events in the Middle East, this report lacks a credible methodology, many of the claims are unverifiable, and the lack of quality control is evident. According to HRW, “This report is based on more than 50 interviews with Daraa residents and several Jordanian nationals conducted in person and over the phone in April and May 2011…. Additional information was provided by Syrian activists who have been documenting the events.” However, most of the substantive footnote referring to the interviews state “name and place withheld.”
An article in the Huffington Post blog reveals that some of the interviews were apparently conducted for HRW by Hani Hazaimeh, a reporter for the Jordan Times, who notes that the was hired by HRW on May 20, in the midst of the events in Syria. Hazaimeh apparently had no professional experience in human rights related work, and acknowledges his “personal conflict between passively listening and wanting to reach out to comfort those who have endured some of the worst human suffering I have ever heard.” While such identification with victims is understandable, Hazaimeh makes it clear that he had no means of verifying or assessing the credibility of the testimony.
In at least one important example, HRW published and disseminated a hoax – specifically, the invented tale of a “Syrian lesbian” using the name Amina Abdallah. Kenneth Roth, HRW’s executive director, tweeted the story in the Guardian, adding “Syria blogger kidnapped by armed men. Had written on uprising, politics, being a lesbian.”
Significantly and in contrast to HRW’s general lack of interest in the repressive nature of the Syria regime, the recent reports levels serious accusations, including long overdue accusations of crimes against humanity. The report on Daraa also marks the first time HRW has used the phrase “collective punishment” in the Syrian context. The “collective punishment” in Daraa, according to HRW, includes at least 418 deaths, extrajudicial execution of detainees, and indiscriminate firing at civilians by security services, as well as widespread accounts of torture and desecration of mosques.1
However, despite the evidence of major violations, HRW does not make substantial demands of the Syrian regime. The report does not call for extensive measures such as an arms embargo or comprehensive sanctions against the regime. Rather, HRW’s Middle East division asks that the Syrian government “carry out an independent and transparent investigation” of its own security forces and calls for the UN Security Council to “adopt targeted financial and travel sanctions on those officials responsible….”
In HRW’s report previous report on Syria “A Wasted Decade” (July 16, 2010), which covered ten years of research on Syrian human rights violations in just 35 pages, the organization similarly recommended a limited response, directed exclusively to President Bashar al-Assad. He was urged to enact, amend, introduce, and remove a variety of laws, and to set up commissions. To alleviate restrictions on freedom of expression, HRW urged him to “stop blocking websites for their content.” In a contemporaneous op-ed article, “Syria’s decade of repression” (The Guardian, 16 July 2010), HRW researcher Nadim Houry concludes with gentle prodding of Assad: “his legacy will ultimately depend on whether he will act on the promises” of reform he made upon taking office. “Otherwise, he will merely be remembered for extending his father’s…government by repression.”
HRW’s refusal to seriously challenge the Syrian regime prior to the current uprising, and its very limited attention to the regime’s repeated and systematic violations of human rights, illustrates the warped agenda of the organization’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) division. NGO Monitor’s detailed analyses of the biases reflected in the activities of MENA’s director Sarah Leah Whitson and deputy director Joe Stork also highlight the contrast between the soft approach regarding the Syrian regime’s activities and the harsh and unjustified attacks disproportionately condemning Israeli responses to assaults on Israeli civilians.
These ideological double standards were emphasized by HRW founder Robert Bernstein, who stated that the plight of the citizens of repressive Arab regimes “who would most benefit from the kind of attention a large and well-financed international human rights organization can provide is being ignored as Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division prepares report after report on Israel.” Similarly, in a magazine interview, an HRW board member admitted that “they go after Israel because it is like ‘low-hanging fruit’” – where it is easy, because of Israel’s open society, to generate reports on the conflict.
However, the real tragedy is not the disproportionate focus and biased attacks on Israel. Rather, HRW’s inaction regarding Syria, and many other closed societies, is the abandonment of the citizens of these repressive regimes, and is a betrayal of the universal values HRW claims to uphold.
- Regarding Syria, HRW defines the term as “punitive sanctions and harassment imposed on families or other targeted groups for actions that they themselves did not personally commit.” In contrast to this precise legal definition, HRW ideologically and inaccurately labels the blockade of Gaza “collective punishment”; similar blockades unrelated to Israel do not receive this label.