Human Rights Watch continues to be very active regarding Israeli Palestinian issues, including the May 8, 2003, publication of a detailed report on human rights issues related to the proposed "roadmap" peace plan.1
The statement on the "roadmap" included a potentially important departure from previous publications and from the practice of many other human rights NGOs, stating explicitly that "Human Rights Watch takes no position on the territorial disputes that lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." If rigorously followed, this would form a positive precedent in reducing the impact of the dominant political and ideological agendas that have severely reduced the credibility and impact of these groups regarding human rights issues.
At the same time, however, HRW violated its own guidelines in using the misleading term "intifada" (which is designed to portray a deliberate campaign of terror as a popular uprising), and by expressing "dismay" at the failure to enforce UN resolutions related to the "Geneva IV" convention and "intended to protect civilians on the ground, including an end to attacks against civilians and Israeli settlement activity." Both issues are highly politicized (as are most UN resolutions dealing with the Israeli-Arab conflict) and take HRW beyond the central human rights issues that are highlighted in its mission statement. The 4th Geneva Convention of 1949 on "The Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War" was adopted following the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, but has been invoked in recent years in a highly partisan and selective manner as a political vehicle against Israel. And the definition and status of Israeli settlements are clearly political and territorial issues, to be negotiated in the context of a permanent peace agreement.
It is noteworthy that the U.S. Department of State does not view Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention as being applicable to the case of Israeli settlement activity. As a result, while the U.S. politically opposes this activity as unhelpful, it refuses to designate it as illegal.
As a result, the credibility of HRW’s calls for the addition of "basic human rights safeguards" to the "roadmap" has been diluted. The report also discusses the establishment of a "mechanism to monitor progress in the areas of human rights and humanitarian law" and the emphasis on the need for judicial reform of the Palestinian Authority, coupled with "the obligation on all sides to investigate and bring to justice individuals who commit serious abuses such as unlawful killings or deliberate attacks against civilians". The removal of the politicized references would have given these recommendations a more credible foundation. As a rule, international humanitarian law does not defend individuals who take up arms, who become, by definition, combatants.
This HRW report also includes references to the Palestinian Authority’s direct role in the campaign of terror, including the suicide bombings. It notes that "To date the PA has lacked the political will…to undertake good faith investigations and to bring to justice those responsible for attacking civilians….Human Rights Watch considers the scale and systematic nature of suicide attacks against civilians to amount to crimes against humanity." In addition, the report notes the role of incitement and calls attention to the "severe human rights violations by the PA security forces, which operated above the law. These violations including torture, ill-treatment, deaths in custody of alleged collaborators."
Unfortunately, HRW’s report continues the "politically correct" practice of ignoring the clear evidence of Yassir Arafat’s direct role in directing terror attacks, while also issuing blanket condemnations of Israeli actions that are designed to protect the civilian population. References to "systematic house demolitions and extensive property destruction for alleged security-related purposes" ignore the very detailed evidence regarding the Palestinian practice of using civilian structures for planning and executing terror attacks. Similarly, HRW’s continued denunciation of "unlawful killings" and "indiscriminate or excessive use of force" by the IDF ignore the absence of other means to protect the Israeli population against Palestinian terror attacks. Correction of these weaknesses in HRW’s style and approach would go a long way in increasing the effectiveness of this organization.
Addendum: On May 9, 2003, HRW issued a press release in response to the detention of a researcher (Miranda Sissons) who was in the offices of the International Solidarity Movement.2 The press release argued that "The ability to independently monitor human rights is an essential part of any process to resolve this conflict," and indirectly referred to Ms. Sissions in this context. However, HRW failed to note that the ISM is a blatantly pro-Palestinian political group, and that two suicide bombers from the UK who were responsible for attack in Tel Aviv a few days later had links to ISM. As a result, the Israel suspicions were certainly justified on human rights grounds. After the appropriate police investigation according to due process of law, Ms. Sissions was released by the Israeli police (a point that was not featured in any HRW press release).
2. Israel/OT: Human Rights Watch to Appeal Deportation of Researcher (May 9, 2003).