Cliches are dangerous, especially when they are built around the truth. Are human rights watchdogs biased against Israel? Probably, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to dismiss everything they say. Then again, what if the watchdogs are so biased that it may make sense to dismiss their work out of hand? Sadly, that may be the case with regard to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
In the New Republic, Benjamin Birnbaum traces the evolution of a conflict within HRW that led one of its founders to denounce the organization in public for its unremitting bias against Israel. (HRW responds to Birnbaum here.)
Much of the trouble at HRW lies at the door of Sarah Leah Whitson, its director for the Middle East and North Africa. Birnbaum writes of Whitson,
As I stepped into her office for an interview in February, I noticed that a poster for Paradise Now, a movie that attempts to humanize Palestinian suicide bombers, hangs on her door and that two photos of bereaved Gazans hang on her wall.
To Whitson’s credit, under her leadership, MENA has avoided laying the Palestinian plight entirely at the feet of Israel (the past few years have seen reports on abuses of Palestinians in Iraq and Jordan, not to mention Palestinian-on-Palestinian violence in the West Bank and Gaza). Moreover, during her tenure, MENA has expanded the number of nations that it tracks. “In every country—even if it’s a small, tiny country like the United Arab Emirates—there are a lot of problems,” she says. “And, if you’re the one guy who’s being sodomized with a cattle prod by the ruler’s brother, then that’s a big problem. And you want attention for it.”
“She was the first person who actually ran that division competently,” says someone who has worked with Whitson. “Things in that division came together under her. Very energetic and committed. And she does get excited about a lot of other issues.” But, on the region’s most politicized conflict, Whitson’s allegiances seem clear. “She definitely has no sympathy for the Israeli side,” this person told me. “And she does, I think, have a lot of personal identification with the Palestinian cause.”
A hint of these inclinations surfaced in a January interview with a Moroccan newspaper. On the one hand, Whitson parroted the HRW mantra of neutrality in war. “We are not with this side or that side,” she said. “We are on the side of civilians on both sides of the conflict. We say that Israel is wrong when it targets Palestinian civilians and that Hamas is wrong when it targets Israeli civilians.” But she added, “Of course, no one can deny that the pain and destruction that Israel causes cannot be compared to what Hamas is doing.”
This may explain why,
According to HRW’s own count, since 2000, [Whitson's division] has devoted more reports to abuses by Israel than to abuses by all but two other countries, Iraq and Egypt. That’s more reports than those on Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria, Algeria, and other regional dictatorships. (When HRW includes press releases in its count, Israel ranks fourth on the list.) And, if you count only full reports—as opposed to “briefing papers,” “backgrounders,” and other documents that tend to be shorter, less authoritative, and therefore less influential—the focus on the Jewish state only increases, with Israel either leading or close to leading the tally. There are roughly as many reports on Israel as on Iran, Syria, and Libya combined.
In addition to focusing more on Israel, HRW seems to have trouble with the facts. During the 2006 war with Hezbollah,
[HRW] published a report on “Israel’s indiscriminate attacks against civilians”. (A report on Hezbollah rocket fire would not come out for another year, although, again, HRW did issue press releases on the subject in the interim.) The report said there was evidence suggesting that, in some cases, “Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians.” Critics, such as Alan Dershowitz and Bar-Ilan University Professor Avi Bell, jumped on the report and related documents, arguing that some of their assertions were highly questionable. HRW ceded no ground, accusing Dershowitz and Bell of “armchair obfuscations.” But, when it issued its more comprehensive report on Lebanese fatalities a year later, the organization admitted that the first report had indeed gotten key facts wrong. For example, an Israeli strike in the village of Srifa—the second-deadliest attack described in the first report—turned out to have killed not “an estimated 26 civilians” (as HRW had originally claimed) or “as many as 42 civilians” (as Roth later wrote), but 17 combatants and five civilians. “[E]yewitnesses were not always forthcoming about the identity of those that died, and in the case of Srifa, misled our researchers,” HRW wrote. Elsewhere in the new report, HRW acknowledged that the original had missed mitigating factors that cast some Israeli strikes in a different light. (There were also dozens of discrepancies between the two reports regarding names, ages, the timing of attacks, and other factual details.
Although there are many Israeli organizations committed to documenting, denouncing and preventing human rights violations, none of them has the global clout of Human Rights Watch. It would be much better for Israel, for the Palestinians and for HRW if the organization reformed itself and restored its credibility on this issue. But I’m not holding my breath.