That was quite an op-ed by its former head yesterday in the NYT. Robert Bernstein argued that violations of human rights were worse in closed than in open societies and that it was therefore important to focus on abuses in the former rather than the latter. That takes us back to the old moral equivalence debate. And Bernstein is obviously right that repression in countries surrounding Israel is exponentially worse than anything in the Jewish democracy. The question is whether that should lead us to ignore abuses by Israel or the US, for example, because overall, their records are far better. I don't see why we should.It's after that point that Andrew Sullivan get's into trouble. He claims Bernstein implies we should "ignore abuses by Israel or the US, for example, because overall, their records are far better."
Far from it.
Here is what Robert Bernstein actually wrote:
Bernstein is merely pointing out that considering the large number of human rights groups in Israel itself, Human Rights Watch should not be focusing on Israel at the expense of totalitarian countries in the Middle East.
Israel, with a population of 7.4 million, is home to at least 80 human rights organizations, a vibrant free press, a democratically elected government, a judiciary that frequently rules against the government, a politically active academia, multiple political parties and, judging by the amount of news coverage, probably more journalists per capita than any other country in the world — many of whom are there expressly to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Meanwhile, the Arab and Iranian regimes rule over some 350 million people, and most remain brutal, closed and autocratic, permitting little or no internal dissent. The plight of their citizens 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.
As a matter of fact, Bernstein does not even argue that Human Rights Watch should ignore Israel totally and only investigate the other countries in the region.
Sullivan's other argument centers on Bernstein's statment that:
...in recent years Human Rights Watch has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region.Andrew Sullivan responds:
Those reports were published in August 2007, June 2007, November 2006, September 2006, July 2008, April 2009, and August 2009 respectively. If you're wondering why he stopped at 2006, it's because no report came out about Palestinian abuses in 2005 and the one that came out in January 2004 covered 2003.
I guess "written" and "condemnations" is a vague formulation, so Bernstein may be referring to something beyond these reports. And violations of "international law" may be affected by Israel's many wars beyond its borders, compared say, with Egypt's or Jordan's. But in the Israel and Occupied Territories section, I counted several reports on both Israeli and Palestinian abuses. Here are a few Bernstein may have missed in the last two years alone:
The Egypt section is as long as that devoted to Israel and Palestine; the Iran section seems to me in need of urgent updating.Hezbollah’s Rocket Attacks on Israel in the 2006 War
Palestinian Rocket Attacks on Israel and Israeli Artillery Shelling in the Gaza Strip
Violence against Palestinian Women and Girls
The Perilous Situation of Palestinians in Iraq
Palestinian Abuses in Gaza and the West Bank
Hamas Political Violence in Gaza
Harm to Civilians from Palestinian Armed Groups’ Rocket Attacks
There are a number of reports on Egypt--6 in 2007 alone. However, there is also one in 2008 and none for this 2009. Have things gotten better in Egypt? Not for young Egyptian blogger Mohamed Refaat, who has been imprisoned since July 2008. HRW did come out with a report specifically about Gilad Shalit not being granted his rights under International Law--but made sure to mention accusations of Israel being guilty of the same thing.
On Lebanon, no reports came out from 2000-2005. Of the existing reports, there is one on Iraqi refugees and one on Sri Lankan workers--but other than one report critical of Hezbollah rocket attacks against Israel, no criticism of the Lebanese government.
Sullivan admits Human Rights Watch's shortcomings regarding Iran. Did he notice that from 2000-2003, there were no reports on Syria during those 4 years? Or in 2006 or 2008 either.
Does the HRW coverage of those countries compare to the multiple reports Human Rights Watch has put out year after year about Israel?
Andrew Sullivan claims that "I don't see an Israel obsession or an obvious anti-Israel bias on the website"--we can only assume that he looked through the website more closely than he read Robert Bernstein's op-ed.
Read also Gerald Steinberg's response to Sullivan.