Thursday, April 29, 2010

Human Rights Watch's Civil War Over Israel

Israel’s sort of like low-hanging fruit.
HRW boardmember
From now on, every HRW report on Israel is going to be greeted with "you mean the Saudi-funded HRW," or "you mean the report written by the woman [HRW Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson] who is a great admirer of Norman Finkelstein and lobbied Kofi Annan against Israel in the middle of the Second Intifada" or "you mean the report written by the guy [Stork] who supports the anti-Israel boycott movement and has been venting his hostility to Israel for almost forty years" or "you mean HRW, the organization that fails to take down from its website anti-Israel reports even when it has admitted they are inaccurate," and so on.
David Bernstein, The Volokh Conspiracy
In his article in The New Republic, Benjamin Birnbaum writes Human Rights Watch fights a civil war over Israel. On the one hand, we have a string of unflattering revelations about Human Rights Watch:
In July, HRW found itself under fire when a Wall Street Journal op-ed noted that the organization had solicited donations in Saudi Arabia by trumpeting the criticism it faces from “pro-Israel pressure groups.” In August, the blogosphere leapt on one of the organization’s top Middle East officials for having once been part of a team that edited a radical anti-Israel journal. And, in September, HRW suspended one of the primary contributors to its reports on the wars in Gaza and Lebanon after his private hobby—collecting Nazi memorabilia—became public.
But according to Birnbaum, an op-ed written in the New York Times last October by Robert Bernstein--the founder and former chairman of Human Rights Watch (HRW), attacking his own organization--is part of an underlying schism at Human Rights Watch on how it deals with Israel.
This debate goes back to September 2000, when the HRW board of directors voted 27-1 to publicly endorse the right of return of Arabs who left then-Palestine to back. According to Sid Sheinberg, the single vote, many board members later told him they agreed with him.

But the issue goes beyond political positions--it is an issue of what Human Rights watch has been saying about Israel and the emphasis it has placed on Israel as opposed to other countries. While in 2002, HRW did debunk the myth of the Jenin massacre--
It would take another five months for HRW to release a report on Palestinian suicide bombings—and another five years for it to publish a report addressing the firing of rockets and mortars from Gaza, despite the fact that, by 2003, hundreds had been launched from the territory into Israel. (HRW did issue earlier press releases on both subjects.)

In the years to come, critics would accuse HRW of giving disproportionate attention to Israeli misdeeds. According to HRW’s own count, since 2000, MENA 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.
The motivations behind what Human Rights Watch does are not focused purely on human rights abuses. As one board member admits:
“I think we tend to go where there’s action and where we’re going to get reaction,” rues one board member. “We seek the limelight—that’s part of what we do. And so, Israel’s sort of like low-hanging fruit.”
And of course, Human Rights Watch is not the only human rights group that sees itself forced to go after low-hangin fruit in order to get the reaction and the limelight it needs.

In a column in the Washington Post in June 2005, Pavel Litvinov, a dissident active in human rights causes in the Soviet Union who now lives in the United States, wrote:
Several days ago I received a telephone call from an old friend who is a longtime Amnesty International staffer. He asked me whether I, as a former Soviet "prisoner of conscience" adopted by Amnesty, would support the statement by Amnesty's executive director, Irene Khan, that the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba is the "gulag of our time."

"Don't you think that there's an enormous difference?" I asked him.

"Sure," he said, "but after all, it attracts attention to the problem of Guantanamo detainees.".
At least on can claim that in this particular case of Amnesty International, the goal was to get the spotlight on the issue, instead of on itself--but once a group finds it can manipulate the media in pursuit of one, there is always the temptation to do so for the other.

Another who believes there has been a decided change at Human Rights Watch against Israel is Edith Everett, a member of both the MENA advisory committee and the HRW board, a philanthropist who has donated millions to Druze Arabs in Israel. She says the change came during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war. She agreed with HRW's criticsm of Israel's use of cluster bombs--but not with their claim that Hizbollah was not using human shields to protect themselves and their weapons among civilians. She also felt there was less and less dialogue.

Then Human Rights Watch was forced to admit key discrepancies when a second report corrected its first one:
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.)
Bernstein examines the issue of the background of researchers who join Human Rights Watch, many who come from pro-Palestinian backgrounds. This is just explained away:
“For people who apply for jobs to be the researcher in Israel-Palestine, it’s probably going to be someone who’s done work on Israel-Palestine with a human rights background,” she [Sarah Leah Whitson, director of MENA--Middle East and North Africa division of HRW] explained. “And guess what? People who do work with a human rights background on Israel-Palestine tend to find that there are a lot of Israeli abuses. And they tend to become human rights activists on the issue.” For his part, HRW program director Iain Levine, who oversees the organization’s 16 divisions, acknowledges that people from many divisions—and not just MENA—arrive from “solidarity backgrounds,” but insists that, “when they come to the door of this organization, they park those things behind.”
That must be some crowded parking lot they have there at Human Rights Watch.

Speaking of Whitson, one gets a clear impression of where she stands on Israel when reading a letter she wrote to a colleague in reference to Norman Finkelstein--and Human Rights Watch as a whole:
“I agree w/ u that norm undermines himself and his cause w/ the language he uses, and his anger sometimes gets the better of him and his brilliant mind and generous spirit. I continue to have tremendous respect and admiration for him, because as you probably know, making Israeli abuses the focus of one’s life work is a thankless but courageous task that may well end up leaving all of us quite bitter.” [emphasis added]
At the same time, Birnbaum gives Whitson credit for reports on abuses of Palestinians in Iraq and Jordan over the past few years, as well as Palestinian-on-Palestinian violence in the West Bank and Gaza--and increasing the number of countries MENA covers.

An interesting revelation in the article is about Judge Richard Goldstone, head of the commission that wrote the Goldstone Report condemning Israel's actions during Operation Cast Lead:
Bernstein also raised some of his concerns with then-HRW board member Richard Goldstone, who would go on to write the U.N.’s much-maligned report on the Gaza war. There are few more reviled figures in Israel right now than Goldstone, but even he sympathized with Bernstein on certain points, such as the politicized nature of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which, after being created in 2006, had directed its first nine condemnations at Israel. In March 2008, barely a year before he accepted UNHRC’s mandate to investigate the Gaza war, he told Bernstein that he thought the body’s performance had been hopeless and expressed ambivalence as to whether HRW should continue appearing before it. He also agreed with Bernstein that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s increasingly aggressive anti-Israel rhetoric, in combination with his threatening policies, was an issue worthy of HRW’s attention. Goldstone pushed Roth to address it, but to no avail...For his part, Goldstone told TNR that he eventually came around to the view this [Ahmadinejad] was not an issue HRW should take up.

A second revelation comes in regards to Marc Garlasco, who resigned over his hobby of collecting Nazi paraphernalia. He was the go-to person when it came to analyzing armaments and reconstructing scenes of attacks.
Garlasco told him [former board member Steve Apkon] that he had reservations about HRW’s approach to covering warfare, and specifically some of its work on Israel—including research for which he had been the point person.

...On the one hand, he publicly endorsed HRW’s reporting on Israel, telling TNR, “I stand by every report I ever worked on as a factual representation of the events.” And yet, he also criticized elements of this work to Apkon—and others.
There's more. On the issue of Israel's use of phosporous:
But he [Garlasco] told multiple people that he thought HRW had placed too much emphasis on this issue—specifically telling one person that he had been pushed by HRW headquarters to focus on white phosphorous at the expense of topics he thought more deserving of attention because, he suspected, it was regarded as a headline-generating story. (HRW denies that it pushed Garlasco on the subject.) What’s more, while making legal judgments was not within Garlasco’s jurisdiction, he told Apkon that he did not think Israel’s use of white phosphorous amounted to a war crime. (In a subsequent report on white phosphorous, the first of six thus far on the Gaza war, HRW would say that evidence “indicates the commission of war crimes.”) [emphasis added]
Read the whole thing.

As this article details, Human Rights Watch is not evil, nor is it run by evil people--but there are people at HRW who have an agenda, but are oblivious to how much that agenda is affecting what they do.

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