Sunday, March 28, 2010

Human Rights Watch - Obsession with Israel

The Sunday Times (London) has just published an article on Human Rights Watch's most controversial ex-employee, Marc Garlasco (whose hobby was collecting Nazi memorabilia). The article also nails HRW on their obsession with Israel/Palestine above other conflict zones in the world.
Every year, Human Rights Watch puts out up to 100 glossy reports — essentially mini books — and 600-700 press releases, according to Daly, a former journalist for The Independent.

Some conflict zones get much more coverage than others. For instance, HRW has published five heavily publicised reports on Israel and the Palestinian territories since the January 2009 war.

In 20 years they have published only four reports on the conflict in Indian-controlled Kashmir, for example, even though the conflict has taken at least 80,000 lives in these two decades, and torture and extrajudicial murder have taken place on a vast scale. Perhaps even more tellingly, HRW has not published any report on the postelection violence and repression in Iran more than six months after the event.

When I asked the Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson if HRW was ever going to release one, she said: “We have a draft, but I’m not sure I want to put one out.” Asked the same question, executive director Kenneth Roth told me that the problem with doing a report on Iran was the difficulty of getting into the country.

I interviewed a human-rights expert at a competing organisation in Washington who did not wish to be named because “we operate in a very small world and t’s not done to criticise other human-rights organisations”. He told me he was “not surprised” that HRW has still not produced a report on the violence in Iran: “They are thinking about how it’s going to be used politically in Washington. And it’s not a priority for them because Iran is just not a bad guy that they are interested in highlighting. Their hearts are not in it. Let’s face it, the thing that really excites them is Israel.”

Noah Pollak, a New York writer who has led some of the criticisms against HRW, points out that it cares about Palestinians when maltreated by Israelis, but is less concerned if perpetrators are fellow Arabs. For instance, in 2007 the Lebanese army shelled the Nahr al Bared refugee camp near Tripoli (then under the control of Fatah al Islam radicals), killing more than 100 civilians and displacing 30,000. HRW put out a press release — but it never produced a report.

Such imbalance was at the heart of a public dressing-down that shook HRW in October. It came from the organisation’s own founder and chairman emeritus, the renowned publisher Robert Bernstein, who took it to task in The New York Times for devoting its resources to open and democratic societies rather than closed ones. (Originally set up as Helsinki Watch, the group’s original brief was to expose abuses of human rights behind the iron curtain.)

“Nowhere is this more evident than its work in the Middle East,” he wrote. “The region is populated by authoritarian regimes with appalling human-rights records. Yet in recent years Human Rights Watch has written far more condemnations of Israel… than of any other country in the region.”

Bernstein pointed out that Israel has “a population of 7.4m, is home to at least 80 human-rights organisations, a vibrant free press, a democratically elected government, a judiciary that frequently rules against the government…and probably more journalists per capita than any other country in the world… Meanwhile the Arab and Iranian regimes rule over some 350m people and most remain brutal, closed and autocratic”.

Bernstein concluded that if HRW did not “return to its founding mission and the spirit of humility that animated it… its credibility will be seriously undermined and its important role in the world significantly diminished”. HRW’s response was ferocious — and disingenuous. In their letters to the paper, Roth and others made it sound as if Bernstein had said that open societies and democracies should not be monitored at all.
It turns out that even Garlasco was not as enthused about the anti-Israel line of HRW as his bosses in New York wanted him to be:
Associates of Garlasco have told me that there had long been tensions between Garlasco and HRW’s Middle East Division in New York — perhaps because he sometimes stuck his neck out and did not follow the HRW line. Garlasco himself apparently resented what he felt was pressure to sex up claims of Israeli violations of laws of war in Gaza and Lebanon, or to stick by initial assessments even when they turned out to be incorrect.

In June 2006, Garlasco had alleged that an explosion on a Gaza beach that killed seven people had been caused by Israeli shelling. However, after seeing the details of an Israeli army investigation that closely examined the relevant ballistics and blast patterns, he subsequently told the Jerusalem Post that he had been wrong and that the deaths were probably caused by an unexploded munition in the sand. But this went down badly at Human Rights Watch HQ in New York, and the admission was retracted by an HRW press release the next day.
Emphasis mine.


  1. Hi Rebecca,

    Happy Pesach!!! The article from the London Times is an excellent one. Thank you for underlining it.

    By the way, my son was just admitted to Vassar. Like father, like son!!!

  2. Thank you both, and N., congratulations on your son's admission to Vassar! I taught there for a year (1999-2000) in the religion department.

  3. Hi Rebecca,

    I majored in religion at Vassar but that was a long time before you were there. I was, back in those days, interested in Nietzsche. I suppose that made me an oddball in the department.

  4. Who was teaching in the department when you were there?

  5. I recall Professors Fortna - who was my advisor -, Mamiya, Glass -who was my thesis advisor -, Sullivan and Moore. I do not recall any other names.