Criticism of Human Rights Watch
The international non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been criticized by national governments, other NGOs, the media and its founder (and former chairman), Robert L. Bernstein. Criticism falls into one of two general categories: poor research or inaccurate reporting and (more commonly) bias. Bias allegations include the organization's being influenced by United States government policy, particularly in relation to reporting on Latin America; ignoring anti-Semitism in Europe, or being anti-Semitic itself; the Arab–Israeli conflict; and the misrepresentation of human-rights issues in Eritrea and Ethiopia. Accusations in relation to the Arab–Israeli conflict include claims that HRW is biased against Israel, demonstrated by its requesting (or accepting) donations from Saudi Arabian citizens. HRW has publicly responded to criticism of its reporting on Latin America and the Arab–Israeli conflict.
- 1 Allegations of poor research and inaccuracy
- 2 Allegations of bias
- 2.1 Ideological and selection bias
- 2.2 Bias regarding particular nations
- 2.2.1 Latin America
- 2.2.2 Arab–Israeli conflict
- 2.2.3 Africa
- 2.2.4 Asia
- 3 See also
- 4 References
- 5 External links
Allegations of poor research and inaccuracy
Rupert Murdoch, owner of The Times, accused HRW of lacking sufficient expertise to report on warfare because the organization has never hired former military members (with the exception of Marc Garlasco). The Times accused HRW of overriding its own researcher, who wished to rescind a factually-inaccurate report accusing Israel of responsibility for the 2006 Gaza beach explosion.
HRW has been accused of evidence-gathering bias because it is said to be "credulous of civilian witnesses in places like Gaza and Afghanistan" but "skeptical of anyone in a uniform." Its founder, Robert Bernstein, accused the organization of poor research methods and relying on "witnesses whose stories cannot be verified and who may testify for political advantage or because they fear retaliation from their own rulers." According to The Times, HRW "does not always practice the transparency, tolerance and accountability it urges on others." In 2012, New Europe said that HRW "allegedly erased references in its reports to its previous cooperation with the Gaddafi regime, including the role of the organization's MENA Director, Sarah Leah Whitson, in marketing Saif al-Islam Gaddafi as a reformer."
HRW has also been criticized for accusing the army of Ukraine of using cluster bombs in the war against the insurgents in the east of the country. The research by HRW is said to have been carried out in the very short period of one week.
Allegations of bias
Ideological and selection bias
In October 2009, Bernstein said that the organization had lost critical perspective on events in the Middle East: "[T]he 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 for violations of international law than of any other country in the region." Tom Porteus, director of the HRW's London branch, replied that the organization rejected Bernstein's "obvious double standard. Any credible human rights organization must apply the same human rights standards to all countries." The Times accused HRW of imbalance, alleging that it ignores human-rights abuses in certain regimes while covering other conflict zones (notably Israel) intensively. Although HRW issued five reports on Israel in one fourteen-month period, in twenty years it issued only four reports on the conflict in Kashmir (despite 80,000 conflict-related deaths in Kashmir and "torture and extrajudicial murder ... on a vast scale") and no report on post-election violence and repression in Iran. A source told The Times, "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." The newspaper also accused HRW of failing to report on human-rights abuses of Arabs when "perpetrators are fellow Arabs."
In the February 2013 issue of The Spectator Nick Cohen wrote, "Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch look with horror on those who speak out about murder, mutilation and oppression if the murderers, mutilators and oppressors do not fit into their script." Robert Bernstein accused HRW of allowing repressive regimes to play a "moral equivalence game", failing to weigh evidence according to whether it was collected from an open or closed society and failing to recognize any "difference between wrongs committed in self-defense and those perpetrated intentionally." The Times accused HRW of filling its staff with former radical political activists, including Joe Stork and Sarah Leah Whitson: "Theoretically an organization like HRW would not select as its researchers people who are so evidently on one side." HRW has been accused of being unwilling (or unable) to perceive threats posed by radical Islam because their leftist ideology leads them to see criticism of Hezbollah, Hamas, Al Qaeda and similar groups as "a dangerous distraction from the real struggle." An example was a 2006 verbal attack on Peter Tatchell, who was accused of racism, Islamophobia and colonialism by HRW staff for criticizing Iran's execution of homosexuals.
Bias regarding particular nations
Claims have been made regarding alleged HRW bias with regard to Haiti, Venezuela and Honduras. Robert Naiman, policy director of Just Foreign Policy, wrote that HRW is "often heavily influenced" by United States foreign policy.
The 2004 Haiti rebellion was a coup d'etat which removed elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti voluntarily (according to US authorities and Aristide's bodyguards) or involuntarily (according to Aristide) from the Americas on a US plane, accompanied by his bodyguards, on 29 February 2004. Z Communications writer Joe Emersberger said that HRW accurately reported on human-rights violations in Haiti after a 1991 coup attempt against Aristide, but was inaccurate in its reporting of the relative number of deaths before and after the 2004 coup. Emersberger estimated the number of deaths at about 20–30 per year before the 2004 coup, and 1,000 during the first month after it. He said, "HRW's reports were not only inexcusably sparse, but they legitimized the overthrow of Aristide" and HRW "knew that criminals were being incorporated into the police; yet they were silent about this contributing factor to the abuses that occurred under Aristide."
Human Rights Watch work in Venezuela became controversial in September 2008, when the country expelled two HRW staff members accused of "anti-state activities". Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said, "These groups, dressed up as human rights defenders, are financed by the United States. They are aligned with a policy of attacking countries that are building new economic models." After HRW published a report (A Decade Under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela) documenting Chavez government abuses, 118 scholars from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Mexico, the US, the UK, Venezuela and other countries signed a letter criticizing the organization for a perceived bias against the government of Venezuela. The open letter criticized the report, saying that it "does not meet even the most minimal standards of scholarship, impartiality, accuracy, or credibility." Hugh O'Shaughnessy accused HRW of using false and misleading information, saying that the report was "put together with [a] sort of know-nothing Washington bias." HRW director Kenneth Roth responded that the letter misrepresents "both the substance and the source material of the report". Tom Porteous, Human Rights Watch's London director, said that O'Shaughnessy " ... not only fails to provide any evidence for these allegations", but " ... more seriously, he misrepresents HRW's positions in his apparent determination to undermine our well earned international reputation for accuracy and impartiality."
On August 21, 2009 93 academics and authors from the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Colombia and other countries published an open letter criticizing HRW's "absence of statements and reports" on human-rights violations in Honduras after 8 July 2009, following the 28 June coup d'état. According to its authors, after 8 July HRW had not "raised the alarm over the extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detentions, physical assaults, and attacks on the press - many of which have been thoroughly documented - that have occurred in Honduras, in most cases by the coup regime against the supporters of the democratic and constitutional government of Manuel Zelaya"; they asked HRW to make a strong statement against the human-rights violations and conduct its own investigation. The letter's signers said that the Obama administration was supporting the de facto Roberto Micheletti government by providing "aid money through the Millennium Challenge Account and other sources", training Honduran military students at the School of the Americas and ignoring Honduras' human-rights situation. Four days later, HRW published a summary of the preliminary version of a Honduran human-rights report by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) published on 21 August and cited its earlier reports (published until 8 July): "Given the scope of alleged abuses, and the region's history of bloody coups leading to massive violations, human rights advocates believed the situation warranted the direct intervention of the region's most authoritative human rights investigative body, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights."
According to HRW co-founder and former executive director Aryeh Neier, it "is wrong to suggest that open societies should be spared criticism for human rights abuses". Neier also said that Robert Bernstein's distinction between "wrongs committed in self-defense and those committed intentionally" is not made by the laws of war and is dangerous. On such grounds, groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq (which murdered tens of thousands of civilians after the 2003 American invasion) could justify their crimes.
For a Jerusalem Post article, Natan Sharansky said: "Here is an organization created by the goodwill of the free world to fight violations of human rights, which has become a tool in the hands of dictatorial regimes to fight against democracies ... It is time to call a spade a spade. The real activity of this organization today is a far cry from what it was set up 30 years ago to do: throw light in dark places where there is really no other way to find out what is happening regarding human rights." HRW executive director Kenneth Roth responded that "Israel accounts for about 15 percent of our published output on the region" and "our war coverage in the region has documented violations by all sides". According to Roth, "By failing to hold those responsible to account, Israel increases anger and resentment among the Palestinian population and in the wider Arab world and undercuts moderates who wish to pursue peace." Time Mideast correspondent Scott MacLeod wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Israeli policy cannot be shielded from a group like Human Rights Watch.
HRW has been accused of bias against Israel (issuing one-sided reports hostile to Israel and having an anti-Israeli agenda) by general-circulation newspapers, the Israeli government and supporters of Israel. Political science professor and former consultant to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs Gerald M. Steinberg of Bar Ilan University, head of NGO Monitor (a pro-Israel NGO), accused HRW of having "a strong anti-Israel bias from the beginning". According to Steinberg, the organization's reports were based primarily on "Palestinian eyewitness testimony": testimony that is "not accurate, objective or credible but serves the political goal of indicting Israel". In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, law professor David Bernstein called HRW "maniacally anti-Israel". Spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu Mark Regev said: "We discovered during the Gaza operation and the Second Lebanon War that these organizations come in with a very strong agenda, and because they claim to have some kind of halo around them, they receive a status that they don't deserve," referring to HRW and Amnesty International allegations of human-rights violations by Israeli forces during those conflicts.
The organization has also been accused of ignoring anti-Semitism or being anti-Semitic itself. In a 2005 speech to the Anti-Defamation League former Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio said, "NGOs like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International pay little attention to anti-Semitism." The ADL has also suggested that criticism of Israel may be motivated by anti-Semitism. In The New York Sun, ADL national director Abraham Foxman criticized Roth's use of "a classic anti-Semitic stereotype about Jews".
HRW Middle East and North Africa division director Sarah Leah Whitson responded to criticism: "In the case of Israel, where our focus is primarily on the violations of international law and humanitarian law in the occupied Palestinian territories, the fact that government is a democracy is completely irrelevant, because the rule in place in the occupied territories is military rule, it is not a democracy". In July 2009, Jerusalem Post columnist Larry Derfner accused Israel's Prime Minister's Office and NGO Monitor of "smearing" human-rights organizations in response to the criticism of HRW. HRW program director Iain Levine said in August 2009, "If the Israeli government wants to silence critics, it should fully investigate allegations of wrongdoing and take action to end the abuses." In a Jerusalem Post op-ed piece that month, Kenneth Roth wrote that reports of recent Israeli human-rights violations had "given rise to an intense campaign by the Israeli government and some of its uncritical supporters to smear the messengers and change the subject." According to Roth, the "problem is not the messenger carrying news of that misconduct, whether Judge Goldstone or the human rights groups that have been the target of a disinformation campaign launched by the Israeli government and some supporters. The problem is the conduct of the Israeli military." According to The Times, "most" HRW Middle East staff "have activist backgrounds — it was typical that one newly hired researcher came to HRW from the extremist anti-Israel publication Electronic Intifada — unlikely to reassure anyone who thinks that human-rights organizations should be non-partisan."
In a November 2012 Wall Street Journal article, David Feith said that there has been "bitter debate" within HRW about whether Iran's call for annihilation of Israel is a violation of human rights. HRW vice-chair Sid Sheinberg wrote in an internal email that doing nothing while Ahmadinejad wants to "kill Jews and annihilate Israel ... is a position unworthy of our great organization." According to Kenneth Roth, "Tehran isn't inciting genocide and claims to the contrary are part of an effort to beat the war drums against Iran."
In an analysis published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Ron Kampeas criticized HRW reports: "Reconstructions of the horrific death of civilians replete with painstakingly gathered evidence are coupled with bewildering omissions of context and blended into a package that assumes an inherent Israeli immorality" and denounced "efforts to turn criticism of individual officers and soldiers into a wholesale indictment of Israel’s military establishment and the decision to resort to military force." According to Kampeas, HRW reports on the 2009 fighting in Gaza "fail to assess evidence — including videos of Israeli forces holding their fire because of the presence of civilians — that Israel has provided to show that such incidents were the exception to the rule; they fail to examine what measures Israel has taken to prevent civilian deaths, which would be pertinent in examining any claim of war crimes."
In October 2009, Robert Bernstein criticized the organization's policy in the Middle East in a New York Times op-ed. According to Bernstein, "With increasing frequency, [HRW] casts aside its important distinction between open and closed societies ... 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 for violations of international law than of any other country in the region." HRW London branch director Tom Porteus replied that the organization rejected Bernstein's "obvious double standard. Any credible human rights organization must apply the same human rights standards to all countries." Jane Olson and Jonathan Fanton wrote in a letter to the New York Times, "We were saddened to see Robert L. Bernstein argue that Israel should be judged by a different human rights standard than the rest of the world ... As long as open societies commit human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch has a vital role to play in documenting those violations and advocating to bring them to an end." According to the organization, in April 2009 Bernstein brought his concerns to the HRW board of directors; the board unanimously rejected his view that Human Rights Watch should report only on closed societies, expressing its full support for the organization's work.
The New Republic published a lengthy article about HRW in April 2010, criticizing the organization for "giving disproportionate attention to Israeli misdeeds." "Robert James—a businessman, World War II veteran, and member of the MENA [Middle East and North Africa Desk of HRW] advisory committee who has been involved with HRW almost since its inception—calls the group 'the greatest NGO since the Red Cross'," but argues that it is chronically incapable of introspection. 'Bob [Bernstein, founder and former chair of HRW] is bringing this issue up on Israel', he says. 'But Human Rights Watch has a more basic problem ... They cannot take criticism'." According to the magazine (referring to Bernstein's New York Times op-ed), "Yet, as difficult as it was to go public, Bernstein does not believe that Human Rights Watch left him with much choice. 'They think they’ve heard me out,' he says. 'You see, they think they’ve listened to me until they can’t listen anymore. Actually, they haven’t listened at all'." In November 2010 Bernstein delivered the Shirley and Leonard Goldstein Lecture on Human Rights at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, accusing HRW of "fault[ing] Israel as the principal offender" in the Israel-Palestine conflict and suggesting that human-rights groups were responsible for polarizing university campuses.
In her Washington Post blog, Jennifer Rubin described HRW as "an anti-Israel group masquerading as one devoted to human rights". A January 2012 New Europe article quoted an NGO Monitor report which said that HRW gives "disproportionate attention" to Israel and the occupied territories, which received "more attention in 2011 than Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, or Iraq." According to the article, HRW reports continued to show "bias on Israel" and "all op-eds published on the Arab-Israeli conflict in major media focused on allegations against Israel." Orlando Radice said about his interview with Kenneth Roth for The Jewish Chronicle, "This was less of an interview than an exercise in denial, obfuscation and plain old censorship."
Senior HRW investigator Marc Garlasco has been criticized for collecting Nazi memorabilia, and Emma Daly confirmed without elaboration in March 2010 that Garlasco had resigned from Human Rights Watch the previous month. Garlasco, who wrote a book about Nazi-era medals, posted on a collector website: "That is so cool! The leather SS jacket makes my blood go cold it is so COOL!" Ron Dermer, then Binyamin Netanyahu's policy director, said about Garlasco: "A war crimes investigator who is an avid collector and trader in Nazi memorabilia is perhaps a new low." HRW issued a rebuttal, saying that the "accusation is demonstrably false and fits into a campaign to deflect attention from Human Rights Watch's rigorous and detailed reporting on violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by the Israeli government" and Garlasco "has never held or expressed Nazi or anti-Semitic views." Helena Cobban (a fellow analyst on the Human Rights Watch Middle East advisory board) said that Garlasco engaged with "people who clearly do seem to be Nazi sympathizers," which she called "extremely disturbing".
According to the organization Garlasco "covered Iraq as a senior intelligence analyst at the Pentagon", and The Guardian reported that he served in this role for seven years. He was chief of high-value targeting during the Iraq war in 2003, on the Operation Desert Fox (Iraq) Battle Damage Assessment team in 1998 and led a Pentagon Battle Damage Assessment team to Kosovo in 1999. Garlasco also participated in over 50 interrogations as a subject-matter expert.
In a piece for The National, Alan Philps wrote that "the Netanyahu government and its supporters have set out to destroy the credibility of the UN Human Rights Council and all non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in the human rights field ... The aim is clearly to de-legitimize the organization at a time when its rights-based analysis coincides with some of the views of the US president Barack Obama."
According to Christian Science Monitor staff writer Robert Marquand, a U.N. report by "jurist Richard Goldstone, head of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chief prosecutor for the Yugoslav war-crimes tribunal" showed illegal white-phosphorus use consistent with Garlasco's eyewitness testimony provided to the Monitor. Marquand wrote that it was "not okay ... to use Garlasco to distract from or obfuscate findings that war crimes and crimes against humanity may have taken place in Gaza".
Journalists have criticized Human Rights Watch for requesting, encouraging or accepting financial donations in Saudi Arabia and for its fundraising methods. Critics charge that these methods include descriptions of HRW "battles" and arguments with Israel and its supporters. According to Jerusalem Post columnist Herb Keinon and Jeffrey Goldberg, a correspondent for The Atlantic and former JP columnist, this compromises HRW's integrity. In an email exchange, Goldberg asked Kenneth Roth if funds were raised to fight pro-Israel lobbying groups. Roth answered: "The Saudis obviously are aware of the systematic attacks on us by various reflexive defenders of Israel. Everyone is", adding that these complaints are common in "discussions" during fundraisers and not exclusive to Saudi Arabia. Spokesman for Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu Mark Regev said in response to HRW's fundraising visit to Saudi Arabia, "A human rights organization raising money in Saudi Arabia is like a women's rights group asking the Taliban for a donation".
David Bernstein of the George Mason University School of Law wrote that something is "wrong when a human rights organization goes to one of the worst countries in the world for human rights to raise money to wage lawfare against Israel", although Inter Press Service later said that he apologized for suggesting that HRW did not also discuss Saudi human-rights abuses during the meetings.
According to Human Rights Watch, allegations that HRW had "compromised its neutrality" by meeting with Saudi donors were based on "misleading assumptions and wrong facts". HRW noted that staffers made two May 2009 presentations in private Saudi homes to people interested in the organization. Among an estimated 50 guests at a Riyadh reception, three had governmental affiliations: "the spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior; the deputy head of the Human Rights Commission, a governmental organization; and a member of the Shura Council, a government-appointed consultative body." According to HRW, none of those individuals were solicited for funds; HRW never accepts funds from government officials in any country, and there is no reason why Saudi citizens cannot legitimately want to support human rights. Gerald Steinberg, executive director of NGO Monitor, said that the HRW defense was an "absurd attempt to cast a distinction between soliciting Saudi officials and prominent members of society who owe their very position to the regime."
HRW told Inter Press Service that the idea "that any money from Saudi Arabia is tainted because it comes from a country with a totalitarian ruling regime is a gross generalization ... The ethnic background of our donors is irrelevant to the work we do ... It's not relevant to our work in Israel that many, many of our donors are Jewish. And it's not relevant for the work that we do that we get money from Arab countries". According to the organization its work in Saudi Arabia, including "coverage of women's rights, the juvenile death penalty, domestic workers, and discrimination against religious minorities", was discussed at the receptions. HRW also said, "No other human rights group has produced a more comprehensive, detailed, and thorough body of work on Saudi Arabian human rights issues in recent years than Human Rights Watch". Although the Gaza situation was covered, HRW claimed that the coverage was justified since the Gaza war dominated worldwide headlines and is a regional issue in Saudi Arabia. Criticism of HRW as anti-Israel was juxtaposed against the accusations HRW faces in much of the Middle East that HRW is soft on Israeli human-rights violations.
In 2008, HRW issued one multi-country and five single-country reports criticizing the Saudi Arabian government. In August 2009 the organization issued a report, "Human Rights and Saudi Arabia's Counterterrorism Response: Religious Counseling, Indefinite Detention, and Flawed Trials", criticizing the Saudi Arabian government's counterterrorism program.
Shawan Jabarin appointment
In February 2011, HRW appointed Shawan Jabarin to their Mideast Advisory Board. Jabarin has been called "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" by the Israeli Supreme Court for his roles in the militant Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the human-rights organization Al Haq. HRW’s decision to include Jabarin on its Mideast Board evoked criticism from Robert Bernstein, Stuart Robinowitz (a New York attorney who has made human-rights missions for the American Bar Association and Helsinki Watch in Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and El Salvador) and Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor.
During the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict, Israel-based journalist Jonathan Cook claimed that HRW's statements about the intentions of Israel and Hezbollah to target or avoid civilians unjustified by available evidence "[seemed to distort] its findings to placate the Israel lobby". According to Cook, "HRW is accusing Hezbollah of committing graver war crimes than Israel, even though it killed far fewer civilians both numerically and proportionally, because its rockets are 'less accurate'". An HRW representative defended the organization's objectivity. Cook said that he did not criticize the empirical aspects of HRW's research, but its interpretation.
HRW has also been criticised for taking Israel's side for its claim that the Palestinians had used human shields. Norman Finkelstein criticized HRW for "seeking to appease pro-Israel critics after taking the heat for its report documenting Israeli war crimes in Lebanon".
In December 2012, HRW was criticized by Hamas after the organization criticized Palestinian armed groups for launching hundreds of rockets toward populated areas in Israel. According to a Hamas spokesperson, the Palestinians were fighting an occupying power and attempting to liberate their homeland; this was "not terrorism as HRW claims."
Response to criticism
In the wake of the 2009 Goldstone report, HRW accused Israel and its supporters of an organized campaign of false allegations and misinformation designed to discredit the group over its findings concerning the Gaza War. The organization tied the criticism to a June 2009 statement by a senior official in the Israeli prime minister's office who pledged to "dedicate time and manpower to combating" human-rights organizations. According to HRW, the criticism amounted to an organized effort. Attacks from different sources, with similar language and arguments, implied prior coordination. Iain Levine of HRW said, "We are having to spend a lot of time repudiating the lies, the falsehoods, the misinformation". A group of 10 Israeli rights groups accused the Israeli government of attempting to "instill fear and silence or alarm vital organizations" who were engaging in open, public discourse.
In April 2009, the organization published a report accusing the Eritrean government of serious human-rights violations. Sophia Tesfamariam, director of the US Foundation for the Horn of Africa, refuted the report's allegations and called it an "anti-Eritrea report": "HRW goes to great lengths to embellish the truth in its attempts to paint a bleak picture of Eritrea and its government". She described it as “not only short on facts and evidence, but also short on intellectual and professional integrity”.
The Ethiopian government has raised questions about HRW's methods, commissioning a report dismissing "Human Rights Watch allegations of abuses in the Ogaden as hearsay and its methods as slapdash".
A special tribunal dealing with war crimes during Bangladesh's 1971 independence war with Pakistan asked Human Rights Watch to explain why it should not be charged with contempt of court for a statement from the organization that the trial of former Islamic party leader Ghulam Azam was "deeply flawed" and did not meet international standards. Azam was sentenced to 90 years in prison for war crimes. The U.S. ambassador in Bangladesh expressed concern over the prosecutors' move against the organization.
A prominent Saudi human-rights activist described the Human Rights Watch report on Saudi Arabia as partially untrue, and said the report does not fully take into account the religious background of the Saudi people.
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