Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A message from the founder of Human Rights Watch

Monday's New York Times had a column by Robert L. Bernstein, the founder of Human Rights watch. It should be read in its entirety (read here "Rights Watchdog, Lost in the Mideast "). Here's an excerpt:

"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.

"Human Rights Watch has lost critical perspective on a conflict in which Israel has been repeatedly attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations that go after Israeli citizens and use their own people as human shields. These groups are supported by the government of Iran, which has openly declared its intention not just to destroy Israel but to murder Jews everywhere. This incitement to genocide is a violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

"Leaders of Human Rights Watch know that Hamas and Hezbollah chose to wage war from densely populated areas, deliberately transforming neighborhoods into battlefields. They know that more and better arms are flowing into both Gaza and Lebanon and are poised to strike again. And they know that this militancy continues to deprive Palestinians of any chance for the peaceful and productive life they deserve. Yet Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch’s criticism."


"In Gaza and elsewhere where there is no access to the battlefield or to the military and political leaders who make strategic decisions, it is extremely difficult to make definitive judgments about war crimes. Reporting often relies on witnesses whose stories cannot be verified and who may testify for political advantage or because they fear retaliation from their own rulers. Significantly, Col. Richard Kemp, the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan and an expert on warfare, has said that the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza “did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare” ."

Human Rights Watch has responded to Bernstein's column (here) by saying in a press release that its board

"unanimously rejected his view that Human Rights Watch should report only on closed societies..."

Read the column for yourself to see whether he is advocating that HRW completely ignore Israel and other democratic nations or if he is simply calling for HRW to focus to a greater degree on repressive nations where the need for such attention is going unmet. Bernstein has sound reasons to call for this refocusing. First, by disproportionately concentrating on Israel, HRW presents a skewed view of a Middle East in which Israel is the villain among innocent neighbors. This distortion not only hurts Israel, it helps repressive regimes. Second, HRW uses its limited resources to report on allegations of Israeli human rights violations which are already being reported on by news media, human rights NGOs, government agencies and the U.N. By far, there are more reporters and human rights advocates in Israel than any other Middle East nation. Per capita, it must be the most reported on nation in the world. HRW would do better to devote its resources to addressing the human rights violations which are currently not being addressed or reported. That job would be more difficult and unpleasant for HRW to do, but the need is far greater. Moreover, where the need for human rights intervention is greater, the potential results from HRW's attention would be greater as well. It would be smarter for them to take Robert Bernstein's advice rather than argue against a deceptively worded version of it.

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