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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

HRW tries, and fails, to rebut founder's comments

From Commentary's Noah Pollak:
In case you missed it, yesterday something very important happened: Bob Bernstein, the founder and for 20 years the chair of Human Rights Watch, published an op-ed in the New York Times criticizing the organization for its obsessive attacks on Israel. He wrote that HRW is “helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.”

HRW was quick to offer a response — and it is a pathetically weak and deceptive one. A quick fisking:

Human Rights Watch does not believe that the human rights records of “closed” societies are the only ones deserving scrutiny.

A classic red-herring argument. Nowhere did Bernstein argue that open societies should not be subject to scrutiny. What he said is that the amount of attention HRW pays to Israel is wildly out of proportion to Israel’s violations, especially when Israel is compared with the Middle East’s dozens of dictatorships. Misrepresenting the plain meaning of Bernstein’s argument allows HRW to rebut an accusation that he never made. The press release continues:

Human Rights Watch does not devote more time and energy to Israel than to other countries in the region, or in the world. We’ve produced more than 1,700 reports, letters, news releases, and other commentaries on the Middle East and North Africa since January 2000, and the vast majority of these were about countries other than Israel.

Another red herring — this one with some clever weasel phrasing. Bernstein never said that HRW “devotes more time and energy to Israel than to other countries in the region.” He wrote that “Human Rights Watch has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region.” The obvious difference is that Bernstein was comparing the number of reports on Israel to the number of reports on any other individual country in the Middle East. HRW presents Bernstein as claiming that HRW writes more reports on Israel than on all the countries in the Middle East combined. Obviously, HRW cannot contest the accuracy of Bernstein’s statement, so it dishonestly responds to a charge he never made.

It is not the case that Human Rights Watch had “no access to the battlefield” after the Israeli operation in Gaza in January 2009. Although the Israeli government denied us access, our researchers entered Gaza via the border with Egypt and conducted extensive interviews.

Human Rights Watch is apparently incapable of dealing with criticism on its own terms. Bernstein did not argue that HRW had no access to the battlefield after the war was over, as HRW claims he said. What Bernstein in fact said was that HRW was not present on the battlefield during the war, therefore limiting its ability to know what happened and to make war-crimes judgments.

The dishonesty and manipulativeness of HRW’s response to Bernstein is but a small manifestation of the organization’s larger problems: its inability to engage honestly with the arguments of its detractors, and the related problem of the unreliability of the group’s reporting on the Middle East.