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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

TNR on HRW

The New Republic has a report about the problems at Human Rights Watch.

While it is critical of HRW, the article is not a hatchet job by any means - it gives much needed context. Yet when all is said and done, it is clear that there is a strong anti-Israel bias at HRW, and there has been for a long time:

In September 2000, HRW’s board of directors took a vote that still, a decade later, infuriates Sid Sheinberg, a legendary Hollywood mogul (he discovered Steven Spielberg) and current vice-chairman of the board. At the time, Bill Clinton was trying desperately to broker a peace agreement between Yasir Arafat and Ehud Barak, but one of the major sticking points was the right of return. It was an issue that even the most left-wing Israelis did not feel they could compromise on: If Palestinians were permitted to return to Israel en masse, it would imperil the country’s future as both a Jewish state and a democracy.

Sheinberg believed strongly that HRW had no business endorsing the right of return. “My view is that the most essential human right is the right to life,” he says. “And anybody who sees a deal about to be made where there’s been war for fifty or sixty years should think hard about shutting up.” The board, however, did not agree. “The vote was something like twenty-seven to one,” Sheinberg recalls. “Bob [Bernstein] voted against me, for which he’s apologized on a number of occasions.” That December, Ken Roth, HRW’s executive director, would send letters to Clinton, Arafat, and Barak urging them to accept the organization’s position. The right of return, he wrote, “is a right that persists even when sovereignty over the territory is contested or has changed hands.”

But something telling had happened to Sheinberg immediately following the meeting in September. “I go to my apartment—I have an apartment in New York—and, when I get to my apartment, the phone starts to ring,” he recalls. “And I get a number of phone calls from a variety of board members who tell me, ‘Sid, we really agree with you ... but we didn’t want to go against management.’” Another board member, David Brown, confirms that he and others shared Sheinberg’s reservations, if quietly. “Sid is very vocal, but he wasn’t the only one,” he says. “There were a number of people upset.”

Author Benjamin Birnbaum managed to quantify HRW's obsession with Israel and to interview many staffers at HRW:

With Palestinian suicide bombings reaching a crescendo in early 2002, precipitating a full-scale Israeli counterterrorist campaign across the West Bank, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division (MENA) issued two reports (and myriad press releases) on Israeli misconduct—including one on the Israel Defense Forces’ assault on terrorist safe havens in the Jenin refugee camp. That report—which, to HRW’s credit, debunked the widespread myth that Israel had carried out a massacre—nevertheless said there was “strong prima facie evidence” that Israel had “committed grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions,” irking the country’s supporters, who argued that the IDF had in fact gone to great lengths to spare Palestinian civilians. (The decision not to launch an aerial bombardment of the densely populated area, and to dispatch ground troops into labyrinthine warrens instead, cost 23 Israeli soldiers their lives—crucial context that HRW ignored.) 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.

HRW officials acknowledge that a number of factors beyond the enormity of human rights abuses go into deciding how to divide up the organization’s attentions: access to a given country, possibility for redress, and general interest in the topic. “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.”

The 2006 Lebanon war is a perfect example of HRW's jumping to criticize Israel without checking all the facts, but its reluctance to do the same for other regional actors:
During the third week of the five-week war, the organization published a report on “Israel’s indiscriminate attacks against civilians. (A report on Hezbollah rocket fire would not come out for another year, although, again, HRW did issue press releases on the subject in the interim.) The report said there was evidence suggesting that, in some cases, “Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians.” Critics, such as Alan Dershowitz and Bar-Ilan University Professor Avi Bell, jumped on the report and related documents, arguing that some of their assertions were highly questionable. HRW ceded no ground, accusing Dershowitz and Bell of “armchair obfuscations.” But, when it issued its more comprehensive report on Lebanese fatalities a year later, the organization admitted that the first report had indeed gotten key facts wrong. 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.
Yet at the time they were adamant about their methods, just as we saw in their dismissal of criticisms about their 5 long reports bashing Israel for Operation Cast Lead:
Robert James—a businessman, World War II veteran, and member of the MENA 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 is bringing this issue up on Israel,” he says. “But Human Rights Watch has a more basic problem. ... They cannot take criticism.”
A parenthetical section of the article is interesting:
When I asked Roth in a February interview at his office about HRW’s refusal to take a position on Ahmadinejad’s threats against Israel, including his famous call for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” Roth quibbled about the way the statement had been translated in the West—“there was a real question as to whether he actually said that”—then told me that it was not HRW’s place to render judgments on such rhetoric: “Let’s assume it is a military threat. We don’t take on governments’ military threats just as we don’t take on aggression, per se. We look at how they behave.
This from the same person who misquoted Israeli leaders specifically to support his specious assertions that Israel intended to indiscriminately kill civilians in Gaza!

The article goes on to note the irony that two of the people at HRW who were the least anti-Israel were Richard Goldstone and Marc Garlasco.

Sarah Leah Whitson is mentioned as having inherent biases againt Israel (she has a poster of a film humanizing suicide bombers hung up in her office) even as she is described as being one of the more competent leaders of their Middle East division. Her dependence on Garlasco as a supposed military expert is telling:
Whitson told me that Garlasco (who was one of only a handful of people at HRW with military experience) brought unique skills to the organization and enhanced its credibility. “He could look at the plumes in the sky and know exactly what weapon that was,” she says. “He could look at a canister and know what kind of a munition it was. He could look and see where the guidance system is.”
This is far from the truth, as at the same time that HRW specifically criticized the IDF on not being able to distinguish between rockets and oxygen canisters in a video during a war when split-second decisions must be made, but their own "military experts" didn't notice the differences for six months.

Garlasco comes off as the most sympathetic figure at HRW:
Garlasco had larger critiques of HRW. He thought that the organization had a habit of ignoring necessary context when covering war, he told Apkon; and he told multiple sources that he thought Whitson and others at MENA had far-left political views. As someone who didn’t have strong ideological commitments of his own on the Middle East, this bothered him. “When he reported on Georgia, his firm feeling was he could report whatever he wanted,” says one source close to Garlasco. “And, when he was talking to headquarters, the feeling was, let the chips fall where they may. He did not feel that way dealing with the Middle East division.” In addition, Garlasco alleged in conversations with multiple people that HRW officials in New York did not understand how fighting actually looked from the ground and that they had unrealistic expectations for how wars could be fought. To Garlasco, the reality of war was far more complicated. “He looks at that organization as one big attempt to outlaw warfare,” says the person close to Garlasco.
The entire report is well worth reading.